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Syria: Peace hopes fade as residents turn to violence to defend their homes

Six months ago, Abu Sultan was a mechanic, earning his simple living and raising his two young children in the small Syrian town of Zabadani.

imageBut now he lives in the hills as part of a group of armed rebels, ordinary citizens who have decided that violence is the best way to resist the security services of the Bashar al-Assad regime.

“I am not a criminal,” he told The Daily Telegraph, surrounded by fellow fighters hiding in a remote farmhouse. “The West isn’t helping us so we have no choice. What would you do?

“I need to protect my family, my home and my land. I’m not just going to sit in my house and wait to be killed.”

The majority of protesters against the president and his government remain committed to peaceful means, but over the past few weeks there has been a discernible shift to armed resistance.

Hundreds, perhaps thousands, of soldiers, mostly poorly paid conscripts, have deserted the Syrian army rather than fire on their compatriots and formed armed rebel platoons.

The city of Rastan last week endured five days of sustained fighting between the security services and bands of defectors. Forces loyal to Mr Assad only asserted their control over the weekend after using helicopter gunships.

Syrian troops were yesterday reportedly continuing house-to-house arrests that have detained more than 3,000 people in three days.

Meanwhile, sporadic gunfire reportedly continued yesterday in Homs, which is now the centre of resistance, where some neighbourhoods remain under opposition control.

In a sign that a bloody civil war could develop throughout the country, the northern city has seen a series of assassinations in the past 10 days of those judged to be regime informers. A Free Syria Army has been formed across the border in Turkey, uniting three groups of army defectors, while civilian opposition groups of all stripes have joined hands to launch the Syrian National Council.

Speaking at the council’s launch in Istanbul, Bourhan Ghalioun, a prominent Paris-based opposition figure, said: “This regime has completely lost the world’s trust.

“The world is waiting for a united Syrian opposition that can provide the alternative to this regime, so that they can recognise it.”

In its mission statement, the SNC declared its commitment to non-violence, but there has been a small armed element in the resistance from the beginning, which now appears to be growing.

In Zabadani, just 30 miles from the capital Damascus, patience for peaceful protest has expired after an estimated 2,700 civilians have died since Syrians first joined the uprisings of the Arab Spring.

Mohammad Ali, who like Abu Sultan chose not to give his real name, was until this year an architecture student at the University of Damascus.

“We don’t want a war – Assad is the one who has started this,” he said.

“They are coming into people’s houses and raping our sisters and daughters. If anyone comes near my family, I would not hesitate to pull the pin on this grenade.

“Thousands of people have died here and still we wait for help. It seems that Syrian blood is cheap,” he added, expressing the group’s dismay at the international community’s failure to intervene.

Yesterday at the United Nations, Russia declared that it would not support a European-drafted resolution on Syria that carried the threat of sanctions at a later date. But even if the motion is passed, rebels and exiled activists still accuse the West of double standards by helping Libya’s resistance but not Syria’s.

Asked how they expected to defend themselves against the Syrian military, Mr Ali answered: “Whatever happens, we fight. Our problem is not so much with the army, it’s with the security services.

“The soldiers are men like us and are forced to fight. They always enter a town first with military or political security behind them, and if they refuse to shoot, they are shot themselves.”

This band of rebels was holding basic and dated weaponry – 20-year-old Russian-made machineguns and other light arms stolen from the military or provided by defecting soldiers. Some in the group hinted that more sophisticated weaponry was on its way from neighbouring Lebanon, including M16s and rocket launchers.

It may or may not have been fighting talk, but there could be no doubting their determination. Faris, a farmer before the uprising, was the oldest in the group and had more experience of government brutality. “You can’t start something like this and decide to stop,” he declared.

“I have not seen my family in months because I can’t go home in case our neighbours report me to the authorities. We are all wanted men here – ending this president’s rule is all we have.”

Filed in: World News

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