Syrian opposition could turn into armed uprising | World| Breaking news and perspectives from around the globe | DW | 27.09.2011
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Syrian opposition could turn into armed uprising

As the stalemate between Syrian President Bashar Assad and protestors continues, armed rebellion is becoming a distinct possibility. But how likely is it that Syria will follow the same path as Libya?

Syrians with sign calling for NATO help

Some Syrians would like to see a Libya-style intervention by the West

The Syrian government under President Bashar Assad could be producing the means of its own undoing.

For months the Assad regime has been pursuing a military crackdown against a protest movement which they claim includes criminals and terrorists but which experts say is overwhelmingly peaceful.

"How can I imagine that in a country which has been ruled for more than 40 years by a fist of iron all of a sudden armed gangs have appeared?" Hilal Kashan, Chairman of the Department of Political Studies and Public Administration at the American University of Beirut, told Deutsche Welle.

"I don't rule out that on occasion people may be using violence. But that doesn't justify an overwhelming military campaign by the authorities. This is an excuse presented by the regime."

But the deadly force used against Syrian civilians, which has claimed hundreds and perhaps thousands of lives, has made some feel as though they have nothing to lose in their struggle against Assad.

Protest in Barzeh, suburb of Damascus, Syria.

Information about protests is hard to come by because of tight Syrian media controls

"Even the Israelis wouldn't treat us the way the regime does," said one Syrian who fled the violence to a refugee camp. "They tell you everything is safe, and then they shoot you."

And a response in kind to that sort violence may well be already underway.

On Monday the Washington Post ran a major article about a group of defectors calling themselves the Free Syrian Army, who are trying to organize physical resistance to the Assad, in part by appealing to potential fighters via Facebook.

"It is the beginning of armed rebellion," the group's leader General Riad Asaad told the newspaper. "You cannot remove this regime except by force and bloodshed. But our losses will not be worse than we have right now, with the killings, the torture and the dumping of bodies."

Asaad said he wanted to see the West impose a no-fly zone over Syria, with an eye toward helping an attack on the Syrian government similar to that in Gadhafi's Libya. But a lot suggests that such a rebellion will be easier said than done.

Other strengths and weaknesses

A convoy of Libyan fighters

Syria is a long way from having organized rebels like these Libyan fighters

At present, the Free Syrian Army is no further than infancy, and indications are that the US State Department is thus far unimpressed.

"I don't think the numbers are big enough to have an impact one way or another on the government or on the contest between the protestors and the government," US Ambassador to Syria Robert Ford told the Washington Post.

And Syrian rebels are in a far weaker position than their Libyan counterparts.

"The Syrian government has learned from Libya that it can't allow liberated areas in the country, where rebels can group together," André Bank, a Middle East expert at the German Institute for Global and Area Studies told Deutsche Welle. "Deserters have thus far been concentrated within the lower ranks of the military and do not include generals as was the case in Libya."

Russian President Dmitry Medvedev (L) shakes hands with Syrian President Bashar Assad (R),

Assad profits, at the moment, from Russian support

Moreover, unlike Gadhafi, who had few friends in high places, Assad can for the moment count on support from his family and his country's traditional allies, in particular Russia.

At a meeting earlier this month in Moscow between Russian government representatives and a delegation from the Syrian opposition, Russia's Middle East Envoy Mikhail Margelov made it clear that his country would not be taking the hands-off approach it showed toward Libya.

"That is unacceptable, and Russia will do everything to prevent the situation in Syria developing in the same way as the Libya scenario," Margelov said after the meeting, proposing that Russia send a delegation to Syria to try to kick-start a dialogue between Damascus and the opposition.

Dialogue, however, will not be enough for angry Syrians who want change.

"We expect a more active role from Russia in seeking a peaceful way out of the crisis," said human rights activist and the head of Syrian delegation Ammar al-Qurabi in Moscow. "But unfortunately the situation is stalling. The development of the Russian position is slower than we hoped."

Coming to a head

Syrian women stand behind their national flag with the word Freedom on it

Protests continue from refugee and exiled Syrians abroad

So where is the Syrian protest movement headed? Armed rebellion aimed at overthrowing the Assad regime may not be probable, but it is a possibility.

"The majority of the demonstrators still prefer peaceful protest, in part because it's the source of their legitimacy," Bank said. "But in light of the situation in which months have gone by with no real gains, discussions about whether force is a viable option are increasing."

If the uprisings associated with the Arab Spring have taught the world anything, it's that no scenarios can be ruled out. Popular dissatisfaction has not invariably led to revolution in the region, but by the same token, no regime has yet succeeded in crushing opposition out of existence.

"They are operating under constant bombardment from the regime, but I think this uprising is unstoppable," Kashan said. "It will take its course, but we are going to witness difficult days ahead."

Perhaps Russian influence can persuade Assad that his only option is to sit down at the negotiating table. If it doesn't, it is likely that the bloodshed in Syria will not only continue, but increase.

Author: Jefferson Chase, Interview material: Ulrich Leithold, Geert Groot Koerkamp
Editor: Rob Mudge

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