Activists shake their heads in dismay at their weakening control of the street; imams preaching non-violence may be the last barrier holding back a surge to arms. “Many people are just waiting to be told they can fight back,” says a young professional from Homs. Many protesters now chant slogans celebrating defectors rather than the divided political opposition. A minority of groups have started openly to advocate armed struggle and are ready for the situation to disintegrate into open warfare, “The people want Jihad” is a new slogan being discussed.
The majority fighting on the opposition side are defectors calling themselves the Free Syrian Army. Their leaders claim to command up to 15,000 men, though outsiders believe there may be no more than 7,000. Most fight in autonomous groups. Activists say frustrated civilians are increasingly joining in. Most of them have only basic military training. This has resulted in mishaps: having procured two rockets to target a police station, a group fired one over its roof and the second into a tree.
In the breezy hilltop resort of Zabadani that is usually occupied by rich Syrians in second homes and Gulf tourists enjoying the picturesque mountains on the Lebanese border for much of January, the town of some 40,000 people has been a rebel enclave. After several days of fighting by daring but lightly armed opposition forces, the army, equipped with tanks and heavy weaponry, was forced to pull back on January 18th. Residents hailed their “liberated city” and hung pictures of the dead in a tree. They waved placards and shouted slogans ridiculing the regime. Civilians guarded checkpoints usually manned by the security forces.
Zabadani is not the first place in Syria to experience a brief taste of freedom over the past ten months. Last year Mr. Assad’s forces temporarily lost control to the opposition in Hama, the country’s fourth-largest city. Rastan and Tel Kalakh, two small towns close to Homs, have at times barricaded themselves in. Parts of Homs, the third-largest city, and villages near Idleb have also enjoyed a measure of autonomy. The fight for control of the country is no longer taking place far from the center of power. Just days after Zabadani was liberated, armed clashes erupted in Douma, a suburb six miles from Damascus. Army defectors seized control of the town for a few hours.
Unlike the Government forces, the rebels are poorly armed. Until now, they have been relying on equipment from rogue regime soldiers. But arms dealers and smugglers are seeing a sharp increase in demand. “A gun that cost $800 a year ago now costs $3,000,” says a volunteer fighter in Homs. Still, army defectors and civilian volunteers are becoming increasingly audacious. They have repeatedly picked off government snipers and security chiefs at checkpoints. The regime says it has lost 2,000 men so far. The UN talks of more than 5,000 dead civilians. The Syria uprising has passed the tipping point where things can return to the way they were, Assad must go. It is only a matter of time before huge amounts of blood are spilled and the regime is brought down by an internal cancer or the people's resolve, that is the only solution.