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Rebel violence drains support of fellow Syrians

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As the deadly attacks on the U.S. consulate in Benghazi, Libya, show, sometimes armed and violent rebels who help to oust a dictatorship can later become destabilizing forces who kill with impunity.

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Although Syria is different from Libya for numerous reasons, Syrians may be thinking about this latest turn of events as they watch the violent changes in the revolt in their own country.

The rebel bombings that hit important military and security compounds in the heart of Damascus in recent weeks have served as one more immediate sign that the Syrian government is crumbling. The Free Syrian Army, which claimed responsibility, delighted in the operation’s success.

But many local Damascenes looked on in horror. Even though a majority of middle-class Syrians don’t like the regime of Bashar Assad and are appalled by its violence, they draw a line when they see the rebels’ own appetite for guns and killing. After 18 months, the revolt has left many young urban families disillusioned and exhausted. “Revolt fatigue” has set in among those who have done well under Assad.

Millions of Syrians must plan their day around the electricity schedule: charging mobile phones and laptops, taking hot showers and watching television - all have to be mapped out in advance because of outages. The checkpoints and blast barriers in the calm areas of central Damascus and Aleppo have created traffic jams where once there were none. Traveling late at night has become too dangerous. Food is much more expensive.

Although foreigners can be outraged that people would get upset over small inconveniences, given the suffering and atrocities caused by government forces, it is striking that a “silent majority” in Damascus and Aleppo is blaming the rebels and the uprising.

At first, “Aleppo witnessed an amazing number of civil disobedience and popular movements that included unions, lawyers, doctors, engineers and university students,” said Fadi Salem, a Syrian academic based in the gulf region who visited Aleppo recently. But that support fell away when violence came with the flow of armed rebels to the city.

“The population was not ready for this,” he said. “The armed rebels are mostly not from the city itself. They don’t have organic popular support.”

The lack of local support played an important role in the government’s defeat of the rebels in parts of southern Damascus in July when insurgents promised a “Damascus volcano” that would blow the regime’s authority away. Today in Aleppo, residents are fleeing the areas where rebels have taken up positions, leaving the fighters in control of empty neighborhoods and destroyed homes. For many residents, who protested against the Assad regime peacefully in their streets and alleyways for more than a year, the revolution has been hijacked. Will the fighters welcome the residents back after Assad goes?

The city’s residents, like other Syrians, may have earlier dismissed the state propaganda claiming that “armed gangs” were responsible for the protests and trouble-making. Now as they listen to the sound of machine-gun fire and shells landing around their homes on the outskirts of Damascus and Aleppo, the government’s claims ring true.

The Free Syrian Army and the protesters are united in their primary goal - to overthrow the Assad regime. Where they differ is over the means of doing so. While rebels took up arms because they saw no alternative, the militarization of the revolt risks splitting resistance to the Syrian government.

Of course, this is what the Assad forces want: to divide the opposition and to make everyday life so difficult for Syrians that they yearn for life before March 2011, when all was calm. They have succeeded in convincing many minority communities and the nouveau-riche families of the major cities not to support the rebel movement and to sit tight.

The growing fracture between protester and rebel is important because the inevitable fall of the Assad regime will see a grab for power that could lead to a new catastrophe. Syria’s insurgent leaders — those who have risked their lives — will probably seek to lead a post-Assad government. So, too, will the traditional opposition, which includes members of the Syrian National Council and other groups based inside Syria and overseas.

On the ground, the peaceful protesters and other urban residents see how the regime has succeeded in blaming extremist Muslims for the “crisis” (it has outlawed the use of the word “revolt”) as an obvious attempt at driving a wedge between Syria’s Sunni population and the nation’s minorities. A vast majority of protesters and rebels are Sunni Muslims, but that’s largely because Sunnis make up about 75 percent of the country’s population. Minorities haven’t generally participated in the revolt, fearing ostracism in their communities. The government, controlled by Alawites, has co-opted that group, as well as leaders from other minority religions.

The yearning for peace and calm was obvious in Beirut recently where I spoke to a family of five refugees who had just fled the fighting in Aleppo.

“We want electricity, water and bread - we are not interested in politics,” said the family’s 30-year-old matriarch. “If it could happen, we would like things to go back to the way they were before the uprising. At least with Bashar we had stability.”

As the violence increases, support for this view grows. The rebels, bombing targets in Damascus and attacking Assad’s troops inside Aleppo’s historical citadel, think they are winning. In reality, they risk losing the Syrian people, and that bodes ill for everyone.

Stephen Starr is a freelance journalist who lived in Syria for five years until last February.

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