Syrian Opposition Violence Draws Growing Concern: Noe & Raad

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By Nicholas Noe & Walid Raad

A year after the start of anti-government protests in Syria, even media controlled by the militant Hamas movement, whose leadership until recently was based in Damascus, regularly publishes scathing attacks on President Bashar Al-Assad and his backers.

The United Nations now says at least 8,000 people have died in Syria, while thousands more have been wounded, tortured or imprisoned, most at the hands of the regime’s security forces. So it's little wonder that only media controlled by the regime itself or aligned with its closest ally, Iran, now shows any enthusiasm for Assad.

At the same time, a strong current of thinking has solidified around the one-year anniversary of the start of the revolt, arguing that the regime’s opponents are also guilty of a series of grave errors.

With attacks against regime targets expanding in scope and scale and Al-Qaeda calling for jihad in Syria, some commentators believe the opposition's armed response to Assad’s violence over the past few months has made a bad situation worse.

Writing two weeks ago in the Beirut-based An-Nahar, a daily harshly critical of Assad, columnist Samih Saab took aim at Gulf states such as Qatar and Saudi Arabia that have been at the forefront of calls to arm Syria's opposition:

The Arabs are now going through an experience in Syria that is similar to that of America in Afghanistan. In their opinion, the identity of who will come after the Syrian regime is not important. The important matter consists of toppling President Bashar al-Assad.

This means, Saab continued, that concerns that full scale civil war may break out in Syria or that jihadists may gain control of opposition efforts “is a mere detail in the battle of life and death between the regimes of the Gulf and Syria.”

Writing over the weekend, just before a series of anti-regime bombings shook major Syrian cities, Saab sharpened his criticism, arguing that even if some Arab states fail to grasp the consequences of their recent call to arms, the West is starting to acknowledge that it badly misread the situation in Syria for the better part of the last year. He wrote:

The West misevaluated the force and capacity of the Syrian regime to control the protests. In addition, the West misread the Russian and Chinese positions and the extent to which Moscow and Beijing could continue in their clinging to the choice of not repeating the ‘Libyan scenario’ in Syria. And then there was the erroneous reading of the Iranian position and the extent to which Tehran is able to proceed in supporting a regime that has been its ally since the victory of the Islamic revolution in Iran in 1979.

Saab said the Western allies made a further error by thinking that the Syrian opposition -- which has seen increasing turmoil in its ranks of late -- would ever be able to unify itself, an especially difficult task in a society that is deeply divided along multiple lines of religion, ideology and interest.

These mistakes have only served to accelerate the crisis, he concluded, since the West’s position raised expectations of support and success while steadily choking off the possibility of a negotiated solution.

Writing in the Beirut-based Al-Akhbar, a newspaper banned in Syria but critical of some opposition calls for external intervention, editor-in-chief Ibrahim al-Amin wrote that “the regime’s enemies” have started to see “in practice that the militarization of the civil protests in Syria created a major, public credibility crisis for the opposition, and that going further as in Libya, or even Yemen, would only make people wearier.”

Indeed, as the militarization of the opposition clearly gathers pace, Amin believes the regime will only grow stronger, bolstered by Syrians who stand in the middle:

[The group] which grows in size by the day, fears for Syria. It includes people who refuse to be asked where they stand. They are no longer prepared to get into a debate about who is right and who is wrong. Their concern is for the country’s unity and stability, and that priority overrides all others -- even while they concur that this view ultimately works to the advantage of the regime at present.

Veteran Syrian activist Michel Kilo, long an opponent of foreign intervention in his country, wrote in the Beirut-based As-Safir newspaper that if the opposition turns toward radical Islamism, that may benefit the regime in the short-run, but it would be the product of the regime's behavior and not of any foreign meddling.

“Since day one, the regime spread the lie about the Syrian Islamic revolution in order to uphold its obstinacy in the face of any solution to the crisis.”

During the first months of the revolution, he said, Islamists were “very few and barely noticeable. But the authorities did not leave the demonstrators any other place from which to take to the streets apart from the mosques.”

After the massive application of violence, the presence and influence of political Islam increased “to the point where Syrian civil society was left with no other option but to carry weapons, relinquish the demands for freedom and adopt extremist positions and sectarian ideologies.”

Unlike Amin, however, Kilo believes the growing role of “fundamentalist extremists” marks a stark warning for Assad that over time escalating the violence will work against him.

(Nicholas Noe and Walid Raad are the Beirut correspondents for the World View blog. The opinions expressed are their own.)

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-0- Mar/19/2012 22:00 GMT