It would be nice to believe that the entirely abhorrent Assad regime in Syria is being opposed by a group of morally upright freedom fighters rigorously observing the rules of war.
The reality is otherwise. While Syria has been a ruthless mukhabarat state for decades, the fact that the regime has been able to hold on for so long is only partly a testimony to its military power and ruthlessness. It also speaks to a suspicion on the part of many Syrians that the opposition is simply a group of ruthless Sunnis wanting to right the sectarian imbalance. And while there is no doubt about the brutality of the Syrian Government, the anti-regime forces, be they Free Syrian Army, jihadists or journeymen, have also earned the attention of the UN and human rights groups over their use of child soldiers, summary executions and improvised explosive devices in populated areas.
Which makes Foreign Minister Carr's rush to judgment yesterday, before all the facts have been gathered on recent events at Tremseh, smack of naiveté. Claims of a massacre were first aired by the Free Syrian Army, hardly an objective source. Facts are still emerging, but the New York Times has a more nuanced story which raises significant questions about claims, repeated by Senator Carr, of 200 civilians being massacred. Reports of the initial UN investigation lend more weight to the NY Times story than the DFAT claim.
In the fight against the Syrian military a lot of civilians will die. Rebels fight among the civilian population to minimise their own casualties but civilians die as a result. And the army employs standoff weapons to minimise its casualties and maintain unity; it doesn't care about civilian casualties.
It's a tough choice for the armed opposition: become a guerrilla force outside populated areas and expose yourself to the Syrian military's conventional capabilities, or stay within populated areas to minimise the technological disadvantage. It is even more difficult when the Syrian military (or its proxies) attacks villages regardless of the presence of armed opposition.
The complexity of the situation in Syria makes it all the more important to obtain objective evidence when there has been fighting in civilian areas. A willingness to place the label 'civilian massacre' without examining the facts reflects a desire on the part of the West to try to embarrass the likes of Russia into supporting more robust international action against Syria. The trouble is that when you get it wrong, it gives those same countries cause to question the West's judgment, intelligence information and motives.