A turning point for Syria protests?

Syrian Army defectors launched a fresh assault on a pro-government group yesterday. Some say their concentrated military action could be the turning point for the Syrian protest movement.

Muzaffar Salman/AP
A pro-Syrian regime protester, shouts pro-Syrian President Bashar al-Assad slogans during a demonstration in Damascus, Syria, on Wednesday, during a demonstration against the Arab League meeting being held in Morocco.

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Syrian Army defectors used rocket-propelled grenades to attack a pro-government youth group office in northwestern Syria yesterday, the latest in a string of bold offensives against the Syrian government, army, and security forces.

The day before the Free Syrian Army, as the defectors have dubbed themselves, attacked an intelligence base outside Damascus. Andrew Tabler of the Washington Institute for Near East Policy told CNN that the strike on the intelligence base "reflects the growing sophistication of the Free Syrian Army and 'opens up a new era of the conflict'."

There is a growing consensus that Syria is moving toward a civil war, if it isn't already there. On Thursday, Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov warned that the current situation is "very much like a civil war." Today, Turkish Foreign Minister Ahmet Davutoglu joined the chorus. "There is a risk of [the confrontations] transforming into civil war," he said, according to Radio Free Europe.

But US officials suggest that such a characterization could aid Syrian President Bashar al-Assad's efforts to delegitimize his opponents and blame them for the violence, CNN reports.

But in Washington, a senior Obama administration official said calling the violence in Syria a civil war "plays into the Syrian government's hands, that this is some terrorist movement against the government."

"And that's just not the case," said the official, who spoke on condition of anonymity because of the sensitivity of the issue. "This has been, from the inception, a peaceful movement."

The official said the violence is taking Syria down "a dangerous path," but added: "It's the Syrian regime's repression and killing of innocent civilians that has exacerbated the situation and led to this."

Max Fisher at The Atlantic writes that "The Syrian conflict still appears stacked enormously in favor of Assad holding on to power, but for the first time since violence began there in March, it looks possible – however unlikely – that protesters could actually succeed in bringing revolution to their country."

What was the turning point? Mr. Fisher writes that it was two things: the Arab League suspension of Syria's membership earlier this week (read more about that here), and the increasing organization of the Free Syrian Army, which staged an assault on a military facility outside tightly-controlled Damascus this week. Because military intervention remains unpopular and senior military leaders are unlikely to turn on Assad, the current fighting is the most likely path to removing the regime.

So the only foreseeable way for this conflict to end (other than an outright victory by Assad, which is sadly plausible) would be for mid- and low-level military defectors to lead an armed rebellion against the regime. And that's beginning to happen.

The rebel attacks against military facilities around Damascus reportedly lasted 90 minutes, an extraordinarily long time given how tightly the military controlled the country as recently as a few weeks ago. Defectors are organizing themselves into what they call the Free Syrian Army. Some leaders of the rebel group say they are planning to ramp up a coordinated assault against the government. While they might have some success in more rebellious towns such as Homs and Hama, the fighters would need to take Damascus and Aleppo to win. The leadership is based in those two cities, where it has much tighter control; though protests in neighboring towns have been escalating, residents of those two major cities appear too terrified -- understandably -- to follow.

…What has for so long seemed impossible – the ouster of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad – now seems to be merely extremely unlikely.

Emile Hokayem, a senior fellow for regional security at the International Institute for Strategic Studies – Middle East, writes that Free Syrian Army leaders told him in a meeting in Lebanon that they are "gearing up for direct confrontation … regardless of whether they have the support of foreign intervention." One officer told him their forces now number 17,000.

According to Mr. Hokayem, the uprising has entered a third phrase "that will be not only more violent, but could be a decisive one."

My conversations with Syrians in Beirut and northern Lebanon left me with the sense that the initial revolutionary euphoria has given way to a darker mood. No side can afford to back down anymore. Anti-regime Syrians told me they have gone too far to stop, and that the pain and death that would inevitably follow would massively outweigh the cost of persisting. In any case, they argue that the regime has suffered deadly blows to its internal legitimacy, lost any Arab cover, cannot resurrect an economy that may shrink by as much as 8% – and that, now more than ever, victory is in reach.

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