From army defectors to militant gangs, violent anti-government opposition has emerged in Syria, signalling that a civil war may be on its way. Regional governments are urging caution as the revolt against the Damascus regime grows more violent, worried that bloodshed could spoil gains made in the so-called "Arab Spring."
Yet as Syria's neighbors discourage violence against President Bashar al-Assad's regime, experts say world powers like the United States could still be doing more to encourage a peaceful civil solution.
"It's fine to say to an opposition, 'Keep it peaceful.' But if you don't do anything to help empower them, it's a bit like Charlie Wilson's war, where he says our strategy is to have Syrian opposition run into gunfire until the regime runs out of bullets," says Andrew Tabler, a fellow at the Washington Institute for Near East Policy and author of In the Lion's Den: An Eyewitness Account of Washington's Battle with Syria. "The sentiments are right, but you have to be able to help them carry these things out."
According to the United Nations, Assad's government has killed more than 3,500 protesters since the popular uprisings started in the spring of this year. Some governments have slapped harsh sanctions against the Assad regime. The United States and Europe, for example, have blocked the country's financial resources, and this month Europe cut off oil imports from Syria, which account for a significant portion of the country's economy. The Arab League also suspended Syria from its ranks this week, a move that further isolates Assad in the region.
Despite international condemnation, sanctions and increasingly effective attacks by army defectors on government offices, the Assad government could stay in power for months before it collapse, drawing out the violence and increasing the casualty toll.
Experts say that the United States and its allies could act now to help the opposition determine whether that collapse would come with more bloodshed—as was the case in Libya before the demise of Col. Muammar Qadhafi—or if Assad will go more peacefully.
First, the Obama administration could set up a contact group on Syria, Tabler says, in order to put more multilateral pressure on the regime and to develop a coordinated strategy for ending his regime. Also, he says, the United States could find a way to share some best practices with the Syrian protesters in order to make their efforts more effective against the regime. Besides the ongoing public protests, he says the anti-Assad civil society in Syria could organize sit-ins, general strikes, and boycotts to expand their political power.
Americans could also serve as a liaison between the Syrian people and people in other nations who have led successful, peaceful revolutionary movements in the past. According to Tabler, such tactics could build up the pressure from below, causing Assad's supporters at the top to abandon him.
"There are lots of different ways that you can use civil resistance strategies against the regime to weaken it, and that can help cause key constituencies to crack off," Tabler says. "There's actually a science—well, an art—to this that was used in the Balkans and also in Egypt to an extent."
He argues that the United States should have pursued these types of strategies much earlier before the Syrian people began to take up arms.
The United States also has a role to play in helping civilians to publicize the state-sponsored repression in Syria, says Stephen Grand, an expert on U.S.-Islamic world relations at the Brookings Institution, a Washington-based think tank.
Assad's government has forbidden foreign press within Syria's borders, leaving the rest of the world to rely on reports from human rights groups in the country. Grand says that real-time, visual images, like the ones shown from Tahrir Square in Egypt, or later in the Libyan conflict, could up the level of global scrutiny toward the regime, especially from countries like Russia and China, which have been reluctant to call for his ouster.