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

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    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.
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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.

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.”

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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.

As the confrontation continues, sectarian hostilities risk becoming further entrenched and the protesters could be tempted to arm themselves and begin shooting back. Reports are growing of armed action by the opposition, including ambushes and assassinations of security personnel. Rumors abound of arms smuggling from Lebanon and Iraq. Lebanese black-market arms dealers report that prices have soared since the unrest began in March and say that the spike is driven by demand in Syria. Some opposition leaders have begun openly calling for an armed revolt against the Assad regime.

“We made the decision to arm the revolution, which will turn violent very soon, because what we are being subjected to today is a global conspiracy that can only be faced by an armed uprising,” Mohammed Rahhal, the head of the Revolutionary Council of the Syrian Coordination Committees, one of numerous branches comprising the Syrian opposition, told the London-based Ash Sharq al-Awsat newspaper this week.

The experiences of Ahmad, the dissident from Banias, underlines just how dangerous it has become to be an opposition activist working in Syria.

Ahmad shares with two other Syrian dissidents an apartment in a small building tucked down a narrow alleyway on a hill overlooking the coastal city of Tripoli in northern Lebanon. All three of them are wanted by the Syrian authorities and they accept that there can be no return to their homeland until the Assad regime is toppled.

Ahmad's story in Banias

Although the uprising began in Deraa in southern Syria in mid March, Ahmad’s home city of Banias was quick to follow. A nucleus of around a dozen opposition activists was soon formed and Ahmad was charged with relaying developments in Banias to the international media. With cellphone and telephone land lines monitored by the authorities, Ahmad communicated via satellite phones newly smuggled into the country. Satellite phones are banned in Syria and anyone caught using them could face up to three years in jail.

“There was no leader. We would discuss everything, then take a vote on the decision,” he says.

After a week of near daily demonstrations, the security forces dispatched carloads of intelligence agents and Shabiha gunmen, an Alawite state-sponsored militia, to shoot up the city.

“They drove down the streets firing from the windows at both sides of the streets, shooting indiscriminately,” Ahmad says.

The Army also deployed into Banias and Ahmad found himself on the run and his family forced into hiding. At first he hid in the hills above the city for three days, with only a stale sandwich for food. Then he returned to Banias and became a hunted figure, well known to the Syrian authorities who were determined to catch him.

“Anyone who says no to the regime gets killed or imprisoned,” he says. “I was wanted. There were checkpoints everywhere. Whenever the security forces were tipped about my location, they would raid the house immediately. Sometimes, they would attack only minutes after I left. It was very frightening,” he said.

Capture was inevitable, so Ahmad spent a month slowly making his way from Banias to the border with Lebanon, 40 miles to the south. He slipped past Syrian army patrols one night last week and linked up with other Syrian activists in Tripoli.

Ahmad and his colleagues are still wary, however. Syria exerts strong influence over Lebanon and many political factions are supportive of the Assad regime. There have been several cases of Syrian opposition figures disappearing after being arrested or kidnapped in Lebanon.

Cut off from daily opposition activities in their homeland, Ahmad and his friends are hoping international pressure on Assad will tip the balance in their favor.

The question now is how much longer can the opposition protesters maintain their peaceful stance before resorting to arms.

Ahmad and his friends say they worry about the prospect of civil war, but insist that the Assad regime will be removed eventually.

“I knew we would win from the first day,” Ahmad says. “We have broken the barrier of fear. The Syrian people are born again and there will be a new Syria.”

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