When the Syrian regime intensified its crackdown against the opposition movement using live ammunition, tanks, and even attack helicopters, it was perhaps inevitable that at some point someone would start shooting back.
Now there are increasing reports of armed resistance to Syrian soldiers and security forces, most recently in the northwestern town of Jisr al-Shughur, where the regime claims 120 of its personnel were killed over the weekend.
The violence in Jisr al-Shughur has intensified the debate over who is resisting – whether Syria’s uprising has turned into an insurrection, or whether the regime’s own forces have turned on each other. In either case, Syria appears to have moved into a new phase in the conflict between the 40-year Assad regime and anti-government forces.
The regime pins the blame on “armed criminal gangs” and Islamic extremists, awakening within Syria’s sectarian and multiethnic society specters of violence perpetrated by the Islamist Muslim Brotherhood three decades ago. Lending some support to the claim is the huge spike in arms trafficking to Syria in recent weeks.
The opposition protesters insist the movement remains peaceful, however. Any clashes occurring, they say, are between troops loyal to the regime and conscripted soldiers who have mutinied in sympathy with the protesters.
“We know that some military personnel have joined with the citizens and are staying with them in their houses because they refused to shoot the people,” says a Beirut-based Syrian activist with the Local Coordination Committees, an opposition clearing house for information from Syria. Speaking on condition of anonymity for security reasons, she added that the opposition has amassed numerous eyewitness accounts of soldiers being shot by security forces for disobeying orders to open fire on protesters.
On Tuesday night, for example, three Syrian soldiers were shot and wounded when they defected and attempted to cross the Kabir river which marks Lebanon’s northern border with Syria, according to local Lebanese residents. A fourth man, a Lebanese diesel fuel smuggler, was shot dead in the same incident and his body was later recovered from the river bed.
Regime warns of retaliation
With foreign reporters banned from the country, divining the truth of the accusations and counter-allegations is almost impossible. But both the regime and the opposition appear to agree that the clashes in Jisr al-Shughur was a significant confrontation in the two-month uprising.
According to the Syrian authorities, hundreds of militants armed with machine guns and rocket-propelled grenades ambushed security forces and attacked government buildings, blowing up a police station with gas cylinder bombs and throwing the bodies of their victims into the Orontes river which flows through the town.
Syrian Interior Minister Mohammed al-Shaar warned that the state would act “firmly and decisively” and “would not stay arms folded in the face of armed attacks.”
Reports of armored columns heading toward Jisr al-Shughur have sparked an exodus by several thousand panicked residents who fled across the border with Turkey 12 miles to the west.
“This is the latest sign that this is going to get much much worse,” says Andrew Tabler, a Syria specialist at the Washington Institute. “Because the regime continues to increase its repression against the protesters, it is inevitable that the levels of violence are going to go up.”
The opposition maintains that the clash was between loyalist troops and deserting soldiers.
Eerie echoes of violence in Jisr al-Shughur
Jisr al-Shughur is a conservative Sunni populated town with a history of rebellion against the regime. In March 1980, an anti-regime demonstration turned deadly when protesters burned down the headquarters of the ruling Baath Party and raided a nearby army barracks, stealing weapons and ammunition.
Syrian special forces were deployed to Jisr al-Shughur which they retook after pounding the town with rockets and mortars, destroying homes and shops and killing and wounding dozens of people. A military tribunal established the next day led to the executions of more than 100 detainees. In all 150 to 200 residents of Jisr al-Shughur died in the crackdown.
The latest bloodshed in Jisr al-Shughur, as described in the version offered by the Syrian authorities, has an eerie echo of the violence perpetrated 31 years ago and sounds an ominous portent of what might follow in the coming days as the Syrian army prepares to launch an offensive against the town.
Wild card: Militants
Still, other than army deserters and angry protesters who may have resorted to arms, there are other more militant-minded individuals in Syria who may take advantage of the security chaos to mount armed resistance against a nominally secular regime dominated by the minority Alawite community, an obscure offshoot of Shiite Islam.
Some Syrian Sunnis gained experience in guerrilla warfare fighting against coalition forces in Iraq from 2003. The former administration of President George W. Bush repeatedly accused Damascus of facilitating the movement of militant jihadis into Iraq. The cross-border infiltrations appear to have ended some time ago. But analysts have raised the possibility of the Syrian authorities suffering a blowback from jihadis newly returned from Iraq or homegrown militants looking for new targets now that the insurgency in Iraq is over.
Syria has experienced several attacks from suspected Islamic militants in recent years, most notably in September 2008 when 17 people were killed in a car bomb explosion beside a building housing one of Syria’s intelligence services.
Surge in black-market weapons sales
A key indicator pointing to the emergence of an armed struggle in Syria is the recent surge in black market weapons sales in neighboring Lebanon, unprecedented even in the recent history of this troubled land.
“I’m having trouble finding weapons to buy and sell, especially quality Russian Kalashnikovs. The demand is huge,” says Abu Rida, an arms dealer who operates from a small garage in southern Beirut.
Before the uprising in Syria began in mid-March, a top quality Russian AK-47 assault rifle, known in the local trade as a “Circle 11” from the stamp on the metalwork, fetched around $1,200. Today, the price has soared to nearly $2,000. A rocket-propelled grenade launcher, beloved of insurgents in the Middle East, has risen from $900 in early March to $1,000 while individual rounds have risen by 50 percent to $150 each.
Dealers like Abu Rida sell to Lebanese middlemen who smuggle the weapons across the border to Syrian clients.
“They’re all going to Syria. Very little is local trade. They send them across the border in the north,” he said, referring to the Sunni-populated Akkar district of northern Lebanon.
It may not be coincidental, therefore, that the main centers of unrest in the past 12 weeks are towns and cities mainly populated by Sunnis lying close to the country’s porous borders where smuggling has been a way of life for generations – Deraa near Jordan, where the uprising began, Tel Kalakh, Homs, Talbisa and Rastan near Lebanon, and now Jisr al-Shughur near Turkey.