An increasing number of Syrian soldiers are quitting the army and joining up with anti-government protesters, according to reports from the central city of Homs and surrounding towns.
Now, some wonder whether the largely peaceful movement in Homs — a center of anti-government sentiment — is gearing up for a different approach.
The turning point was April 17, when protesters staged a massive sit-in in the city at a main square marked by a clock tower.
Security forces later killed scores of people. But activists in Homs vowed to continue, turning funerals into protests and taking to the streets nearly every day.
Then the army moved in, as it had in many other cities and towns around Syria.
A Soldier Takes Up Protesters' Cause
Hassan Abdelkarim al-Hamad was a second lieutenant. He couldn't believe what he saw.
"They brought in a bulldozer to take the bodies away. And after that they brought in big water trucks to wash away the blood. And just actually seeing this did something to me," he says.
At one point, Hamad's commander ordered him to fire at protesters. He said no.
The commander said Hamad would be transferred to the southern Syrian city of Daraa, and ordered three armed guards to go along.
"I knew that my time would come. I mean, what was the point of sending armed guards with me? They would kill me on the way, or if I said no, they would kill me now?" Hamad says.
So he went AWOL and eventually fled to northern Lebanon, just a half-hour drive from Homs. Now, he says he sneaks back into Homs nearly every day, doing whatever he can to protect the protesters.
He's coy about what, exactly, protecting the protesters means. He denies he's a member of the Syrian Free Army, a group of defectors that's led by a commander in hiding and publishes statements online.
Hamad says for now the protest movement should remain peaceful. Otherwise it will feed into the regime's narrative that the anti-government movement is actually an Islamist insurgency.
Warnings Of An Armed Response
At a mosque in northern Lebanon, just across the border from Syria, women from Homs clamor to get their names on the list for donations of food, bedding and clothing.
One woman from Homs sits on the side of the road and waits for a ride. She left Homs just a few days ago.
The people, she says, meaning the activists and defected soldiers, do try to protect us from the army. But their guns are not enough.
Shakib al-Jabri, a Syrian activist based in Lebanon, is in daily contact with his counterparts in Homs. He describes the defection-protection cycle.
"A few members of any given military unit defect. And immediately they get shot at. Some run, some die, others shoot back," he says.
In recent days, Jabri says, activists in Homs have warned that more than just a few defectors will take up arms and fight back, if their political leaders in the opposition don't come up with a plan to stop the killings and detentions of protesters.
But fight back with what? Some of the defecting soldiers might keep their guns, and other people might have guns at home. But these are no match for tanks and artillery.
That's why in recent days Syrian protesters, and specifically those in Homs, have called for international intervention, like in Libya — even though they know there's little appetite for this in Washington and Europe.
Resistance Will Continue
Jabri says for now the elders of Homs are persuading most activists to remain peaceful. That means they will have to stand against the tanks without weapons, or bare-chested, as Arabs say.
Jabri says that Homs is different than other Syrian cities such as Daraa and Hama that had been centers of protest, but eventually were overtaken by the army of Syrian President Bashar Assad.
The people of Homs "will protest under any circumstances," he said. "If the army's already shooting, Homsis will still go out and protest, they don't care. If you shoot at them, they'll just stand there. I think they are willing to sacrifice everybody in the city but not give it back to Assad."
After all, Jabri says, one of the most vivid rallying cries of the Syrian uprising was coined in Homs: "To heaven we are going, martyrs in our millions."
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