The death toll in Syria has reached more than 2,900 since pro-democracy protests began in March, the United Nations human rights office said today. The announcement came a day after Russia and China – with the connivance of newly emerging democracies – cast a “rare double veto” – to block a UN Security Council resolution condemning the violent crackdown.
Pro-democracy activists warn that the veto increases the likelihood that hitherto largely peaceful protests will descend into a Libya-style armed conflict.
“Unfortunately this will encourage more people to radicalize as they see no hope of action by the international community,” said Radwan Ziadehof the Damascus Centre for Human Rights Studies and a former fellow at the National Endowment for Democracy.
More than 30,000 Syrians had been detained since March, including his own brother Yassin and four other members of his family. “Mass killings continue,” he said. “Detention centers are a nightmare for Syrians now.”
Ziadeh’s view is echoed by the head of the new opposition coalition established last weekend in Istanbul
“Supporting Bashar al-Assad in his militarist and fascist project will not encourage the Syrian people to stick to a peaceful revolution,” said Burhan Ghalioun (right), chairman of the newly-formed Syrian National Council. “The Russians “are truly encouraging violence,” he told AFP.
“To avoid the slide towards violence, the international community needs to act differently and realise what are the risks and the dangers of this moment in history,” said Ghalioun, a Paris-based sociologist. “I think the international community has not yet lived up to its responsibilities.”
Pro-democracy protesters are tired of waiting for more forceful action from the international community, observers suggest, and the defection of army units and officers has led to the formation of a Free Syrian Army, which claims more than 10,000 soldiers.
“Armed rebellion is the only way to break the Syrian regime,” said Col. Riad al-As’ad, an air force colonel based in Turkey who heads the force. “It is the only way to get rid of this murderous regime.”
But the opposition has yet to adopt a common position on whether to pursue an armed struggle or call for foreign intervention.
A former regime stalwart turned exiled dissident has called for foreign military intervention to depose the regime.
“Military intervention does not mean occupation,” said former Syrian vice-president Abdel-Halim Khaddam. “The age of colonialism is over,” he said. “Military intervention today means assisting people in getting rid of corrupt oppressive regimes.”
But most opposition groups – in exile and internally – are sticking to the oft-repeated “three Nos” formula: no to violence; no to military intervention; no to sectarianism.
“The elephant in the room is the militarization of the revolution,” said Malik al-Abdeh, head of Barada TV, a London-based opposition satellite channel. “It has become quite obvious that the uprising is not as peaceful as we would like,” he said. “The question is, do we endorse armed opposition or do we maintain peaceful protest at the risk of not getting anywhere?”
The prospect of a Libyan scenario largely hinges on whether the Syrian military and other paramilitary forces maintain their discipline and political loyalty to the Baathist regime, analysts suggest, and whether the state’s repressive capacity became too stretched to contain the protests.
“The Syrian army is stretched, but not to the point of having to ‘pick its battles’, as it were, and prioritize its internal deployment,” said Aram Nerguizian, an expert at the Center for Strategic and International Studies in Washington. “If protests were to grow in scale and level of organization, that would be a different story.”
The formation of the 140-member Syrian National Counsel at a September 15 conference is a major step in overcoming opposition divisions between internal and exiled activists, Islamists and seculars, and incorporating members of Syria’s minorities.
“The council is a big step, and I think it will indeed help with getting international support,” said Andrew Tabler, a Syria analyst at the Washington Institute for Near East Policy and author of In the Lion’s Den: An Eyewitness Account of Washington’s Battle with Syria. “It organizes the opposition more comprehensively and beyond previous groups gathered around core principles. It’s a transitional council in all but name really.”
The SNC includes representatives of, the Damascus Declaration Council, Muslim Brotherhood, Local Coordination Committees, Syrian Revolution General Commission, and several Kurdish and Christian figures.
“This attempt is unique,” said Yaser Tabbara, a US-based lawyer and member of the SNC steering committee. “It is the most systematic, scientific effort to form an opposition that is united and independent at its very core. People who have been divided for over 50 years have decided to put politicking aside and work on creating a neutral platform, without baggage or personal ambition.”
But questions remain about exiled groups’ links with protesters inside Syria, leading some activists and analysts believe the council may still lack credibility as a legitimate representative of the opposition.
“Most protesters want the SNC because they believe its development will encourage the international community to toughen its stand,” says democracy advocate Ammar Abdulhamid, “but as far as realities on the ground are concerned, defectors and the local popular committees… have far greater legitimacy than any council.”
The formation of the council may help address the complaint heard from western governments that the absence of a coherent opposition deprives the international community of an interlocutor and the Syrian protesters of a single voice. But the SNC’s formation does not necessarily enhance the likelihood of Libya-style western intervention.
“International governments want some kind of transitional council, like in Libya, that they can recognize and deem legitimate,” said Christopher Phillips, an analyst for the Economist Intelligence Unit’s Middle East team, said. “But equally, they are not stupid.”
“The difference is that the opposition in Libya was locally based and organized, and until the Syrian opposition actually looks like they are viable force capable of challenging Assad, the international community has no real leadership to refer to.”
The apparent exclusion from the SNC of prominent pro-democracy dissidents like Michel Kilo has also attracted criticism and raised doubts about the SNC’s representativeness.
“The manner with which the Council was put together is controversial to say the least,” says Abdulhamid. He complains that key activists and factions were excluded from the process and that Alawites, Christians, Kurds and women are underrepresented.
Some democracy advocates had complained that an earlier initiative to convene opposition groups had produced a body disproportionately favoring Syria’s Muslim Brotherhood, but the new council appears to be more diverse and pluralist.
“While the Council in its new formation cannot be denounced as Islamist anymore, it cannot be described with any credibility as truly representative.” Yet, he says, it seems to be “the best that can be achieved by Syria’s myriad opposition groups without external pressure.”
Concerns about Muslim Brotherhood influence within the opposition and fears of an Islamist takeover in post-Assad Syria are in any case exaggerated, say analysts.
“I think it would be very hard … for Islamists to seize control of the country and turn it into some sort of worst-case scenario,” says Tabler. “Does it mean that [Islamists] would have no role in it? No, they probably would,” he adds, “but it would be much more watered-down as a result of the divisions inside the Sunni community as well as the fact that about a full quarter of the Syrian population …. are minorities.”
Middle East analyst Barry Rubin is less optimistic, but shares Tabler’s assessment that demographics will be a barrier to the emergence of a sectarian state.
“There is a very real chance of an Islamist takeover but it is lower than in Egypt,” said Rubin, director of the Global Research in International Relations Center and author of “The Truth About Syria,” “The Syrians are more urbanized, more secular, and most important of all far more diverse. Remember that in Egypt 90 percent are Sunni Muslim Arabs while in Syria that figure is about 60 percent. The Syrian Brotherhood has never been as strong as its Egyptian counterpart.”