Still, there is no end in sight. President Obama said this month that Assad’s “days are numbered,” but few are prepared to take bets on what that number might be. Privately, officials in Washington and diplomats in the region acknowledge that it is far from certain that the government will fall, at least not anytime soon.
And yet the opposition, to the extent that the thinly organized and largely leaderless communities that have risen up against the government can be called an opposition, shows no sign of giving up.
The romanticized idealism of the early days, when protesters chanted “peaceful, peaceful” and braved bullets with their bare chests, has yielded to harsh realities. The regime is not swiftly collapsing or caving, as the ones in Egypt and Tunisia did. Western military intervention, as happened in Libya, remains a remote possibility in strategically sensitive Syria, a combustible mix of religions and ethnicities in which a minority, Alawite-led government is facing down a protest movement dominated by the Sunni majority.
Many across large swaths of the country have taken up weapons, tilting the populist uprising toward armed rebellion and a civil war that many fear could embroil the region. The taint of sectarianism, indications that al-Qaeda might be trying to muscle in on the action and fears of what may come next have given pause to many of the regime’s foes, including the United States.
But those who took the first bold steps to try to bring down what is perhaps the region’s most entrenched and brutal regime say capitulation is not an option.
“If we had known it would reach this point, we probably wouldn’t have dared,” acknowledged Bassel Fouad, 30, an activist who fled the onslaught against the opposition stronghold of Baba Amr in the city of Homs this month and is now in Lebanon. “But we did it, and now we can’t stop, because if we do, they will kill us all.”
A life-altering experience
The Syrian uprising sputtered rather than burst into life, with a handful of false starts in the early weeks of last year, as the Tunisian, Egyptian and Libyan revolts raged, seeming only to affirm suspicions that Syria was different, that its government was too strong, that its people were too cowed and even that Assad, champion of anti-Western causes, was too popular to be vulnerable.