Syria on Verge of Civil War

b_179_129_16777215_00_images_syriacrowds-032912-lo-00.jpegCAIRO - As the situation in Syria gets bloodier and Syrian leader Bashar al Assad becomes increasingly isolated internationally, some Syrians say the country is on the verge of a civil war being instigated by the regime.

"[The regime] is trying to push [the opposition] more and more into having a sectarian war - they are trying to push a civil war," said Hozan Ibrahim, an activist with the Local Coordination Committee of Syria based in Germany. "They couldn't stop the demonstrations so they are doing what they can to put themselves and the people on the same level of violence so they can be condemned [also]."

Analysts say civil war is a real possibility. They believe Syria has reached a turning point, with both sides digging in.

"I think we've now reached the stage where we are getting a militarization of the uprising," said Salman Shaikh, director of the Brookings Doha Center, a think tank in Qatar. "I think shutting down the violence will become progressively more difficult and I don't see it ending any time soon. I believe this regime will fight to the end."

On Thursday, rebels attacked the offices of Assad's ruling party near the Turkish border, activists said. That followed unusual and brazen attacks on Wednesday on Syrian intelligence bases and checkpoints just outside Damascus - where rebel activity has been very limited during the eight-month uprising - as well as a deadly raid on a checkpoint near Hama in which eight Syrian soldiers were killed. That raid was led by the so-called Free Syrian Army, made up of army defectors, who have attacked the military in recent months. Although the group issued a statement, the attacks could not be independently confirmed.

And as the violence inside Syria escalate, outside pressure is also increasing, say analysts, especially as the death toll mounts: More than 3,500 Syrians have been killed since the uprising began eight months ago, according to the United Nations.

On Wednesday, the 22-member Arab League confirmed their suspension of Syria over the regime's crackdown of protestors and for violating a peace plan agreed to on Nov. 2. That plan included a halt to the violent crackdown, withdrawing military from cities and freeing activists in jail. The League has threatened to impose economic sanctions and has given Syria three days to comply with the plan which includes sending outside monitors to the country. Syrian officials boycotted the meeting and were furious over the decision.

The Arab League is fed up though, say analysts. That is likely to lead to a more coordinated effort internationally.

"I think we will see more of an international effort - more Arab, regional and Western efforts, in terms of Europe and the United States...and that will take us to the UN Security Council," said Shaikh. "There has been a certain reluctance for the United States to take a lead on this which is why the Arab decision is so crucial."

He was referring to UN sanctions that so far Russia and China have opposed - the two nations vetoed a UN resolution against Syria in October. But the firm position of the Arab League makes it more likely they will back off their veto, say observers.

"The fact that the Arab League is using strong language means the door is open for a UN Security Council resolution," said Ziad Abdel Tawab, deputy director of the Cairo Institute for Human Rights Studies. "I think they are just waiting for the three-day ultimatum that was given on the matter."

Activists say the Arab League move is a positive development.

"The UN and NATO won't take a stronger position without the Arab League taking one themselves," said Anas El-Khani, an activist based in London with British Solidarity for Syria, a group that organizes regular protests. "It is all about pressure. Turkey has threatened to cut power and Jordan's king has said he would step down if he were Assad. It is all being chipped away."

he Arab League's action combined with escalating militarization of the uprising is the most serious challenge yet to Assad who took over from his father 11 years ago. The Assad family, belonging to the minority Alawi sect, has ruled Syria for four decades. And it has done so by presenting itself as an alternative to Sunni domination and sectarian violence - Syria's 22 million people are made of up a Sunni majority, and Kurdish, Christian and Alawi minorities.

Activists say that the increasing international isolation of Assad has led to the increased violence.

"It is unbelievable how violent it has been [since the Arab League became involved]," said Ibrahim. "[That is when] the killings started escalating, the violence and the sieges of cities and towns. People can't accept the regime anymore and are looking for some way to protect themselves now. Soldiers who have defected from the army are trying to protect themselves and the people."

Analysts say the situation internally is very unclear at the moment. They believe the Assad regime is not going to back down easily and also, holds more support among the general population than in uprisings in Tunisia, Egypt or even Yemen.

One problem, though, has been the lack of a viable choice. The opposition remains fractured and some worry it doesn't present a credible alternative to the regime. Still, analysts say they have made great strides since earlier this year.

"The opposition is learning the game," said Fawaz Gerges, director of the Middle East Center at the London School of Economics. "They are becoming more skilled, more professional, and making inroads in Europe and the Arab world. Even though they are deeply divided, the Syrian National Council is emerging as a power to be reckoned with."

Bhatti and Louise Osborne reported from Berlin.

You are here: Home Newsroom Middle East / North Africa Syria on Verge of Civil War