Syrian dictator Bashar Assad has officially proclaimed the country to be in a state of war against “terrorists,” a prelude to even greater bloodshed. The country may be inching towards civil war as a group of defected soldiers called the Free Syria Army declares responsibility for attacks on the regime’s militia, and protesters plead for international protection.
The number of civilians killed by the regime now tops 3,000, and tens of thousands more have been injured and detained. It is easy to find videos and accounts of merciless shootings of innocent people including young boys and girls. It is only a matter of time before the opposition’s patience runs out and they go to arms.
A growing number of Syrians are looking to the international community for rescue. On Friday, protesters in Qamishli, Homs, Hama and Deir al-Zour called the day, “The Friday for International Protection.” In Jiza, a banner was carried with the words, “People want international protection.” The Syrian Revolution 2011 Facebook page is asking the United Nations to send international observers into the country. There are also reports of protesters asking NATO for help, and on September 2, demonstrators in the Midan district of Damascus had signs requesting help. On August 30, one sign in Homs said, “We demand international community to intervene for the protection of the Syrian people from genocide.”
There are signs that some of the opposition is losing patience with the non-violent approach towards confronting the regime. Ammar Qurabi of the National Organization for Human Rights in Syria said, “The situation has reached a dead-end,” though he didn’t specifically speak of taking up arms. Muhammed Rihal of a group called the Revolutionary Council for the Syrian Coordination Committees said that activists would soon begin using weapons to defend themselves. Most opposition leaders are against using violence. The Local Coordination Committees are opposed to violence and foreign military intervention.
The Free Syria Army, a group of defected soldiers, is taking credit for attacks on security forces and members of the regime’s Allawite Shabbiha militia. The biggest attack was on a bus transporting members of the militia. U.S.-based opposition activist Ammar Abdulhamid says that the Free Syrian Army appears to be an umbrella that includes the Free Officers Movement, as a video of a soldier declaring his joining of the Free Syrian Army also has a banner of the Free Officers Movement in the background. The leader of the Free Officers Movement, Lt.-General Husain Harmoush, went missing after meeting with a Turkish official on August 29.
The Free Syria Army has been posting videos of defected soldiers holding their military identifications and telling their stories of being ordered to commit human rights abuses. On August 5, the army said it killed 30 members of the Shabbiha militia and injured 15 in Idlib. The Khalid Bin Al-Waleed Division of the Free Officers Movement in Rastan has issued a statement asking the world for assistance. It requests that the international community demand that Syrian soldiers return to their barracks and a no-fly zone be imposed. The group also wants a U.N. resolution expressing support for its fight and demanding the release of political prisoners and disobedient soldiers.
The ranks of the Free Syria Army will grow as the pace of defections remains steady. Dozens of soldiers are said to have switched sides in the Harasta suburb of Damascus. There were clashes when some soldiers defended the people in Rastan in Homs Province and even in Damascus. There were also clashes at the Mezzeh military airport near the capital. One defector claims that 4,000 soldiers are imprisoned in Damascus alone, and an opposition website says the number is over 22,000 including 7,000 officers.
The defected soldiers have not been able to seriously challenge the Assad regime’s forces. Ammar Abdulhamid says this is because of logistical problems, but these issues are being overcome.
“Even though, they seem to have a long way to go before they can mount major operations inside the country, because of limited funds and support from external sources, the sympathy they have found in certain communities, especially in parts of Homs, Hama, Idlib and Deir Ezzor provinces, has allowed them time to organize and strategize,” he wrote.
The U.S. is quietly becoming more supportive of the Syrian opposition. Ambassador Robert Ford is keeping his contacts with the Assad regime to a minimum, while meeting with opposition activists. He is also said to be looking for regime officials that he can persuade to defect.
Former CIA counter-terrorism officer John Kiriakou suggests that a military coup may be the best way forward.
“A military coup is the only way to spare Syria from the spiral of death and violence it is entering. Nobody wants a weak and unpredictable Syria. All of the country’s neighbors, Israel included, want a predictable and stable one….They [the Syrian military] are a known entity and would likely garner quick international support and recognition if they were able to seize power,” Kiriakou wrote.
The protesters have proven that they will not rest until Bashar Assad is out of power, and his regime has proven that it will not go down without firing every last shot it has. The status quo cannot be sustained. The uprising will be crushed, a military coup will take place, or a Libya-like civil war will topple the regime. The situation in Syria is bound to become even more unstable and unpredictable as time goes on.