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Syria: A call to arms

With increasing numbers of anti-government Syrian protesters being killed, opposition leaders and activists are now calling on Syrians to take up arms to "protect" themselves.
Last modified: 28 Jan 2012 01:59
Syrian soldiers who defected are preparing to join an armed struggle [Reuters/Ahmed Jadallah]

Every Friday since the start of the uprising almost a year ago, Syrian activists have called for nationwide protests. And, there is always a slogan.

For the past weeks and months, protesters took to the streets demanding international intervention, a no-fly zone, a safe area ...

Their calls were not heard - or more accurately a divided international community could not agree on a tough UN resolution that would lead to such action.
 
This Friday the slogan was: "We have the right to defend ourselves". 
It was a clear message to the world that they are ready to fight this battle, "with or without your help",  activists told me.

Armed conflict approaches 
 
Omar, who is originally from Homs but who is living in exile in Istanbul told me: "This is our right ... It is our right to take up arms and we are not going to shy away from this any longer. We are being killed. We waited for any action from the Arab League and the United Nations and none was forthcoming. All they have been doing is stalling and that has given the regime time to crush the revolution." 
 
Omar explained that military councils are now being set up in governorates across Syria. It is part of efforts to organise a command structure. Councils that will be made up of civilians as well as army defectors. "Yes, civilians who want to hold weapons are joining our struggle," he said.
 
And, it seems they now have the full backing of the main political opposition, the Syrian National Council. "The SNC is now mapping who the groups are on the ground in Syria and Turkey," council spokeswoman Bassma Kodmani said, adding that the SNC is ready to give money and equipment to the fighters in Syria.
 
It is a change in policy especially since it was only this month when the SNC decided to cooperate more closely with the Free Syrian Army command to reorganise loosely-structured units fighting under its umbrella.
 
I asked Omar how they intend to wage war against a stronger and more sophisticated army. His answer was blunt: "Even if it requires us to smuggle weapons into the country we will do this. We are being killed. Whatever action we take to defend ourselves is justifiable."

Civil war feared
 
As a divided world debates on what to do next in Syria, many in the opposition seem to have already made their decision - a decision not supported by all groups who fear that taking up arms would only give the state an excuse to hit harder.
 
Haytham Manna, a leading opposition figure, is wary of militarising the conflict. He advised the Arab League to hold talks with Russia before turning to the United Nations for intervention. "Russia would stand by Assad even more staunchly if it feels sidelined," he said.
 
There are fears miltiarising the conflict would lead to Syria sliding towards civil war. 
 
"The threshold has not yet been passed to speak of an armed conflict," Beatrice Megevand-Roggo, head of International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC) operations for the Near and Middle East, said. 
 
The ICRC's legal criteria for civil war include an opposition that clearly controls territory and has a military structure with a clear chain of command. 
 
There may be many definitions for "civil war". But the actions on the ground show Syria is close to all-out war.