Rebel soldiers who identified themselves as members of the Free Syrian Army and a Zabadani activist said loyalist soldiers retreated Wednesday afternoon, five days after launching an offensive to quell dissent in Zabadani. The mountain resort 20 miles north of Damascus is one of as many as three dozen places in Syria that the opposition says have slipped beyond government control in recent weeks.
Witnesses said the government troops appeared to be heading toward another of the restive towns outside the capital. Offensives by Damascus have ebbed and flowed throughout the 10-month-old uprising, and the rebels acknowledged that the security forces may merely be regrouping before returning with reinforcements. The account, widely reported by Arabic TV networks but not by government media, could not be independently confirmed.
Activists nonetheless hailed the event as a symbolic turning point, heralding the possibility that the simmering armed revolt may force President Bashar al-Assad’s government to compromise.
“To force the regime to negotiate with the people and withdraw their soldiers under pressure is a political victory,” Kamal Labwani, a dissident who was freed in November after serving nearly 10 years in prison, said by telephone from Jordan.
“This shows we can achieve freedom by ourselves and not with the help of forces coming from outside. It means that if we take up weapons, we can defend ourselves and bring our own freedom,” he said.
Evidence has mounted for months that the once-peaceful Syrian opposition has been resorting to arms, but the fading hope of outside help is hardening the conviction that only violence will dislodge Assad, activists say.
“Until now there is not civil war, but if the international community continues like this, just watching and doing nothing, there will be,” said Omar Shakir, an activist in the Bab Amr neighborhood of Homs, which has emerged as the epicenter of the armed rebellion.
An Arab League monitoring mission has been unable to stop the killing, the Syrian opposition’s mostly exiled political leadership has proved too divided to present a coherent alternative to the Assad government, and the daily death toll tallied by both sides shows the steadily escalating bloodshed.
On Wednesday, the official SANA news agency reported the funerals of 14 members of the security forces who were killed by what it called “terrorists.” Activist groups said the security forces killed at least 21 people.
“This is not going to stop. It’s becoming an armed rebellion, it’s going to be chaos, and I don’t know why the world doesn’t understand that,” said Rami Jarrah, a Syrian activist living in Cairo who was forced to flee Damascus in October after the security forces learned his identity.