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.

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.

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. 

Today, Secretary of State Hillary Clinton met with members of the SNC in Geneva, and talked about ways to bring democracy to Syria. Of the seven people she met, all are exiles and only one was publicly identified (most of them fear for the safety of family in Syria).

"A democratic transition includes more than removing the Assad regime," Mrs. Clinton said at the meeting. "It means setting Syria on the path of the rule of law and protecting the universal rights of all citizens regardless of sect or ethnicity or gender."

Some activists inside the country have begun calling for a no-fly zone and other NATO intervention, as happened in Libya. That is highly unlikely at the moment, and the decision to help an armed rebellion in Syria would be further complicated by some of the sectarian overtones of the conflict. (in addition to Alawites the country also has large Kurdish and Christian populations.)

Sherry Hayek is a Syrian-American student and blogger who's been involved in online activism against the Assad regime from here in the US, using social media and occasional phone calls to friends back home. She, like many young activists, is opposed to the militarization of the conflict, but says it's hard to preach from the safety of her home in the states.

"I know a lot of people are talking about the no-fly zone or NATO or people might have to carry weapons and so forth, but we’re trying to reach out and tell people to keep it peaceful, non-violent," she says. "It’s very difficult, no one here is going to come knock on my door and drag me out, I’m here going to school and know that I’m coming home at the end of the day. People in Syria know they might leave the house and never come back."

One bright spot for Ms. Hayek and compatriots was the release last week of Hussein Ghrer, a Syrian blogger who was detained in Damascus on Oct. 24. But even as he returned home to comparative safety, other activists were being rounded up. One of them was Razan Ghazzawi, who celebrated Mr. Ghrer's release in a blog post on Dec. 1. That was the last time Ms. Ghazzawi was heard from. She was arrested on the Jordanian border as she sought to leave the country to attend a workshop for journalists and activists on press freedom.

International activists are tracking her situation and calling for her release at the #FreeRazan hashtag on twitter. While Ghazzawi has some prominence and a network of international supporters going for her, hundreds of Syrians are dying in international anonymity ever week, with press access to the country severely limited. 

Hayek, the student activist in the US, says she fears militarization of the conflict will not only cost many more lives, but make the transition to whatever comes after Assad in Syria that much harder.

"If people are carrying weapons, many people in Syria are going to be more afraid about what comes next. The people there – I’m from Homs – they have no one to protect them, and when I see people carrying signs asking for a no-fly zone, I can see where they’re coming from because they have to deal with soldiers…. But in the long term I don’t think this is something that’s going to be very helpful for Syria as a country. Everything is going to be more difficult afterwards."

Follow Dan Murphy on twitter.

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