Evidence that the opposition to Assad's regime may turn violent has grown in recent months, with military deserters coordinating attacks against the regime and fearful minorities smuggling arms from Lebanon. The jubilation in Syria over the death of Libyan dictator Muammar Gaddafi after an eight-month civil war seemed to hint that the street movement may be considering the limits of its so far stoic commitment to non-violent opposition, with protesters across Syria celebrating the death of Gaddafi by cheering "It's your turn now Bashar!"
In the face of such developments, members of the Syrian National Council, which represents a diverse variety of opposition groups within Syria, now say the street movement must retain its pacifist character if it wishes to topple Assad.
According to council spokeswoman Bassma Kodmani, the death of the Libyan dictator has been a double-edged sword, giving Syrians hope and raising what she termed the “frightening possibility” that the Libya model will be adopted in Syria.
“This is not what we want to have happen in Syria. The overthrow of Gaddafi has been very important for Syria, of course. However, we have since been perplexed by the case of Libya -- Gaddafi could only be overthrown by military force. Some see our situation as comparable, a repressive regime that will fight to the end through massive repression.”
Kodmani, who spoke to Today’s Zaman on Wednesday, stated that violence can still be avoided in the opposition’s campaign against Damascus, citing a street movement that she says can’t be compared to the case of Libya. “In Syria, the majority is concerned that the price of violent opposition is very high; the majority know that there are long-term consequences. Nobody wants a war; nobody in the opposition wants to see a bombed Damascus.”
Armed resistance to the regime has nevertheless become a reality with the recent emergence of the Syrian Free Army, a group of roughly 15,000 deserters who have pledged to fight Assad’s security forces. The group’s leader, Col. Riad al-Asaad, who fled across the border to Turkey in September, told the Reuters news agency earlier this month that “without a war, [Assad] will not fall. Whoever leads with force cannot be removed except by force.”
While Kodmani states that the objectives of the Syrian Free Army are primarily defensive and that it does not take volunteers from the ranks of the street movement, Syria expert and Director of Middle East Studies at the University of Oklahoma Joshua Landis sees the group’s emergence as a sign of things to come in Syria. “We have a situation in which the opposition does not hold any territory, but definitely wants to widen its insurgency against the regime,” he told Today’s Zaman on Thursday.
If an armed revolution does become widespread, opposition leaders say it will only feed into Damascus’s propaganda efforts to bring about an armed and thus easily villainized opposition. Speaking with Today’s Zaman on Wednesday, Syria expert and fellow at the Washington Institute for Near East Policy Andrew Tabler stated: “If the opposition goes down the path to armed resistance, it cannot win. Assad has more weapons. The Syrian opposition will have more political power by using civil resistance than they will by using force.”
Kodmani says that peaceful methods for bringing down the regime have not been exhausted, and believes that the opposition will not succumb to what she terms “minority voices calling for militarization.” On Wednesday the opposition held its first round of general strikes, which a Reuters report claimed had brought the southern city of Deraa to a standstill. Kodmani told Today’s Zaman that strikes and other acts of civil disobedience were the future of the revolution because “[such methods] can be generalized, developed and expanded. This is because they are peaceful. These will be supported by businesses and others who are afraid of the costs of war. Peaceful methods are generalizable.”
As protesters persist in their campaign against Damascus, the possibility of sectarian conflict remains an unsettling wild card, as Alawite and Christian minorities buy up smuggled arms in anticipation of violent reprisals from majority Sunnis.
Kodmani, who sees the regime’s hand in the recent militarization, insists that the opposition is not a sectarian movement. “We know the regime has distributed arms, and they have increased the belief of minorities that their security is at stake,” she stated, adding: “We do not want sectarian conflict. We have to do everything possible to prevent that.”
Syria expert Landis, meanwhile, warned that sectarian undertones are a pervasive element of the conflict, stating that: “both sides are sectarian. The regime is sectarian because it is built on an Alawi core in the security institutions and has played upon minority fears, and the opposition is sectarian because it has asked the primarily Sunni business elite to defect and is working to split the military."