3,500 have been killed and perhaps 20,000 detained since the Syrian opposition movement began to take to the streets in March.
The vast majority have died at the hands of the disgusting Ba’athist dictatorship of Bashar Assad. However, increasingly fighting is taking place between defectors from the army and state forces. Civilians are also arming themselves.
The dissident Free Syrian Army, based in Turkey, claims responsibility for an attack inside the capital, Damascus, on Sunday 20 November. At least two rocket-propelled grenades hit a Ba’ath party building which was later seen surrounded by fire engines and security police. A few days earlier a military intelligence base outside Damascus was attacked. Such attacks against important regime targets, inside its heartland, appear to be very significant.
The state is loosing its grip inside the country. Syria’s economy is in crisis.
Assad has responded with defiance and attempts to mobilise his supporters. Large pro-regime demonstrations have taken place in Damascus, and in the second city and commercial hub, Aleppo. However, many of those who attend these rallies do so under duress. Universities and public buildings are shut to ensure participation. On 13 November a number of ‘pro-regime’ demonstrators were shot dead when they began to chant against the regime.
Internationally the Syrian state has had two torrid weeks. Although it continues to find cover from China and Russia on the UN Security Council, its regional support is collapsing.
Turkey, once an ally of Assad’s, is hardening its attitude towards Damascus. Turkey is extremely alarmed by the instability in Syria and has demanded the regime talk to dissidents and reform. These calls have been ignored and Turkey recently threatened to cut electricity exports to Syria in retaliation.
On Saturday Turkish newspapers said Ankara had contingency plans to create no-fly or buffer zones to protect civilians in neighbouring Syria if the bloodshed worsened.
The Arab League has suspended Syrian membership after the Syrian state reneged on a promise to release political prisoners, remove tanks from its own cities, and to allow Arab observers into the country.
The basic feature of the movement in the country, now, is positive and democratic. It is organised by networks of activists and local co-ordinating committees.
These committees are not politically identical to — and often ignore — Syrian exiles abroad.
The political front, the Syrian National Council (SNC) based in Turkey, has a worryingly strong representation from the Islamist Muslim Brothers, as well as including secular liberals and Kurds. A second opposition committee, the National Coordination Committee for Democratic Change, includes leftists and nationalists. Its best known figure is the writer, Michel Kilo.
The Free Syrian Army has its own command structure, and the attacks it is launching against regime targets in Damascus are probably independent of the local committees, although some army deserters have clearly been involved in local self-defence.
The FSA states it is non-sectarian and is simply in favour of freedom.
The Syrian demonstrators not only have a right to defend themselves from state violence, they are right to do so.
It makes no sense that innocent protesters offer themselves up, week after week, as martyrs to be mown down by the state’s thugs.
Beyond the question of local self-defence there is now a question of civil war. The fact is that — short of an utter collapse of morale, which is not currently likely — this regime will have to be removed by force. At least that must be the assumption based on current evidence.
There is a difference between a civil war being fought for democracy against a dictatorship that can be removed by no means other than violence, and a sectarian civil war.
A sectarian civil war would lead Syria into inter-communal bloodletting.
It may be the case that the Syrian opposition takes on an overtly Sunni sectarian or religious character. Sunnis make up 70% of the population and there is a polarisation taking place. If the opposition does move in this direction a part of the blame will fall on the regime which is itself a sectarian entity, resting on the Alawite sect (forming 10% of the population, the Alawites are a dissenting Shia grouping), but maintaining the fiction of being opposed to sectarianism.
A civil war for democracy could slip into another sectarian conflict leading to the sort of fighting that took place in Lebanon in the 1970s.