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Civil War Looms as Syrian Protests Grow Increasingly Complex

As the West ramps up its engagement with Syrian opposition figures, the behavior of armed opposition groups inside the country increasingly resembles that of the Assad regime.

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Inter Press Service

As the Syrian uprising enters its ninth month, it faces some of its most daunting challenges to date, despite the consolidation of near-unanimous international condemnation of the Syrian government.

Over the past two months, the Syrian National Council – having modelled itself as the sole legitimate representative of the Syrian people – has successfully lobbied a number of states and international organisations to enforce sanctions against the Syrian state.

The United States, European Union, Turkey, and most recently, the Arab League have levied deep and comprehensive sanctions aimed at crippling the efficacy of the Syrian regime.

On Tuesday, Rep. Ileana Ros-Lehtinen and Rep. Brad Sherman introduced the Iran, North Korea, and Syria Nonproliferation Reform and Modernization Act, which updates already-existing legislation to further penalise those providing weapons, mining equipment or technological support to Syria.

Opposition leaders in the Syrian National Council have welcomed the sanctions as a means to cut off the government's ability to maintain its massive security apparatus, but many observers have decried the sanctions for the damage they do to the Syrian people.

While the Economist estimates the direct effect of international sanctions to top 400 million dollars per month, sanctions have also played havoc with the Syrian economy itself, with skyrocketing prices for basic foodstuffs and a rapid devaluation of the Syrian pound.

Meanwhile, despite significant trade reductions from most of its neighbours, the Syrian state still enjoys robust economic relationships with Iraq, Lebanon, and Iran, as well as Russia and China, which have been largely unwilling to condemn the regime's violent crackdown. As a result, the true effect of international sanctions and their ability to dry up the Syrian state's coffers remain to be seen.

In addition to its existing sanctions policies, Washington has been steadily increasing its support for the opposition movement, while further condemning and restricting the Syrian government.

In the past week alone, the Barack Obama administration announced the return of Ambassador Robert Ford to Syria, and Secretary of State Hillary Clinton held direct meetings with elements of the Syrian opposition for the first time.

Clinton referred to the SNC as the "leading and legitimate representative of Syrians seeking a peaceful, democratic transition" and accused the regime of fanning sectarian violence.

Despite growing support, U.S. officials continue to express some doubt over the Syrian National Council's actual legitimacy and representation, questioning its efficacy in controlling events on the ground, and expressing concern over the apparently disproportionate representation of Islamist-affiliated members.

A recent report on Syria by the International Crisis Group considers many of the myriad intricacies that have come to define the Syrian uprising, from the caution of Syria's minority communities to the increasing entanglement of the Syrian opposition with regional and international actors, and the concomitant increase in violence that has resulted from it.

While acknowledging that the Syrian regime may well be on its last legs, it warns about the "increasing internationalization" of the conflict, which "may be impossible to stop" but almost certainly "would both distract from the protest movement's goals and diminish its chances for success".

The report details the significant interests of the U.S., Israel, Lebanon, Iran, Saudi Arabia and Turkey in seeking to shape Syria's future foreign policy and demographic dynamics.

The acceptance of an international role in ending the conflict – once considered taboo by the overwhelming majority of Syrian protestors – is beginning to find greater acceptance in SNC circles.

In an interview with the Lebanese newspaper Al-Mustaqbal, SNC President Burhan Ghalyoun also refused to explicitly state his position on foreign military intervention, a sharp about-face from his earlier pronouncements about the unacceptability of a Libya-like scenario in Syria under any circumstances.

Perhaps most notably, Ghalyoun recently declared that the SNC would formally sever ties with Iran and cut all funding and support for Hizballah and Hamas, partly in response to Hizballah's ostensible support for the Assad government, but likely also as a nod to Western observers who are keen to see such ties cut.

Ghalyoun also recently stated the SNC's commitment to the restoration of Syrian's occupied Golan Heights through "diplomatic means", by leveraging Syria's "special relationship with the Europeans and Western powers".

Many suspect that Ghalyoun's comments on these issues are primarily directed toward assuring the international community of the Syrian opposition's willingness to act in accordance with Western expectations.

Responding to Ghalyoun's statement, Bassam Haddad, director of the Middle East Studies Program at George Mason University, asked, "Why should the strategies of a potentially democratic Syrian government be announced before the appropriate conditions for such a representative leadership are met?"

The Crisis Group report also warns of increased militarisation in the hands of the Syrian opposition, which has swiftly escalated from largely non-violent resistance to armed attacks and coordinated military manoeuvres in a manner of weeks.

Last week, defected military units known as the Free Syrian Army attacked an intelligence compound outside of Damascus, and armed opposition members appear to have gained footholds in parts of Idlib, Hama, and Homs.

Though members of the Syrian National Council have been quick to reassure international observers that the Free Syrian Army is reliable, coordinated, and responsible, the FSA remains shadowed in unknowns.

As the report explains, "the Free Syrian Army itself is more a wild card than a known entity," and posits that the group may grow to mimic the deadly Syrian state from which it was born, warning that "the Free Army's posting of forced confessions by captured security officers – who, in at least one instance, showed obvious signs of torture – stands as a first, cautionary tale."

In addition to the increasing importance of the Free Syrian Army, violence has scarred Syria in other, more localised ways. Several cities have witnessed widening spirals of violence, retribution, kidnappings and even beheadings, often by regime loyalists but increasingly at the hands of opposition members as well.

In spite of the regime's recent overtures for the entry of external observers and for dialogue with the opposition, violence at the hands of Syrian security forces continues to escalate, claiming the lives of over 100 protestors this week alone, and all signs point to the continuation of the conflict for some time to come.

In a surprising interview with ABC's Barbara Walters, Syrian President Bashar Al-Assad appeared to take no responsibility for the 4,000 lives claimed by the Syrian uprising. In discussing the government's response to the protests, Assad claimed that "No government in the world kills its people, unless it's led by crazy person."

Though different actors will interpret those words in different ways, none of them bode well for the coming months in Syria.

Samer Araabi is a contributor to Inter Press Service and Right Web.

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