Calls in Syria for weapons, NATO intervention

August 28, 2011

The success of Libya’s rebels in toppling their dictator is prompting calls within the Syrian opposition for armed rebellion and NATO intervention after nearly six months of overwhelmingly peaceful demonstrations that have failed to dislodge President Bashar al-Assad.

The young Internet activists who have helped guide the uprising are arguing against the strategic shift. So, too, are the older dissidents who have long dreamed of the nonviolent revolution now unfolding against a regime that has proved every bit as brutal as the one led by Libya’s Moammar Gaddafi.

But some activists have concluded that peaceful protests alone will not be enough to overthrow a government that has used live ammunition, tanks and artillery to try to crush its opponents, killing more than 2,000 and imprisoning tens of thousands.

Protesters in recent days have carried banners calling for a no-fly zone over Syria akin to the one that facilitated the Libyan revolt. “We want any [intervention] that stops the killing, whether Arab or foreign,” said one banner held by protesters in the beleaguered town of Homs.

Activists who have recently visited Homs say protesters there also have begun carrying Kalashnikov assault rifles to defend against government attacks. Videos have appeared on Facebook pages teaching activists how to make molotov cocktails.

Yet although President Obama called this month for Assad to step down, world powers, including the United States, have shown little appetite for any form of entanglement in Syria.

Unlike the Libyan rebels, who through force of arms swiftly seized control of the eastern portion of their country and were rewarded with a NATO-enforced no-fly zone, the Syrian protesters control no territory for a foreign military force to protect. There is also no clearly identifiable group that can claim to represent the leaderless, disorganized and divided opposition.

An armed rebellion in Syria, which straddles the region’s most volatile ethnic and sectarian fault lines, would have ramifications far more profound than in Libya. A civil war in Syria could spread beyond its borders to Lebanon and Iraq, perhaps embroil Israel and destabilize the countries of the Persian Gulf.

Drifting toward violence

But some see the drift toward violent rebellion as inevitable.

“If things stay like this another one or two months, it will happen whether we want it or not,” said a Damascus-based engineer who has given up attending protests because of the escalating brutality of the security forces but says he would join an armed revolt. “A lot of people are threatening to do it, and even in Damascus, people are talking about getting guns,” he said, speaking via Skype.

So far, instances of armed resistance have been rare, despite attempts by the Assad government to portray the demonstrators as violent extremists.

By arming themselves, activists say, protesters would be playing into Assad’s hands, allowing him to justify even harsher tactics against the opposition.

“I know that if the revolution is armed, the human toll would be five to 10 times the current toll,” said Amer al-Sadeq, the name used by the Damascus-based spokesman and founder of the Syrian Revolution Coordinators Union, one of the leading groups that organizes and reports on protests.

“The Syrians have shown great bravery withstanding guns, torture and detention with only their bare chests,” he added. “But you cannot count on this marvelous attitude of the Syrian people lasting forever.”

On the Syrian Revolution Facebook page, which serves as the uprising’s chief forum for discussion, the debate raged last week as the Libyan rebels pressed their advance into Tripoli.

“Why are you asking to be armed? Our revolution is on the right path towards the toppling of the Assad family,” pleaded a discussion administrator. “Do not rush victory, they are the weak and we are the strong, we have God with us and they have no one with them.”

“For how long should the Syrian people be slaughtered?” replied one commenter who gave the name Alaa Sin. “We should have arms. The world is silent, Bashar is killing us and nothing has changed in Syria.”

Activists’ mood is darkening

The rebels’ victory in Libya has coincided with a deepening despondency among the Syrian protesters. High hopes that the month of Ramadan would prove a tipping point collapsed under the government’s offensive against Hama and Deir al-Zour, where protests were drawing hundreds of thousands of people before the army moved in and crushed them.

A major push over the weekend to stage mass rallies in central Damascus foundered in the face of an overwhelming security presence, further dampening the mood. At least five people were killed when security forces opened fire on demonstrators attempting to gather.

It is not only the tank assaults and bombardments that are grinding down the spirit of the opposition. Away from the spotlight, relentless arrest campaigns have swept thousands into prisons renowned for their use of torture. The security forces have grown more adept at preventing demonstrations from the outset, surrounding mosques at prayer times to stop protesters from gathering.

Protesters who once gathered on main streets are taking to alleys and side streets to try to evade security forces. “We may as well protest in our houses,” said the engineer who has given up attending. “Marching up and down and shouting is achieving nothing.”

But there is also widespread recognition that attempting to counter one of the region’s most formidable military machines with force would be futile. Kalashnikovs are readily available on the black market in a region awash with guns, and many Syrians keep one in their homes. But acquiring the kind of heavy weaponry that would be needed to fight an army would take time, even if the protesters could find a country willing to provide such support.

A plea to remain peaceful

Where armed resistance has taken place, it has failed dismally. Abu Saleh, an activist in the eastern city of Deir al-Zour, described how a group of about 60 soldiers who defected with their weapons and four tanks battled for days before they all were killed or captured this month.

“Some people have guns, but we don’t have heavy weapons, and we can’t face the army,” he said, speaking via Skype. “What we need is international intervention to protect us, and then we will fight.”

Obama’s call for Assad to step down and harsher European Union sanctions will soon start to take a toll on the government, said Rami Nakhle, a founder of the Local Coordination Committees, a group that monitors and supports protests.

Early Sunday, the Arab League issued its first condemnation of the violence, although its statement expressing “concern and worry” was milder than many Syrians had hoped for. Turkish President Abdullah Gul said he had “lost . . . confidence” in Assad, and even Iran, Syria’s closest ally, on Saturday called on Damascus to respect the “legitimate” demands of the Syrian people.

“The international pressure is getting stronger, the isolation is getting bigger, and the regime cannot continue like this much longer. It is starting to crack,” said Nakhle, who is in hiding in Beirut. “We have to remain peaceful. It is our only chance.”

And though the protests have diminished in size, they are still taking place daily, said Sadeq, the spokesman for the Syrian Revolution Coordinators Union. He does not rule out an armed rebellion, but he also counsels patience.

“Revolutions can last years, and if we drop it now, the price we paid was in vain, the blood we shed was pointless, and we will be cracked down on with a huge iron fist that will target each and every one of us,” he said. “It’s a one-way street, and we have to continue to the end.”

Liz Sly is the Post’s Beirut bureau chief. She has spent more than 15 years covering the Middle East, including the Iraq war. Other postings include Africa, China and Afghanistan.
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