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.