x Abu Dhabi, UAESunday 21 January 2018

Fears over Syria's slide into armed rebellion

Efforts to ensure the revolt stays peaceful are fraying as Syria's uprising turns increasingly violent.

DAMASCUS // Syria's uprising is turning increasingly violent and leading opposition activists inside the country admit their efforts to ensure the revolt stays peaceful are fraying, increasingly drowned out by calls to arms.

Yesterday, at least three people were killed in Homs in an assault by Syrian tanks, one day after reports say 40 civilians were killed by government forces in one of the bloodiest days of the uprising.

Along with the civilian deaths were 17 soldiers, killed when clashes broke out late on Friday between dozens of army deserters and government forces, according to the Syrian Organisation for Human Rights based in Britain.

The United Nations has said more than 3,000 people have died since the uprising against President Bashar Al Assad and his regime began early this year, and the government's intensive military operations and widespread arrests continue.

"Across the country at street level we have been saying to the young protesters not to take to weapons but they are increasingly unwilling to listen to that message any more," said one secular activist heavily involved in the anti-regime movement, who spoke on condition of anonymity.

"We say this must be a peaceful uprising if it is to succeed but they are beginning to take weapons."

Attrition rates among well-educated, liberal protest organisers are high as they are detained, go into hiding or flee the country. The next wave coming through is more prone to militant ideas, he said.

"We have gone through three generations of activist street protest leaders since March," he said. "Many from the first generation who started the uprising have been arrested or forced into exile or hiding, so we had a second generation of leaders come through. They were perhaps less committed to peaceful revolution because of the brutality they had seen from the security forces.

"Then they were arrested or forced into hiding, so now we are on the third generation and they are more comfortable with the idea of violence, they are more likely to say that weapons are the answer."

The activist stressed most protesters remained peaceful, but he warned the tide was turning and the slide into violence may prove unstoppable.

"I'm afraid that the uprising is becoming more military - that has begun now," he said. "In the past month, people in rural Damascus have been arming themselves and there are some Islamic groups that are doing that, too. In some areas, like Douma, Homs and Idleb we can say there are military opposition movements."

Syrian officials have always insisted the uprising was never a peaceful call for greater civil rights and has been violent from the beginning. They claim that foreign-backed Islamic groups are seeking to plunge the country into a sectarian war and that army units and security police have been "restoring calm" to civilian neighbourhoods terrorised by armed rebels.

Activists maintain that protests were entirely peaceful for the opening months and that the growing use of weapons by those opposed to Mr Al Assad's regime was only in response to the persistent, widespread use of deadly violence by the security services.

The United Nations and human-rights groups have said that most of the 3,000-plus deaths have been caused by Syria's security units and pro-regime militia groups. The government has rejected that claim, and said more than 700 security personnel and a similar number of civilians have been killed by militants.

"There is more armed opposition unfortunately," said another secular activist with a prominent role in the grass-roots protest movement. He also spoke on condition of anonymity. "It is a natural reaction to the frankly incredible brutality we have seen from the security services.

"That violence is pushing people to despair and to think there is no other option but to defend themselves or to fight back."

An Islamic cleric with a leading position in the protest movement said he and other religious leaders had been working "day and night" to prevent their followers from taking up arms.

"We've been extremely hard line on prohibiting weapons and on making sure this uprising is peaceful. We've been harder on our people about that than the mukhabarat [secret police]," he said.

But while he said he was "extremely proud" most had stuck to peaceful methods, he acknowledged a burgeoning militancy and said he himself struggled with the relative merits of peaceful and violent resistance.

"I believe in peace and I talk about that all the time to the protesters but if soldiers of the security came to my house I would defend myself and my family and I would do it with a weapon if I had one," he said.

Human rights groups have documented hundreds of cases of the torture of detainees. The Syrian authorities insist they behave in accordance with the law and have begun opening prisons for inspection by the Red Cross for the first time in the country's history.

Another cleric supporting the protesters said he had now stopped counselling against the use of weapons when activists came to him for advice..

"I used to stress above all else that the uprising must be peaceful," he said. "Now I don't tell people not to use weapons. How can I say they shouldn't with all that has happened? So I just don't say anything about it and they can make up their own minds."

According to rights groups and opposition activists, small numbers of soldiers who defected have also been taking part in increasingly sophisticated and well-organised attacks against loyalist army units.

The authorities have refrained from commenting directly on defections but figures connected to the regime confirmed they were taking place. One spoke of a recent four-hour long assault on a military compound in the rural belt north-east of Damascus by soldiers who had switched sides.

"People inside the regime are talking about 350 officers defecting, that means we are talking about thousands of soldiers who would probably leave with their officers," said another figure with links to the regime, dismissing claims by the breakaway Free Syrian Army that between 10,000 to 15,000 soldiers had defected. "In that sense, the military side of the uprising is getting more organised," he said.