The unrest could balloon into a regional disaster. Damascus’ web of allegiances extends to Lebanon’s powerful Hezbollah movement and Iran’s Shiite theocracy. And although Syria sees Israel as the enemy, the countries have held up a fragile truce for years.
Assad already has warned the region will burn if there is any foreign intervention in his country. On Friday, Hezbollah leader Sheikh Hassan Nasrallah backed up Assad and his allies in Iran, saying any war in either country would take down the Middle East.
Dozens of protesters outside the Arab League headquarters had rallied for the decision, carrying placards reading “Freedom for the Syrian people” and “Arab leaders are garbage” as they chanted for Assad’s removal. They were joined by demonstrators from Yemen, protesting violent government crackdowns in their country
Even as the violence continues, the opposition has faced infighting and divisions that have prevented it from gaining the traction it needs to present a credible alternative to the regime.
The Arab League called on all factions to meet later this week to unify their message as a step toward dialogue with the Syrian government, and bin Jassim said the organization would discuss the possibility of recognizing the Syrian National Council as the official voice for the movement.
The U.N. estimates some 3,500 people have been killed in the Syrian crackdown since the uprising began eight months ago, inspired by the revolutions in Egypt and Tunisia.
The bloodshed has spiked dramatically in recent weeks amid signs that more protesters are taking up arms to protect themselves, changing the face of what has been a largely peaceful movement. Many fear the change plays directly into the hands of the regime by giving the military a pretext to crack down with increasing force.
Although the crackdown has led to broad international isolation, Assad appears to have a firm grip on power.
Assad, and his father who ruled Syria before him, stacked key security and military posts with members of their minority Alawite sect over the past 40 years, ensuring loyalty by melding the fate of the army and the regime. As a result, the army leadership will likely protect the regime at all costs, for fear it will be persecuted if the country’s Sunni majority gains the upper hand. Most of the army defectors so far appear to be lower-level Sunni conscripts.
Syria blames the bloodshed on “armed gangs” and extremists acting out a foreign agenda to destabilize the regime.
The government has largely sealed off the country from foreign journalists and prevented independent reporting, making it difficult to confirm events on the ground.
Key sources of information are amateur videos posted online and details gathered by witnesses and activist groups who then contact the media, often at great personal risk.
Associated Press writer Aya Batrawy contributed to this report.