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Syria’s stalemate hardens as fear of civil war grows

Spreading conflict spilling into spots once seen as calm

BEIRUT - The failure of an Arab League mission to stanch violence in Syria, an international community with little leverage, and a government that is as defiant as its opposition is in disarray have thrust Syria into what increasingly looks like a protracted, chaotic, and perhaps unnegotiable conflict.

The opposition itself speaks less of prospects for the fall of President Bashar Assad and more about a civil war that some argue has already begun, with the government losing control over some regions and its authority ebbing in the suburbs of the capital and parts of major cities like Homs and Hama. Even the capital, Damascus, which had remained calm for months, has been carved up with checkpoints, and its residents have been frightened by sounds of gunfire.

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The deepening stalemate suggests that events may be slipping out of control. In a town about a half-hour’s drive from Damascus, the police station was recently burned down and, in retaliation, electricity and water were cut off, diplomats say. For a time, residents drew water in buckets from a well. Some people are too afraid to drive major highways at night. In Homs - a city that a Lebanese politician called “the Stalingrad of the Syrian revolution’’ - reports have grown of sectarian cleansing of once-mixed neighborhoods, where some roads have become borders too dangerous for taxis to cross.

In a suggestion that seemed to underline the sense of desperation, the emir of Qatar said in an interview with CBS, an excerpt of which was released yesterday, that Arab troops should intervene in Syria to “stop the killing.’’

“There’s absolutely no sign of light,’’ said a Western diplomat in Damascus, a city once so calm it was called Syria’s Green Zone. “If anything, it’s darker than ever. And I don’t know where it’s going to end. I can’t tell you. I don’t think anyone can.’’

The forbidding tableau painted by diplomats, residents, opposition figures, and even some government supporters suggests a far more complicated portrait than that offered by Assad, who delivered a 15,000-word speech on Tuesday, declaring, “We will defeat this conspiracy without any doubt.’’ The next day, he appeared in public for the first time since the uprising began in a Syrian backwater last March.

More telling, perhaps, was the arrival of a Russian ship last week, said to be carrying ammunition and seeming to signal the determination of the government to fight to the end.

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“Day by day, Syrians are closer to fighting each other,’’ said a 30-year-old activist in Arabeen, near the capital, who gave his name as Abdel-Rahman and joined a protest of about 1,000 people there on Friday. “Bashar has divided Syrians into two groups - one with him, one against him - and the coming days will bring more blood into the streets.’’

In the other Arab revolts, diplomacy and, in Libya’s case, armed intervention proved crucial in the unfolding of events. Even Bahrain had an international commission whose report on the uprising there was viewed by the United States and some parties in that gulf state as a basis for reform. Syria has emerged as the country where the stalemate inside is mirrored by deadlock abroad.

Syria still counts on the support of Russia and China in the UN Security Council. In the Arab world, Syria has allies in Iraq and Algeria, whose foreign minister said Wednesday that Syria “is in the process of making more of an effort.’’

Another diplomat in Damascus was fatalistic. “There’s not much more that anyone, at the international level, can do,’’ he said. “There’s not much more the Arab League can, either.’’

Syria’s agreement last month to allow 165 observers from the Arab League to monitor a deal that seemed stillborn even when it was announced - a government pledge to end violence, free prisoners, and pull the military from cities - was viewed as one of the last diplomatic tools.

But last week, one of the monitors, an Algerian named Anwar Malek, resigned, saying the mission had only given Assad cover to continue the crackdown. Opposition activists say hundreds have died since the monitors arrived. “Bashar was looking for a shield, and he found it with us,’’ Malek said in an interview. “The mission has failed until now. It hasn’t achieved anything.’’

He said other monitors were also quitting.

The mission’s leader, Lieutenant General Mohammed Ahmed al-Dabi, who once ran Sudan’s notorious military intelligence agency, attacked Malek, saying he stayed in his hotel room rather than doing his job. But Nabil Elaraby, the Arab League’s secretary general, acknowledged where Syria might be headed, with or without the monitors.

“Yes, I fear a civil war, and the events that we see and hear about now could lead to a civil war,’’ he said in an interview with an Egyptian television station.

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