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When the Syrian Rebels Lose Their Halo

The Syrian opposition has been running into some bad publicity lately. Today Human Rights Watch said rebels have been torturing and executing people. And over the weekend rebels set off two car bombs that killed civilians along with the security forces that were targeted.

Of course, it's not shocking to see car bombs used in a conflict of this sort. Still, when car bombs kill civilians in America or Europe we call that terrorism. For westerners accustomed to seeing courageous rebels pinned down in Homs, felled by ruthless Syrian forces, this sort of publicity complicates the narrative.

We better get used to it, because there's more car bombs and executions to come. That, at least, is the view of Joshua Landis, whose blog Syria Comment is among the best resources on the Syrian conflict. In his latest post he explained that, with the rebels' attempt to hold ground in Homs and elsewhere having failed, they'll have to revert to "phase II" in the standard insurgency playbook. Phase II, Landis explains, features:

Terrorism: these techniques include bombings, assassinations, kidnappings, threats, mutilation, murder, torture, and blackmail. These actions will be used to provoke the government into overreactions that discredit the regime, alienate the populace, and demonstrate its inability to protect them.

Landis expects the insurgency to acquire an increasingly Islamist cast. There will be "Sunni sectarian recruitment, Islamic martyrdom operations, and all the aspects of Middle Eastern insurgency that we have seen used so effectively against occupation forces in the recent past, whether used by Palestinians, Afghans or Iraqis." Once again, a conflict that begins with essentially secular grievances will gradually assume the character of a religious conflict.

If indeed the Syrian insurgency starts to strike westerners as darker and more menacing, I suspect that supporters of intervention will try to work with that. They'll argue that Syria will be better off in the long run if it can skip, or at least shrink, the phase of the civil war that entails ongoing religious radicalization. And they'll say that outside intervention could accomplish that.

And maybe it could. I don't know enough to say. Meanwhile, you might as well go ahead and watch this pro-opposition hip-hop video by Omar Offendum, which was released yesterday, because it has a purity that may get harder to square with reality as time goes by.

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Robert Wright is the author of The Evolution of God and a finalist for the Pulitzer Prize. He is a former senior editor at The Atlantic.

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