News / Middle East

Syria's Opposition Split Over Civil, Armed Unrest

Syrian National Council leader Burhan Ghalioun gives a speech during a Syrian opposition rally in Vienna, December 8, 2011.
Syrian National Council leader Burhan Ghalioun gives a speech during a Syrian opposition rally in Vienna, December 8, 2011.
Elizabeth Arrott

Syria's opposition has launched a new form of civil disobedience with a general strike, even as armed resistance escalates. The opposing tactics highlight a growing split among those who seek to oust the government, a divide echoed in the mixed signals of the international community.

Shop owners opposed to the Syrian government continue to keep their doors closed, despite reports that security forces have retaliated against some by burning down their stores.  

The general strike, which began Sunday, widens the campaign of peaceful resistance to the government of President Bashar al-Assad, which for the most part over the last nine months has been confined to demonstrations, vigils and protest marches.  

Tactical differences

But the strike coincides with an increase in the armed struggle against Assad's rule. Both sides agree on what they see as the inevitable downfall of the government.  

How to reach that goal, however, is causing a split. Amateur video has shown battles in the Daraa region, along the border of Iraq, while opposition forces report clashes along the border with Jordan.  

Witnesses describe it as some of the heaviest fighting yet between military defectors and government troops.  

Some experts, though, think the armed effort so far has its limits. Dr. Abdulaziz Sager, chairman of the Gulf Research Center in Jeddah, argues it has yet to reach a critical mass.  

"To reach the point of a civil war you will need a mass defection from the military and high-ranking [officers] at a large number to enter into that one," said Sager. "So far, we do not have that huge number that have defected from the military. Second, the type of weapons they have, still it is a light weapon, an AK-47 or sort of the light one they cannot fight or cannot be used against tanks and heavy military movements."  

Apparent shortcomings amid progress

If an armed struggle appears unlikely to dislodge the government in the short term, so, too, does the general strike.  

Syria's neighbors Lebanon and Iraq have shown support for the Assad government and the ability to move goods across those borders makes economic pressure, both internal through the strike and external through sanctions, potentially less powerful.  

But loose borders may prove a boon to the armed opposition. The increased fighting in recent days, and previously near the defectors' base in Turkey and on the outskirts of Damascus, suggest some heavier weapons are getting in.  

Neither Turkey nor any of the opposition's foreign supporters have overtly provided the defectors' Free Syria Army with weapons. That is in keeping with the opposition group the Syrian National Council, also based in Turkey, which adamantly rejects armed resistance and seeks to limit the FSA's role to protection of civilians.  

Yet protection of civilians is a hazy term; NATO used such a mandate from the United Nations to launch an air offensive in Libya earlier this year. That option, however, is considered unlikely, despite the vocal condemnation of Assad's government by western and regional governments.    

Assessing the tipping point

Establishing a no-fly zone involves bombing ground targets. Military and political experts point out that Libya, a relatively isolated nation, offered a less complicated target than Syria, which lies geographically and politically at the heart of the Arab world, and is an ally of Iran. In any case, another ally, Russia, likely would veto any U.N. military move.

The disconnect between rhetoric and action can be seen in the actions of the Arab League. The regional group came on strong last month, demanding an immediate end to the killing. Now, more than a month later, it finds itself in a back and forth with Syria over letting monitors into the country.   

The league plans to meet by the end of the week to address the issue once again. Khattar Abou Diab, a political science professor at the University of Paris, said the group is afraid to move quickly.  

Diab said that enforcing sanctions against Syria would damage the economic interests of league members. Moreover, he believes members are intimidated by Assad's government, which is dominated by minority Allawites, and its potential to spread sectarian strife across the region.

Despite the many splits in the anti-Assad movement, most political analysts believe that the tipping point in the battle already has been reached and eventually the opposition will prevail.  

Assad's government, they argue, cannot resist sustained civil and armed revolt forever. In the meantime, Syrian officials continued business as usual, holding municipal elections Monday, while security forces continued their crackdown.

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