The Syrian uprising, it is crucial to remember, began as a nonviolent protest by young men over corruption in the Syrian town of Dara’a, for which they were brutally tortured. It stayed remarkably nonviolent, nonsectarian for months, under the slogan “Silmiya, Silmiya.” (Or Peaceful, Peaceful.) It was deliberately turned into a civil war by Assad. Syrian opposition activists here in Beirut make clear that Assad opened fire on unarmed demonstrators, hoping to provoke a violent backlash. Then he could argue that this was not a peaceful democratic revolt but a sectarian revolt by Syria’s Sunni Muslim majority, aimed at ousting Assad’s ruling Alawite/Shiite minority and its allies. To some degree, it worked: Now we have a democratic struggle intertwined with a sectarian one.
This is why some Lebanese and Syrian activists here believe that — though it’s a long shot — it is still worth giving time for the U.N. envoy Kofi Annan’s effort to consolidate a cease-fire and put 300 Arab observers inside Syria, because it might create the space for the nonviolent, nonsectarian, democratic protests to re-emerge. These are the real threat to the regime. It may take longer, but remember: The bloodier and more sectarian the fight to depose Assad gets, the more deformed, violent and Islamist-dominated the post-Assad regime will likely be — and the more the civil war there will spread to Lebanon, Turkey, Jordan or Iraq. That is why just arming the Syrian opposition and standing back is a bad idea.