In Syria, growing evidence of insurgency
By Liz Sly,
HAMA, SYRIA — Along a broad, tree-lined avenue in a seemingly quiet residential neighborhood of this restive city, a fresh, foot-long scar in the asphalt bears testimony to something that has become apparent in recent weeks: The nearly eight-month-old Syrian uprising is gradually turning into an armed insurgency.
The hole was gouged by a small bomb hidden in a garbage bin that exploded as a police car passed. Moments later, gunmen hiding in a nearby park opened fire on the police before fleeing into the bushes, according to Syrian officials and residents of the neighborhood.
It was by no means a major attack. One policeman was hit in the neck by a bullet and is expected to recover. Another lost his hearing. Windows that shattered nearby were swiftly repaired.
Yet the violence here, though still relatively small-scale, seems to signal a transformational moment in what is proving to be the most intractable and complex of the Arab revolts.
Officials and residents interviewed on a recent government-supervised visit say similar attacks are happening on a nightly basis in Hama. The explosions echo through the streets of a city whose name had become synonymous with the power of peaceful protests before tanks moved in to crush the uprising in late July and early August.
“Every day, there is something. Even sometimes twice a day,” said Osama Janoudi, 29, who witnessed the recent bomb-and-gun attack against the police from his office across the street. “Armed men are attacking the police, and I don’t know who they are.”
Hama’s governor, Anas Naem, said an average of three members of the security forces die in attacks every week. “We are having about one attack a night by bombs, ambushes and RPGs, and within minutes the city turns into a ghost town,” he said, referring to rocket-propelled grenades.
The government-supervised visit to Hama came before the announcement this week of an Arab League peace plan under which Syria agreed to withdraw its troops from residential areas, release detainees and permit peaceful protests.
But the deaths of at least 20 people Friday, most of them shot during anti-government demonstrations, signaled that Syria does not intend to halt its crackdown against opponents — whom it has always maintained are armed.
That even a small number of them now appear to be so is likely to further complicate the quest for a settlement. The Free Syrian Army, a group of army defectors that has asserted responsibility for many recent attacks, called off a cease-fire Friday night and pledged to intensify its operations in response to the latest shootings.
“The regime is a liar and is trying to buy time with the Arab League and the international community,” the Free Syrian Army’s leader, Col. Riad al-Asaad, said by telephone from Turkey. “Now we will escalate our operations until this regime is toppled.”
On Friday, the government offered an amnesty to citizens who handed over weapons, but in Washington, State Department spokeswoman Victoria Nuland said she “wouldn’t advise anybody to turn themselves in to regime authorities at the moment.”
The number of killings perpetrated by government forces against peaceful protesters, estimated at more than 3,000 by the United Nations, still far outstrips those inflicted against the security forces, said a Western diplomat in Damascus, speaking on the condition of anonymity because of the sensitivity of the subject. The government asserts that 1,150 troops and police officers have been killed, although that figure is impossible to verify.
“It’s not yet overwhelming, and it’s not on a large scale,” the diplomat said of the budding insurgency. “But that’s where we’re heading, absent a political alternative.”
That at least some of those calling for an end to President Bashar al-Assad’s rule have resorted to force is not new. Within weeks of the uprising’s start in March, there were reports of scattered violence as people swarmed into the streets in huge numbers across the country for overwhelmingly peaceful demonstrations.
In the city of Homs, the challenge posed to a minority-Alawite-led regime by a mostly Sunni protest movement rapidly inflamed sectarian tensions. There the uprising is evolving into a conflict between armed supporters on both sides of the divide.
But in recent weeks, attacks and ambushes have been on the rise across a swath of territory in the northern and central provinces of Idlib, Homs and Hama, as well as in eastern Deir al-Zour and the countryside around Damascus.
Though many of the attacks are claimed by the Free Syrian Army, which says it represents a force of 10,000 defected soldiers and officers, many diplomats and human rights groups suspect the claims are exaggerated. Defections have been taking place, they say, but it appears civilians have taken up arms out of frustration with the failure of peaceful protests.
Free Syrian Army officers insist that the only civilians allowed to join their ranks are activists wanted by the government. But they also acknowledge that defected officers outside the country exert little command and control over those carrying out attacks on the ground.
Turkey does not permit the rebel troops to wage cross-border attacks or allow them to smuggle arms into the country, said Capt. Aiham al-Kurdi, a defector in Turkey who identifies himself as the Free Syrian Army’s coordinator for Hama.
A greater amount of support comes from Lebanon, where lax controls have allowed arms, activists and defected soldiers to crisscross the border. Over the past week, Syrian soldiers have been laying mines along the border in an effort to curtail the traffic.
Still, a defected army lieutenant in the Lebanese border town of Wadi Khaled said, there is little contact between defected soldiers outside the country and the ad hoc groups that have sprung up inside. “We don’t have communications with them, and they don’t communicate with each other,” he said.
The notion of defectors defending civilians against government brutality has been embraced by protesters. In Hama, activists credit the Free Syrian Army with the recent attacks but say it is only acting to defend protesters.
“You will never hear of a protester carrying a weapon, never,” Hama activist Saleh al-Hamawi said via Skype. “The Free Syrian Army is acting like any army should act, which is to defend the people. They are in no way attacking first.”
The ambush in Hama must have happened because the police were on their way to suppress a protest, Hamawi said. But neither he nor the Free Syrian Army’s Hama coordinator in Turkey knew about the attack or who might have carried it out.