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Syrian dissidents warn of slide into total civil war

THE Syrian opposition is pessimistic about the chances that Arab League monitors visiting the country can halt President Bashar al-Assad's nine-month crackdown on anti-government protests, activists said yesterday.

There is little faith in the ability of the small observer team from fellow Arab states to bring about a withdrawal of armed forces from Syria's most turbulent cities and open the way to a peaceful dialogue leading to change, they said.

Some activists fear that the country may slip into outright civil war if the Arab mission fails. An opposition leader in exile predicted that the UN would have to step in.

"We don't know what to do. But we know Assad and his regime won't give us what we want," said opposition activist 'Ziad' in Douma, a suburb of Damascus that has become a focal point of the revolt.

He added: "Assad wants us to raise our weapons and kill each other and he is pushing us towards that every day. We wanted the monitors to help us find a solution, but it won't happen."

The Arab League mission is destined to fail, said the Paris-based head of the opposition Syrian National Council, Burhan Ghalioun.

"If the regime fails to meet the commitments it has made, there is no other solution except going to the (UN) Security Council," he told Al Jazeera television.

"As you saw, the regime is still using snipers and is still using shabeeha (thugs) and is still preventing people from protesting in public places," said Mr Ghalioun.

Despite the presence of monitors, which appeared to act as a deterrent on the army in some places, the British-based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights, an opposition activist network which documents the violence, said 27 civilians were killed by security forces on Friday.

It said five members of the security forces were shot dead in a clash in the flashpoint city of Homs, where members of the Free Syrian Army made up of army defectors have established no-go zones to protect opposition districts.

Some Syrians fear that unless Mr Assad agrees to peaceful change, continuing violence will ignite a sectarian war between the majority Sunni Muslims -- who support the revolt -- and minorities, including Mr Assad's Alawite Muslim sect, who want no change of regime.

Mr Assad (46) has signed up to an Arab League plan for a verifiable withdrawal of his troops and heavy weaponry from towns and cities, where they have been trying to crush protests that have raged since March.

Hundreds of thousands poured into the streets of the country's cities on Friday to display their determination and in the hope that the presence of monitors would deter the army from using live ammunition.

However, the state news agency SANA also reported at length on "massive demonstrations" throughout the country on Friday in support of Mr Assad, and against "the plot to which Syria is exposed".

The Arab League mission, which began last Monday, has energised the protesters but has provoked scepticism in western countries.

Amateur video showed teams of monitors in white baseball caps and yellow safety vests being mobbed and harangued in dense crowds of excited protesters. Some rushed at the observers, trying to shout over the thousands chanting: "The people want to liberate the country!"

The UN estimates that more than 5,000 people have been killed across Syria since March. Most were shot during peaceful anti-government protests but many others were killed in rebel attacks and local defence actions.

In parts of Hama, a city with a history of revolt and savage repression, videos showed protesters fleeing the main streets on Friday as heavy gunfire erupted.

The Arab League mission has met with strong scepticism from the outset over its make-up, its lack of numbers and its reliance on government transport.

The UN said it was critical that the team's "independence and impartiality be fully preserved". Spokesman Martin Nesirky urged the Arab League to "take all steps possible to ensure that its observer mission will be able to fulfil its mandate in accordance with international human rights law standards".

He said the UN was willing to give the observers training on human-rights monitoring.

The commander of the Free Syrian Army said on Friday that he had ordered his fighters to stop offensive operations while the FSA tried to arrange a meeting with the monitors.

But in a newspaper interview yesterday, he said if the Arab mission was "not professional, then we will resume our defence operations".

Sunday Independent