Since the opposition took to the streets in March 6,000 people have been killed and at least 14,000 are estimated to be in detention.
The opposition, organised through a loose network of local coordinating committees, and with a political front, The Syrian National Council (SNC) outside the country, has grown in strength while the state’s authority has withered.
Neighbouring fear the deepening chaos and even — in the worst case — the break-up of the country in sectarian civil war.
A large number of deserters from the rank and file of the armed forces are now in hiding inside the country or have left for Lebanon or Turkey. Some deserters are being organised to fight the regime by the Free Syrian Army.
On Saturday 50 troops, led by an air force colonel, defected live on Al Jazeera's Arabic news channel. Colonel Afeef Mahmoud Suleiman said, “We have defected because the government is killing civilian protesters. The Syrian army attacked Hama with heavy weapons, air raids and heavy fire from tanks.”
Last week a senior political figure, Mahmoud Sleiman Hajj Hamad, defected to the opposition while on holiday in Egypt. He claimed that most officials in the Syrian state were against the regime, but were being very closely watched by Assad’s secret police.
Adding to the sense of panic is a series of bombings in the capital, Damascus. The state blames Islamist suicide bombers. The opposition blames the regime.
The Arab League’s recent attempt to broker a peace in Syria is failing. The League wanted to send 500 observers to monitor an agreement to remove Syrian tanks from urban centres and release political prisoners.
The League pared down the number of monitors to 150 under Syrian pressure.
There has been no real let up of state violence. Over 300 people have been killed since the arrival of the League. The regime claims to have let 3,500 prisoners go, but Human Rights Watch states that many political prisoners have been hidden on military bases. Tanks appear to be poised on the edge of towns, ready to go back in. And snipers are operating openly.
The Arab states which have pushed for intervention are themselves clerical dictatorships. As one commentator on Al Jazeera said, “these people wouldn’t know a human rights abuse if it hit them in the face.”
The man leading the League’s intervention, Mustafa al-Dabi, is a former head of Sudanese military intelligence and is accused by Amnesty International of condoning atrocities in Darfur in the 1990s.