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Can Syria avoid civil war?

Syria's activists say they want peaceful opposition to the Assad regime. But one who just escaped to Lebanon says that many worry the country will fall into civil war.

By Correspondent / September 1, 2011

In this image from amateur video made available by the Ugarit News group on Tuesday, Aug. 30, protesters chant anti-Bashar al-Assad slogans in the town of Horan, Syria.

Ugarit News Group via APTN/AP

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Tripoli, Lebanon

After withstanding five months of a brutal crackdown by Syrian security forces, Syria’s opposition activists are pinning their hopes on an accelerated international intervention to help topple the regime of Bashar al-Assad, the Syrian president.

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The activists say they want to maintain a peaceful opposition to the Assad regime, but without external support to help protect them, they fear the confrontation will worsen in the months ahead and the country could slip into civil war.

“The regime is going to do more killing, so the only way we can win is to have neutral observers and lots of them in Syria to monitor what’s happening,” says Ahmad, a young opposition activist from the port city of Banias who escaped to Lebanon last week. “We don’t want to go for the option of an armed struggle against the regime. But if the international community does not step in, we are afraid that it will lead to civil war.”

The crackdown by the Syrian security forces has left around 2,200 dead, according to the United Nations, but neither side is showing any sign of yielding.

Instead of crushing the uprising in its early stages, the use of military force only galvanized opposition to Assad’s rule and exacerbated sectarian relations between the Sunnis, who make up around 75 percent of the population, and the minority Alawites, who form the backbone of the regime.

On the other hand, while the opposition has made skillful use of social media networks to coordinate protests, disseminate their messages, and win broad international sympathy, Facebook and Twitter are no protection against machine guns and tanks. Furthermore, although Damascus and Aleppo, Syria’s two largest cities and home to half the total population of 22.5 million, have seen some small demonstrations, the residents have yet to join the protest movement in a significant way.

Similarly, the traditional merchant classes so far have remained on the sidelines, unwilling to commit to either side until the future becomes clearer – even as their profit margins tumble as the economy goes into decline.

Appetite for intervention in Syria?

The United States and the European Union have slapped sanctions on key Syrian leaders and the EU is set to impose a ban on Syrian oil imports to European markets. But there is little appetite for a direct intervention in Syria, similar to the NATO support mission in Libya against the regime of Col. Muammar Qaddafi. NATO’s assistance to the Libyan rebels was granted only following a green light from the 22-member Arab League.

Although the Arab League has called for an end to the violence in Syria and several Gulf states, including Saudi Arabia, have withdrawn their ambassadors from Damascus, analysts doubt that there will be Arab approval for a Western military intervention in Syria.

"There's no chance of the West getting militarily involved in Syria now. But it could be a possibility in the future if the situation worsens as we expect," says a European diplomat in Damascus.

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