"Selmiyyeh, selmiyyeh" -- "peaceful, peaceful" -- was one of the Tunisian revolution's most contagious slogans. It was chanted in Egypt, where in some remarkable cases protesters defused state violence simply by telling policemen to calm down and not be scared. In both countries, largely nonviolent demonstrations and strikes succeeded in splitting the military high command from the ruling family and its cronies, and civil war was avoided. In both countries, state institutions proved themselves stronger than the regimes that had hijacked them. Although protesters unashamedly fought back (with rocks, not guns) when attacked, the success of their largely peaceful mass movements seemed an Arab vindication of Gandhian nonviolent resistance strategies. But then came the much more difficult uprisings in Bahrain, Libya, and Syria.
Even after at least 1,300 deaths and more than 10,000 detentions, according to human rights groups, "selmiyyeh" still resounds on Syrian streets. It's obvious why protest organizers want to keep it that way. Controlling the big guns and fielding the best-trained fighters, the regime would emerge victorious from any pitched battle. Oppositional violence, moreover, would alienate those constituencies the uprising is working so hard to win over: the upper-middle class, religious minorities, the stability-firsters. It would push the uprising off the moral high ground and thereby relieve international pressure against the regime. It would also serve regime propaganda, which against all evidence portrays the unarmed protesters as highly organized groups of armed infiltrators and Salafi terrorists.
The regime is exaggerating the numbers, but soldiers are undoubtedly being killed. Firm evidence is lost in the fog, but there are reliable and consistent reports, backed by YouTube videos, of mutinous soldiers being shot by security forces. Defecting soldiers have reported mukhabarat lined up behind them as they fire on civilians, watching for any soldier's disobedience. A tank battle and aerial bombardment were reported after a small-scale mutiny in the Homs region. Tensions within the military are expanding.
And a small minority of protesters does now seem to be taking up arms. Syrians -- regime supporters and the apolitical as much as anyone else -- have been furiously buying smuggled weapons since the crisis began. Last week for the first time, anti-regime activists reported that people in Rastan and Talbiseh were meeting tanks with rocket-propelled grenades. Some of the conflicting reports from Jisr al-Shaghour, the besieged town near the northwestern border with Turkey, describe a gun battle between townsmen and the army. And a mukhabarat man was lynched by a grieving crowd in Hama.
The turn toward violence is inadvisable but perhaps inevitable. When residential areas are subjected to military attack, when children are tortured to death, when young men are randomly rounded up and beaten, electrocuted, and humiliated, some Syrians will seek to defend themselves. Violence has its own momentum, and Syria appears to be slipping toward war.
There are two potential civil-war scenarios. The first begins with Turkish intervention. Since Syrian independence in 1946, tensions have bubbled over into Turkey's Hatay province, known to Syrians as Wilayat Iskenderoon, the Arab region unjustly gifted to Kemal Ataturk by the French. War almost broke out in 1998 over Syria's hosting of Kurdish separatist leader Abdullah Ocalan, who now sits in a Turkish prison. Yet since the ascension of Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan's Justice and Development Party (AKP) in Turkey and Bashar al-Assad's inheritance of the Syrian presidency, relations have dramatically improved. Turkey invested enormous financial and political capital in Syria, establishing a Levantine free trade zone and distancing itself from Israel.