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There have been numerous comparisons made between the now successful Libyan revolution and the ongoing Syrian uprising, even though the two scenarios are wildly different. The Syrian opposition cannot look to Libya for tips in how to topple a dictator. Mass defections in the military and NATO intervention can’t be expected in Syria.

But Syrians will be looking back at the early stages of the Libyan campaign, in particular at that crucial moment when the until-then peaceful protest movement took up arms and turned itself into a violent rebellion. With hindsight, that decision seems to have paid off. After only 6 months, the rag-tag rebels have put an end to over 4 decades of brutal and mindless repression. It is also possible that the opposition had little choice but to arm itself. When an already violent and unpredictable despot promises to hunt you down like “cockroaches”, grabbing your gun seems like a logical course of action.

But in doing so the opposition also alienated large parts of the Libyan population that would have otherwise been willing to join the cause. It’s a lot easier to take part in non-violent street protests than it is to reconcile with the possibility of killing someone.

We should also remember that the Libyan uprising enjoyed several successes before it took up arms. Massive, unarmed protests shut down most of the country and encouraged the defection of several high ranking military and political figures. Incredibly, they even took the city of Benghazi with little blood spilt.

If the early Libyan opposition campaign had any weakness it wasn’t that it was unarmed but that it focused too much on a single tactic – protests. When movements rely exclusively on protests they become extremely vulnerable to the state security apparatus. An opposition campaign should instead combine protests with strikes, boycotts, sit-ins and go-slows. Even the most well organised security services can’t handle such widespread civil disobedience and the effect on the national economy will eventually drain the regime’s available resources. (more…)

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A different set of colours has been hoisted above the Libyan embassy in Damascus. The Libyan ambassador and diplomatic staff in Damascus announced on Sunday that they had changed loyalties and were now supporting the opposition National Transitional Council and so the red, green and black of the old Kingdom of Libya flag is now flying proudly over the diplomatic mission in Roudah. The propagandist pictures of Libyan children killed by NATO air strikes have also been ripped off from the display boards.

The development actually made the front page of al-Watan, one of the largest state owned Syrian newspapers, alongside a picture of a burning poster of Muammar Gaddafi. Unsurprisingly, the regime controlled media has jumped on the ‘people power’ bandwagon, recently championing the cause of the plucky rebels in the face of a demented and ruthless dictator. One headline relished in the fact that “The rebels are searching for him [Gaddafi], alley by alley… house by house”, a jibe at one of the Colonel’s rants early in the revolution.

The Syrian propaganda machine took a similar stance after the Egyptian revolution, suggesting that Arab leaders must listen to their people. Of course Syria would never have to worry about disgruntled citizens; Mr President Bashar al-Assad understands the wishes and desires of the Syrian people.

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I met a couple of young Syrian guys last night over an Iftar meal and the topic of conversation inevitably turned to politics. One of them compared the Syrian uprising to the recent spat of mindless looting and rioting in London. He asked if it was the beginning of a revolution; were these the first signs of open protest against the British government? I laughed until I realised he was being sincere. No, I explained, they were just criminals causing chaos. They weren’t demanding anything, just availing themselves of high-end electronics.

One of these chaps, an 18 year old who has been protesting in Douma on a regular basis, interrupted me and remarked, quite astutely, that I sounded just like SANA. Being likened to the Syrian state media service, a factory of clumsy propaganda, was somewhat insulting but I got his point. The state media had said exactly the same things in reference to the protest movement in Syria: They’re not protestors with legitimate demands, just violent criminals. It’s easy to understand that for much of the Middle East, suspicious from years of state lies and propaganda, it would have been natural to assume that the media was lying.

Unfortunately, the BBC isn’t covering up a popular uprising emerging from the streets of Hackney. It’s just good, ol’ fashioned rioting.

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The Assad regime has been far from delicate in it’s handling of the protests but when it employs gunboats to subdue the unrest you know that things have taken a turn for the worse. Navy ships started shelling the port city on Sunday in coordination with an attack by tanks, soldiers and paramilitary troops.

This is a worrying escalation of violence, especially as Syrians and foreign observers had hoped that the recent international pressure, including a visit by the Turkish Foreign Minister and ambassador recalls by several Gulf states, would at the very least bring a temporary respite from the government violence.

The assault came after large-scale protests in the city on Friday and followed the same less-than-subtle pattern as previous attacks on dissenting populations: deployment of tanks, cutting of water and electricity, all followed by sweeping arrests and random gunfire.

Unsurprisingly, SANA has denied that Navy ships were used in the attack: “The [SANA] Correspondent refuted some satellite channels’ claims of bombarding the mentioned neighbourhood from the sea, indicating that what is really taking place is a pursuit of gunmen”.

I’m guessing that this latest round of violence will leave many diplomats and foreign politicians wondering what to do next. The recent visit from the Turkish Foreign Minister and the emergence of a loose anti-Assad bloc in the region has so far done little to deter the regime from its violent rampage across Syria.

Smoke rising from Latakia on Sunday

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The shabeehah were out in force last night, hundreds of young men armed with sticks and batons, sitting outside the main mosques of Meedan and Kafr Souseh, waiting for protests to emerge. Large green public buses ferried them into the centre so that they could stand around, intimidate and make the odd arbitrary ‘arrest’. A young guy in a cream coloured shirt lead in handcuffs towards a minivan, the curtains pulled shut.

Qaboun, north east of the Old City, has experienced growing demonstrations over the past two weeks. Last night however, it was completely deserted. The only proof of the neighbourhood’s dissent is the opposition graffiti on the walls which has since been blacked out by loyalists, leaving ugly dark patches on the white walls. Pro-regime slogans have been scribbled next to them in denial of the area’s growing frustration and anger.

Further east, Harasta was in complete darkness. The region is regularly denied electricity by the regime to thwart opposition attempts to organise and mobilise. Residential buildings shrouded in a gloomy dark loomed above the beams of car headlights below. “It’s as if there’s a war”, said our taxi driver. Despite the blackout, a few shops were still open, lit by torches and candles. A glowing furnace provided the only light in a pizza shop.

The deliberate power outages will have been particularly annoying as residents of Harasta hoped to spend their Ramadan evenings watching the season’s best television series and staying up all night eating and socialising. People did their best to enjoy their Friday evenings, gathering outside on plastic chairs or congregating in front of the few shops with a generator. But still, the area was eerily quiet.

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As protests grow in size and frequency across the country, Syrians are beginning to ask, what’s next? There is little reason to believe that the government will back down any time soon, despite increasing condemnation from the international community. And given Assad’s track record of offering reforms while continuing to kill and imprison demonstrators, the opposition is unlikely to be happy until they see the regime overthrown.

There are therefore two potential ways for the Syrian uprising to evolve. The first involves economic pressure on the regime, which will most likely involve Turkish sanctions, a worsening economy and the eventual shifting of allegiance of the traditional merchant classes in Damascus and Aleppo. Without this crucial support base, Assad would not be able to hold out indefinitely.

Alternatively, the Syrian unrest, which is currently an uprising hoping to become a revolution, could see rising levels of violence, resulting in a civil war. Unfortunately, journalists and long-time Syria observers whom I have spoken to here are increasingly predicting the eventual emergence of civil war. Such a conflict could follow similar patterns to Libya, where the country is eventually split in two along political grounds. Or it could be a far more complicated environment, with conflict driven by religious, ethnic and even regional geopolitical factors.

The unrest is still several stages from all-out war. Various political and military conditions will have to be met. One of the most crucial factors will be the state of the Syrian armed forces and the regime’s ability to maintain loyalty.

Splits within the army are already starting to emerge. There are increasing signs of fragmentation within the largely Sunni rank and file. Video testimonials from defected soldiers float are plentiful and there are reports of gun battles between loyal and defected soldiers. Last week the Syrian Free Army announced their formation, although little has been heard from the group so far, and doubts have been raised as to whether the men in the video are even real officers.

But a civil war will require far more than isolated cases of disobedience and defection. As we have seen in Libya, one of the greatest challenge faced by any rebel army is a shortage of weapons and ammunition. Even in Libya, where entire brigades, along with all their resources and firepower, joined the opposition, the rebels quickly used up their available ammunition and struggled to put a weapon in the hands of each infantryman..

From the very beginning of the uprising, there were reports of weapons being smuggled in via Syria’s two war-stricken neighbours, Lebanon and Iraq. Initially many of these reports may have been fabricated by the regime to encourage the idea that the unrest was caused by armed militants. But articles by the NPR and the Daily Star provide good reason to believe that light arms are indeed being transported across the Iraqi and Lebanese borders.

The Economist provides a similar report:

Some protesters say they should resort to violence. In towns such as Tel Kalakh, Jisr al-Shughour, Idleb and Deir ez-Zor, which are near the border, weapons are being smuggled in. But rifles and Molotov cocktails are no match for tanks and artillery. Other protesters hope that, if the regime becomes even more brutal, chunks of the army may defect, as they did in Libya.

The need for weapons may have also inspired the attack on a Homs army college in late July.

After weapons, any would-be rebel army will need some form of safe zone, a haven in which to organise and train, akin to eastern Libya where the rebels have effectively founded a parallel state. When the Syrian army launched its assault on Jisr al-Shughour there was talk of Turkey moving in to Syrian territory to set up a buffer zone in order to protect the thousands of refugees massing on the border. Such a zone could function as friendly territory for civilian opposition groups and defected soldiers.

Alternatively, were the army to lose both Homs and Hama to the opposition, they would also lose control of the Aleppo-Damascus highway. This would severely limit the regime’s ability to move troops between the two largest cities and create a zone in the centre of the country outside of government control.

While the threat of civil war becomes more likely with each passing week, the possibility of a more drawn out conclusion, driven by internal economics and international pressure, is also emerging. With its past experiences in the region, the US is very wary of another failed Muslim state. As such it is quietly pursuing a gentler resolution to the crisis, founded on sanctions and diplomatic pressure, most importantly from Syria’s Muslim and Arab neighbours. So far it has also shied away from explicitly demanding that Assad step down. Without an organised opposition, Syria would experience a devastating power vacuum were Assad to relinquish control. Most importantly the West should not be under any illusions that the unrest can be resolved quickly or easily. Assad is not going anywhere anytime soon.

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It’s hard not to make comparisons. After all, the Syrian uprising drew its initial inspiration from Tunisia and Libya. The boys who graffitied ‘the people want the downfall of the regime’ 5 months ago in Der’aa had undoubtedly heard the phrase from television coverage of those two other more successful revolutions.

But the Syrian uprising will not end as easily as the Tunisian and Egyptian ones. The security apparatus has not, and will not, crumble in the face of mass civil disobedience, as in Tunisia. And the military certainly won’t discard decades of loyalty and back the opposition overnight as happened in Egypt. No, the Syrian awakening will more closely resemble Yemen. Months of protests and countless dead were not enough to oust the stubborn president. In the end it required a random and violent response. An RPG attack on the presidential motorcade, serious burn and shrapnel injuries, and Saleh is eventually forced to leave Yemeni territory for treatment in Saudi Arabia. He vowed to return after he recovered but is still moping around the Kingdom.

However, the Syrian opposition should not be encouraged by the Yemeni model. Instead it should be a warning. Despite widespread calls for his departure, Saleh clung on to power, resorting to brutal violence to quell the dissent. Even when thousands lined the streets of Sanaa and influential generals and tribal leaders declared their support for the protestors, the president stalled, promising to step down some time later.

If we had to compare Syria to another Arab country experiencing its own awakening, then Libya would be the closest example, which experienced a fissure in the military and a cleaving of the country in half. But even there the comparison falls short. There will be no dramatic climax, no mass defections. The military command – Alawites and Assad loyalists – will not be abandoning their leader any time soon. Instead, Syria will experience a gentle trickle of disaffected soldiers and officers, who are either sickened by the government’s brutal response or angered by orders to shoot their fellow soldiers. Civil war is a very real outcome for the Syrian uprising but the build up to it will not be fast or straightforward.

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