BEIRUT — Once-peaceful Syrian protesters are increasingly taking up arms to fight a six-month military crackdown, frustrated that President Bashar Assad remains in control while more than 2,700 demonstrators are dead, analysts and witnesses say.
The growing signs of armed resistance may accelerate the cycle of violence gripping the country by giving the government a pretext to use even greater firepower against its opponents.
Authorities already have used tanks, snipers and mafialike gunmen known as "shabiha" who operate as hired guns for the regime.
"If peaceful activism on the part of the protesters turns into violent insurgency, the risk of civil war will dramatically increase and the regime will benefit and likely go for the kill," said Bilal Saab, a Middle East analyst at the Monterey Institute of International Studies in California, to the Associated Press.
The degree to which Syrian protesters are arming themselves is difficult to quantify because Syria has blocked nearly all outside witnesses to the bloodshed by banning foreign media and restricting local coverage.
The state media echo the party line, which states that the regime is fighting thugs and religious extremists who are acting out a foreign conspiracy.
But interviews with a wide group of witnesses, activists and analysts suggest the conflict is becoming more violent.
Led by defecting army conscripts and Syrians with access to weapons smuggled in through neighboring Iraq, Turkey and Lebanon, protesters have begun taking up arms to fight back, observers say.
They are being aided by Sunni fighters returning from Iraq to their native Syria.
"Now these Syrian insurgents are returning to their country to help topple the Assad regime," said Qassim al-Araji, a Shiite member of the Iraqi parliament's defense and security committee. "We are happy to see these fighters leaving Iraq, saving us from their evils, but at the same time, we do not want major disturbances in neighboring Syria."
A widespread armed revolt would be a potentially dire change in the protest movement, which for strategic reasons has remained mostly peaceful with an eye toward gaining a moral advantage over Mr. Assad. In many ways, the movement was modeled after the nonviolent revolutions in Tunisia and Egypt.
But with the U.N. estimating more than 2,700 civilian deaths since the uprising began in mid-March, many protesters are starting to see the limits of a peaceful movement, particularly when compared to the armed uprising in Libya that drove Moammar Gadhafi from power - albeit with NATO air support.
Although the mass demonstrations in Syria have shaken one of the most authoritarian regimes in the Middle East, the opposition has made no major gains in recent months. It holds no territory and still has no clear leadership.
"The regime is killing the people, and some residents are thinking that peaceful demonstrations will take them nowhere, even in 10 years from now," said a prominent Syrian activist who asked that his name and location not be published because of the sensitivity of the issue. "Gunmen and army defectors are fighting side by side against regime forces."
He and other activists said the armed resistance is strongest on the outskirts of Homs, a central city that has seen some of the largest demonstrations, and Jabal al-Zawiya in Idlib province near the Turkish border.
There also have been increasing reports of attacks on security forces and police patrols. Mohammed Saleh, an opposition figure in Homs, said he saw a police car riddled with bullets and a burned-out security bus in the city last week.
Mr. Saleh also said gunmen attacked an army force last week, destroying six armored personnel carriers in Homs.
Another Homs activist, Majd Saleh, confirmed clashes between Syrian troops and army defectors.
"The opposition to the government is gradually transforming into more of an armed resistance," said Vali Nasr, a Middle East expert and former Obama administration official in the State Department.
"The brutality of the regime has become enormous, and there is increasing pressure on people to defend their families and their villages. They clearly have won a moral argument against the government, but physically it doesn't protect them."
There is no central call to arms by the opposition, in part because there is no clear leadership in the movement. The Syrian opposition is disparate and fragmented, with various parties vying for power as they see an end to more than 40 years of iron rule by Mr. Assad and his late father, Hafez.
Still, recent weeks have seen a subtle change in tone. Some Syrians are calling on protesters to take up arms and inviting foreign military action, hoisting signs that say, "Where is NATO?" and urging the world to come to Syria's aid.The U.N. human rights office says the regime has started retaliating against protesters' families to snuff out the uprising, a fearsome new tactic that could be having a chilling effect on the revolution.
"Prominent human rights defenders, inside and outside the country, are reported to have been targeted," U.N. human rights office spokeswoman Ravina Shamdasani said in Geneva on Friday. "We are also concerned by reports of the targeting and attacking of families and sympathizers of the protesters by security forces."
There is little sign of the violence ending anytime soon. International intervention, like the NATO action that helped topple Col. Gadhafi, is all but out of the question. Washington and its allies have shown little appetite for intervening in yet another Arab nation in turmoil.
International sanctions, some of which target Mr. Assad personally, have failed to persuade him to ease his crackdown. There had been hopes, since dashed, that European Union sanctions would prove a humiliating personal blow to Mr. Assad, a 46-year-old eye doctor who trained in Britain.