The flood of refugees out of Syria is just one aspect of a war that neither side will win in the short term. Photo by Cem Genco/ CP Photo.
As the last of the UN monitors leave Syria in despair, Toronto partisans of Syrian democracy are struggling to find their own common ground.
The morphing of the 17-month uprising from civil disobedience to civil war hasn't been easy for those favouring Egyptian- rather than Libyan-style regime change. And that's put activists on dramatically different pages when it comes to assessing the meaning and consequences of the Free Syrian Army.
On the one hand, there's Toronto lawyer Hind Kawabat, a Syrian who until the conflict prevented it divided her time between Canada and Damascus and is currently leading conflict resolution efforts in Syrian refugee camps in Turkey, Lebanon and Jordan.
Despite her background in teaching peaceful alternatives, Kawabat finds herself unreservedly supporting the armed resistance to Bashar al-Assad's government, which revved up in the spring when defecting Syrian soldiers turned their guns on the military.
"Yes, I'm against taking up arms, but you have to do it to defend yourself," says Kawabat, who is nonetheless aware of human rights reports of abuses, kidnapping and torture by the Free Syrian Army. "I support them when they defend civilians and respect the code of conduct," she emails from Turkey.
She opposes military intervention by non-Syrian forces and believes the best thing activists can do is work to reconcile the various religious and ethnic groups, including Alewites and Christians, many of whom support Assad, and the majority Sunnis.
"What we try to do now, because we know that the war is out of our hands, is to work with civil society. We are getting ready for the day after [the regime falls]. I worry about the Alewites, because they are going to pay the price for Assad; they are so poor and are in the villages," says Kawabat, who is herself Christian.
Meanwhile, Toronto-based S.L. Rahman of Together for a Free and Democratic Syria, laments that the non-violent option was frustrated by forces alien to the mass citizen uprising. (For security reasons, Rahman prefers not to give her first name or town of origin.)
The non-sectarian and multi-ethnic protests across Syria this spring, she maintains, represented the best vehicle for political change, despite the repression, and would in the end have overthrown Assad in a way that minimized damage to people, property and the country's infrastructure.
Instead, she says, armed oppositionists assisted by the Islamists, Saudis and Qataries have "hijacked" the revolution, and she worries they will take over the country and impose a government intolerant of minorities.
Despite her support for civil resistance, the former instructor in nursing and life sciences at a university in Syria admits protesters can't stay in the streets any more, in part because of unidentified snipers who started firing on government troops in the midst of peaceful demonstrations. This happened in her own town, she says.
Many in the Free Syrian Army, the loose coalition of groups leading the insurrection, are "not even Syrians," or are local unemployed youth given guns and looking for adventure, she charges.
Civilian resistance coupled with dialogue would eventually have prevailed, she insists. "If it would have taken another five years to achieve a better Syria, that would have been okay. Are we just looking to change the regime, or do we want to build a better country? The project is not to get rid of Assad and put in another authoritarian regime."
The repercussions of armed conflict also worry York U Middle East expert Saeed Rahnema, only his concerns are more geopolitical. "It will be even longer and more dangerous than the [1974-1991] Lebanese civil war. You haven't seen anything yet," he warns.
Rahnema points to the proxy players - Iran, Hezbollah and Russia supporting Assad, and Saudi Arabia, jihadists, Qatar and Turkey backing the rebels - all of whom, he says, played a major role in scuttling the efforts of UN special envoy Kofi Annan to diplomatically ease out the ruling Assad family.
"It's unfortunate that the U.S. and its allies, shortsightedly, are helping the Saudis and jihadists in their proxy war against the regime mullahs in Iran," he adds.
Diplomacy, he says, represents Syria's last chance before it plunges into a horrible, bloody civil war. "My main point is that while the brutal Assad regime should be ousted to prevent a protracted civil war, it should be done through diplomacy," he says.
But Paul Kingston, director of U of T's Centre for Critical Development Studies, doubts Assad's exit was ever in the cards, and maintains that the war will have no quick finish, given the "dynamic stalemate" between pro- and anti-Assad forces.
"Neither side is hurting, because they both have resources and elements of support. Neither is going to be able to win in the short term."