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As US Ambassador Ford returns, Syria deteriorates

US Ambassador to Syria Robert Ford is returning to Damascus, as the death toll surges and Syria lurches ever closer to civil war.

By Staff writer / December 6, 2011

President Obama has redispatched Ambassador Robert Ford to Damascus as the violent crackdown on democracy protesters in Syria continues to spiral. The violence makes the possibility of a civil war in Syria like the one that engulfed Libya this year ever more likely – even as young Syrian activists call for protesters to remain nonviolent.

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Mr. Ford was pulled out of the country six weeks ago after the US embassy was attacked by supporters of President Bashar al-Assad, and he's wading back into a tragic situation.

The Syrian Observatory for Human Rights, a UK-based group opposed to Assad, said in a statement that 50 people were killed across the country on Monday. The group cited a contact inside Syria as saying 34 of the dead were kidnapped in Homs earlier in the day by pro-regime militias and murdered, many of their bodies then dumped in the street. Who was responsible for this incident was unclear. and the city is riven by sectarian tensions, particularly between the minority Alawite sect that Assad belongs to (and is the backbone of his regime) and Sunni Muslims.

Videos recorded on cell phones and small cameras are being uploaded to YouTube every day – most of it too graphic to post here (this activist channel on Youtube has a number of videos recording the violence).

Mr. Obama was criticized by political opponents before Ford's departure for leaving the ambassador in country. The counterargument was that the Arabic-speaking Ford could do more good by acting as a witness to what's happening in Syria, and keeping channels of communication open to pressure with the government. But it's hard to see Assad lending much of an ear to the ambassador now.

The United Nations says that at least 4,000 people have been killed in Syria since the uprising against Assad's Baath regime began, and last week warned that the country was on the brink of an even worse conflagration. "The Syrian authorities’ continual ruthless oppression, if not stopped now, can drive the country into a full-fledged civil war,” UN High Commissioner for Human Rights Navi Pillay said last week in Geneva. 

By some measures, Syria may already be there. A common academic measure of a civil war is a struggle for control of a country with at least 1,000 casualties involving the current government and one or more internal opponents. While the vast majority of the dead so far have been anti-Assad protesters, a group of irregular fighters and soldiers who defected from the regime and now calling itself the Free Syrian Army (FSA) has attacked government targets in at least three provinces.

Last week, FSA members met with the Syrian National Council (SNC), a political umbrella for opposition activists, and pledged to work to avoid more bloodshed. But with Assad taking an increasingly hard line on his opponents and with growing evidence that protesters have been tortured to death in detention and massacres in cities like Hama and Homs, keeping the opposition side nonviolent would appear to be a tough task. 


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