The Post reported: “A rebel attack against a military compound outside Syria’s capital on Wednesday offered the most tangible evidence yet that the country is sliding into armed conflict as regional powers issued an ultimatum for President Bashar al-Assad’s government to stop killing civilians. Although the attack near Damascus does not appear to have been particularly effective, the target was highly symbolic: a compound of the Air Force Intelligence, which is renowned for its pursuit and torture of activists.” This is part of a larger insurgency movement:

The insurgency is coalescing around an entity called the Free Syrian Army, a group of defected army officers who fled to Turkey and proclaimed their existence in a YouTube video in July.

The group says it represents as many as 10,000 defected soldiers who are operating in small groups scattered around Syria. It asserted responsibility for Wednesday’s assault on the Air Force Intelligence building in a posting on its Facebook page, saying the strike was intended to “send a message to the regime that the Free Syrian Army can hit anywhere and anytime.”

Tony Badran of the Foundation for Defense of Democracies e-mails me: “Over the last month, the organization and operations of the Free Syrian Army, while still small, have shown a noticeable upgrade.” He explains, “They are clearly not capable of a head-on battle with the regime, as they are vastly outnumbered and under-equipped. But they are moving from merely protecting neighborhoods to guerrilla operations. As far as how widespread their operations are, they are popping up in multiple cities across the country, sometimes with hit-and-run attacks or ambushes against loyalist convoys.”

Other reports confirm the emergence of the Free Syria Army. Emile Hokayem for the International Institute for Strategic Studies writes:

After meeting with Assad loyalists and opponents in Lebanon last week, it is clear that the Syrian uprising’s third phase will be not only more violent but could be a decisive one. Free Syrian Army (FSA) commanders told me that they are gearing up for direct confrontation in coming months with the forces loyal to President Assad, regardless of whether they have the support of a foreign intervention.

They say defections are increasing, and a FSA officer boasted to me that men at arms number 17,000 across the country (most go north to the Turkish border, while an estimated 500 are coalescing at the border with Lebanon). Until regional conditions improve to their benefit, FSA commanders told me they are advising sympathisers to delay their defection.

So far, tough international sanctions have not been forthcoming. And while the situation in Syria spins toward full-out civil war, the administration lamely argues for restraint — from the opposition. Jeffrey D. Feltman, assistant secretary for the Bureau of Near Eastern Affairs, testified last week in the Senate: “ While, for the most part, the opposition has thus far refused to be baited into responding with violence, armed resistance to the regime is on the rise, with some taking up arms in self-defense. This is not surprising, given that they are faced with increasingly brutal repression and are still denied the political space to organize and make their voices heard peacefully. But it is potentially disastrous to their cause. Forcing the opposition to become violent is the deliberate strategy of the Assad government. The regime is confounded by protesters chanting ‘peaceful, peaceful’ and shopkeepers who shutter their stores in solidarity with those killed and arrested, but it knows precisely how to handle armed insurrection: with brutal and overwhelming force. By working diligently to channel non-violent opposition into a proto-insurgency, the regime seeks to discredit the opposition, scare minorities into submission, unite security forces against a common enemy, fragment international consensus and tear Syria apart along sectarian lines. This must be resisted.”

Well, that’s well and good, but the alternatives for the Syrian people are limited and their predicament made worse by U.S. inertness. Feltman insists, “We remain actively engaged in ratcheting up the pressure on Assad bilaterally and multilaterally.” But the U.S. sanctions have been narrow (“targeted financial measures to increase pressure on the Syrian regime and its enablers”), the United Nations has been inactive, thanks to China and Russia, and Assad’s killing machine grinds on.

M. Zuhdi Jasser, founding member of Save Syria Now!, tells me, “Democracy activists and the opposition in Syria have delayed the use of the military option for as long as humanly possible. But after over eight months and more than 3,500 innocents dead and tens of thousands tortured, imprisoned, or displaced, they really have no other choice. Their towns and families are being destroyed, and it seems that Assad and his henchmen are only digging in more.” He explains, “Tuesday’s actions of the Free Syria Army against multiple military installations of the rogue Assad regime signals a significant shift from the predominantly peaceful protests that have dominated the uprising.”

Right now the Obama administration has no effective Syrian policy. It therefore should come as no surprise that Syrians are taking up arms against their oppressors. Once again, “leading from behind” is proving to be a formula for extended suffering and death for those under the boot of despotic regimes.