The challenge facing Syria’s opposition protestors seems greater today than at any other time during the six months of demonstrations against the regime of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad.
Despite more than 2,600 people dead, according to United Nations figures, the imposition of sanctions against the Syrian leadership and an international outcry, an undaunted Assad has redoubled his efforts to crush the uprising by brute force.
This durability is causing dismay among opposition protestors who, for all their bravery in facing tanks and snipers on a near daily basis, have yet to gain the necessary momentum to topple the regime. Increasingly, there is talk in opposition circles of the inevitability of resorting to weapons to confront the regime. Reports are mounting of attacks against Syrian security forces and of arms being smuggled into Syria. The prices of black market weapons in Lebanon continue to climb, as they have done since mid-March when the uprising began in Syria. Although some of the demand is domestic, most of it is driven by the crisis in Syria. At this stage, it appears that the arms buying is being conducted on an individual basis, with Lebanese intermediaries purchasing illegal weapons, and legal shotguns, and selling them to Syrian contacts. The bulk of the opposition says it isdesperate to keep the demonstrations peaceful. Yet they admit that there could come a breaking point when protestors will no longer endure being gunned down in the streets each day and will choose instead to shoot back.
“The regime is going to do more killing, so the only way we can win is to have neutral observers, and lots of them, in Syria to monitor what’s happening,” said Ahmad, an activist from the port city of Banias who escaped to Lebanon last month. “We don’t want to go for the option of an armed struggle against the regime. But if the international community does not step in, we are afraid that it will lead to civil war.”
Resorting to weapons not only risks plunging Syria into civil war, it would also play neatly into the hands of the Assad regime. The Syrian leadership has consistently said it is fighting “armed terrorist gangs”, a claim that presently few believe. But such accusations would be harder to refute if the opposition takes up arms. Furthermore, the Syrian army — the elite units at least — and the intelligence services still back Assad, which means the regime is well positioned to confront an armed struggle.
The Syrian opposition, which remains critically divided with no single unifying figurehead nor effective, overarching organizational body that can speak for the opposition at large, cannot expect anytime soon an international intervention in Syria, similar to the NATO-led campaign to oust Colonel Muammar al-Qadhafi.
Syria, after all, is not Libya. Unlike the isolated North African country and its eccentric ruler (who was scorned by his fellow Arab leaders), Syria lies in the heart of the Middle East and wields influence — of a potentially malevolent nature — throughout the region. Syria’s Arab neighbors, and Israel, are wary of the Assad regime exporting mayhem and instability in the admittedly unlikely event that the international community chooses to intervene militarily in support of the opposition.
Instead of an overt military intervention, it is perhaps likely that interested parties — the United States, Iran, Saudi Arabia and Turkey — will intercede to play a more active role in shaping the future of the country. Iran will probably continue to support the Assad regime for the time being, even as it sends outfeelers to some elements in the opposition to explore the possibility of whether any post-Assad administration in Damascus will continue to abide by the three-decade Iran-Syria alliance. Among the signs to watch out for are defections by senior Alawite military officers, some of whom may prove susceptible to under-the-table offers of cash and immunity from prosecution if they were to abandon the Assad regime and side with the opposition.
Another indicator would be the emergence of more organized transfers of weapons and communications equipment to the opposition, suggesting that the revolution has found financial sponsorship. Social media tools such as Facebook and Twitter may help promote a revolution and win international sympathy, but they are not enough to defeat a regime that shows no hesitation in using brute force to ensure its own survival.
NICHOLAS BLANFORD is the Beirut-based correspondent for The Christian Science Monitor and The Times of London. His book “Warriors of God: Inside Hezbollah’s Three-Decade Struggle Against Israel” will be published by Random House this month