Video: Welcome to Syria's Civil War

Syrian resistance fighters are starting to look more like a durable insurgency

The below video, circulated by Syrian opposition activists, purports to show a member of the Free Syrian Army firing a rocket-propelled grenade at a Syrian government tank on Monday. The cameraman prays as the shooter first pretends to sweep the sidewalk, quietly glancing at the tank, then leaves and reappears with the RPG, which he carefully aims and fires. The shooter flees the moment that the rocket lands.

Something like the Free Syrian Army, composed of defected soldiers and armed protesters, was probably inevitable. After months of peaceful protests, Syrian President Bashar al-Assad's crackdown has killed over 5,000 people, often with torture. Assad has shown no signs of compromising or backing down. So it was likely only a matter of time until soldiers began turning against him and civilians began shooting back. But far less certain is whether the Free Syrian Army would be effective or not. In November, they spectacularly attacked an Air Force intelligence facility that is a symbol of Assad's brutality, but they have had no major successes before or since.

This video, however, suggests that there are at least some Syrian anti-government fighters who could be effective. The gunman's patience and skill in shooting the tank appears highly professional. The cameraman's prayers suggest a fervor for the cause, which is incredibly risky for members of the Free Syrian Army, who know they will almost certainly face torture if captured. These kinds of videos -- the whispered prayers, the civilian who suddenly reveals himself to be an insurgent, the explosion -- look an awful lot like those produced by anti-U.S. fighters in Iraq. It's a nascent insurgency, in other words.

The enemies of Bashar al-Assad, which includes most of the Syrian people, might be happy to see an increasingly capable insurgency challenging Assad's child-murdering regime. Such insurgencies, once they establish a training and supply network, are incredibly durable and can be near-impossible to ever really defeat. But the bad news for everyone in Syria, including the pro-democracy activists who have been bravely demonstrating and dying for their cause, is that insurgencies get very messy very quickly. They can also make it easier for the regime to justify escalating violence.

In Algeria in 1991, when the military staged a coup and brutally suppressed the Islamist party that had just swept the country's first free elections, supporters of that party staged an insurgency. The insurgency turned into a decade-long civil war that claimed hundreds of thousands of lives. In the end, it failed: Algeria today has the same military rulers it did then. Of course, there are many possible models for where Syria's escalating violence could lead the country. But a civil war, even if it comes closer to challenging Assad's rule than have months of peaceful protests, is still a war, and wars are messy.

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Max Fisher is a former writer and editor at The Atlantic.

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