Some fear war, foreign intervention in Syria
Damascus // With no sign that a political solution will be found to end a six-month-old uprising, Syria is sliding towards a full-blown war involving foreign forces, analysts and political figures in Damascus fear.
Pro-and anti-regime figures and independent analysts once spoke of civil war and international military intervention as remote possibilities. In the past 10 days, however, the already sombre mood in the Syrian capital has turned even darker and now there is a growing consensus that an escalation of armed conflict is likely, if not inevitable.
A turning point came on August 21, with the arrival of Libyan rebels in Tripoli. With the collapse of the Qaddafi regime, Mr Al Assad's government saw its hope that Nato would be mired in another Afghanistan-style conflict melt away. Meanwhile, opposition activists and analysts took it as a signal that a once-distracted international community will now focus its attention - and perhaps military resources - on Damascus.
The fact that no state, including the Western nations most at odds with the Syrian regime, has proposed military intervention has done nothing to prevent grim speculation.
The gloom has been compounded by increasingly critical positions from the Arab League and from Turkey, whose president, Abdullah Gul, said Sunday that any reforms would now be "too little, too late."
"Scenarios that lead to foreign military action in Syria grow more likely every day," said one well-connected political analyst in Damascus, speaking on condition of anonymity.
He brushed aside Western and Arab League assurances that military action was not on the agenda, citing the rapid march to war in Libya as a precedent for how rapidly policies could change.
"The situation could start moving very quickly. If the [Syrian] regime keeps killing people in large numbers, we will enter a civil war, and if that happens Turkey, the West and the Arab states would decide to step in and finish it," the analyst said. "That is exactly the direction we are now heading in."
The Syrian regime, citing the deaths of more than 400 security personnel, insists it is facing an armed revolt by foreign-backed Islamist extremists. Syrian activists, human rights monitors and international agencies, including the United Nations, have largely dismissed that claim, saying the Syrian uprising is an overwhelmingly peaceful movement demanding freedoms and greater civil rights.
Activists and analysts in Syria have been quick to add, however, that the government's brutal security crackdown is coming dangerously close to creating exactly the kind of insurgency it was ostensibly designed to stamp out. One analyst in Damascus described the regime's actions as a "self-fulfilling prophecy".
"Any hope for some kind of peaceful outcome to this has vanished. I have no optimism left," he said. "The worst is yet to come for Syria."
A leading Syrian dissident said there was evidence to support such fears
"Some opposition people who used to stress the uprising must remain peaceful changed their mind on the day the Libyan rebels took Tripoli," he said. "They started saying, 'Why should we go out and get killed or tortured? Let Nato come and finish this like they finished it in Libya."
The dissident, who spoke on condition of anonymity, said he preferred to have a peaceful home-grown revolution but increasingly, his colleagues were convinced that was no longer possible.
"It is hard to know how long the protests will stay peaceful when the regime has been so brutal," he said. "I'm proud of my people for behaving that way under such pressure, but eventually they will say, 'Enough'."
Even before Tripoli fell, an unofficial coalition of secular and Islamic dissidents in Syria, despite having publicly ruled out talks with the regime, secretly sent a delegation to meet regime officials, according to an opposition activist.
The dissidents, including influential Muslim clerics highly critical of the regime, offered to use their influence to calm street protesters in exchange for the immediate release of thousands of political prisoners as a confidence-building measure, the activist said.
The August 20 gathering "did not go well," he recalled. "There was no common ground and it seems that the more moderate voices inside the regime are at a loss about what to do now. They are themselves saying they can't see a way out of this, that there is no solution to the problem."
Mr Al Assad has said that while ending protests is a matter of national security, far-reaching political reforms are underway. But even some presidential supporters say the regime's attempts at a national dialogue already have failed, and that the February ballot will never happen.
"There won't be elections, there will be no reforms, the urgent priority is to prevent a war," said one leading public figure involved in the national dialogue. "The only way to do that is through reforms, but that message is falling on deaf ears."
Either sensing the hardening mood or adding to it, Mr Al Assad himself broached the issue of war for the first time on the same day Tripoli fell.
He bluntly warned against a foreign attack, saying he had greater military power than his enemies realised and that any action would have "huge consequences".
A more recent warning from Iran that Nato would "drown in a quagmire" if it intervened militarily in Syria has only added to the growing alarm that war has found its way onto the agenda.
"Every day we are coming up with political initiatives that we put to the authorities to avert the disaster of war and foreign military intervention but nothing is happening to change course," said Mohammad Habash, a Syrian MP pushing for reforms. "Without real change, we go deeper and deeper into crisis. We are marching towards more bloodshed."
Updated: August 30, 2011 04:00 AM