“There’s no other option now” – that is the message from the Free Syrian Army, the band of defecting soldiers and armed civilians at the forefront of what has is now an open military uprising against flailing dictator Bashar al-Assad.
It is hard to fault their logic: as Assad’s forces step up brutal repression it appears ever clearer that the time for diplomacy is past. Bodies of executed opposition activists, their hands and legs tied, are dumped in the street; children are gunned down as restive neighbourhoods are attacked; and the vice-president of the strictly neutral Syrian Red Crescent this week joined the list of more than 5000 citizens murdered by government troops.
The farcical Arab League monitoring mission, which has done nothing to stem the bloodshed, has now been suspended. Beset with problems from its head’s ridiculous statement that he saw “nothing frightening”, to the withdrawal of Gulf States, it was only a matter of time before the mission began to fall apart. Meanwhile attempts to reign in Assad via a United Nations Security Council Resolution are consistently thwarted by the Russian government, which shows no signs of tempering its unwavering support for the tyrant.
In place of these diplomatic efforts, the Free Syrian Army’s military initiatives are paying off, securing ground, in some places just half an hour from the Presidential Palace. Their ranks are swelling and in many cases they are succeeding in protecting civilians where international political ventures have categorically failed. For those on the receiving end of the state’s violence, taking up arms themselves has naturally become an attractive and effective course of action.
Still, things are set to get worse with signs of fresh new government offensives, particularly in Homs where the bombing and shelling is continuing with increasing intensity. The armed resistance may yet bring Assad down, but not before his forces take many more lives. In this context there is still a necessity for fresh international efforts, particularly in giving serious consideration to the prospect of buffer zones, in order to protect civilians fleeing the violence.
And, whilst the removal of Assad is clearly the priority, fears remain that the removal of the decade-old family dictatorship could lift the lid on lingering ethnic or religious tensions, and ignite the kind of sectarian conflict experienced in neighbouring Lebanon. Similarly, recent human rights abuses by Libya’s new administration highlight the ominous potential of brutal reprisals once a dictatorship is gone.
Almost one year after peaceful protests first broke out, the slide towards all-out armed conflict in Syria is seemingly unstoppable. Where it will lead remains to be seen. But it seems certain that the hardest days are yet to come.