Over the past six months, Western news outlets have generally dismissed the Syrian regime's claim that it's cracking down on "armed terrorist groups," suggesting instead that the government is brutally suppressing peaceful protesters. But on Wednesday Reuters ran a startling headline, one that seems ripped from the struggle between the Libyan rebels and Muammar Qaddafi: "Syrian Tanks Pound Anti-Assad Fighters for 2nd Day." The news agency, citing a resident reached by satellite phone, reports that at least 1,000 military defectors and armed villagers--members of the "Free Syrian Army"--are battling Syrian tanks and security forces for control of the central town of Rastan. The news comes a day after "rebel soldiers" hit a government tank with a rocket-propelled grenade in the nearby city of Homs. The signs of nonviolent protests giving way to armed rebellion come as Syria's fragmented opposition tries to create a united front, suggesting the Syrian uprising may be entering a critical new phase that looks less like street protests and more like a civil war.

Free Syrian Army While there have been reports of scattered armed resistance against Syrian security forces for months nowThe Washington Post noted on Sunday that the formation of the Free Syrian Army represents the "first effort to organize an armed challenge to President Bashar al-Assad's rule." The Post explains that defected soldiers and officers are taking refuge along the Turkish and Lebanese borders or among civilians in Syrian cities, and arming themselves with Kalashnikovs, rocket-propelled grenades and antiaircraft guns siphoned off from the military and smuggled in from neighboring countries. Reuters adds that the "rebel units" are mainly cropping up around the city of Homs--where protests and crackdowns have been particularly heavy.

According to the Post, Gen. Riad Asaad, who commands the the Free Syrian Army from Turkey and defected from the air force in July, plans to "carve out a slice of territory in northern Syria, secure international protection in the form of a no-fly zone, procure weapons from friendly countries and then launch a full-scale attack to topple the Assad government"--the very strategy followed by the Libyan rebels (in the photo above, one of the banners at a rally in Homs reads, "A no-fly zone opens the door for the free soldiers of the Syrian army to defect"). Naturally, the Free Syrian Army has set up a Facebook page with updates about offensive and defensive operations:

Yet even with the Free Syrian Army's bold pronouncements, it's premature to call the Syrian uprising an armed rebellion. There are natural fault lines in the Syrian military: the officer corps and elite units are dominated by Assad's minority Alawite sect while the foot soldiers hail from the country's Sunni majority. But Peter Harling of the International Crisis Group says army desertions haven't spread across the country yet. "There has been a lot of talk from the opposition about militarization, but this is for now an expression of frustration more than a definite shift in strategy," he tells Reuters. In an interview with the Post, U.S. Ambassador Robert Ford adds that he doesn't think the number of anti-Assad fighters is "big enough to have an impact one way or another on the government or on the contest between the protesters and the government."

Syrian National Council Time notes today that the 140-member Syrian National Council, which was formed earlier this month in Turkey, is making progress in securing the support of the influential grassroots groups that organize Syria's protests. The Local Coordination Committees of Syria, which has objected to the number of Islamists in the SNC, decided to back the umbrella group last week, as did the Syrian Revolution Coordinating Union (as this document obtained by Foreign Policy indicates, the SNC is trying to build a membership that represents different religions, ethnic groups, regions, and political persuasions).  

But these groups are still facing significant obstacles. They've yet to speak with one voice about their strategy for overthrowing the Assad regime (other than saying it should be done nonviolently). And, as the AP bluntly notes, the "opposition has made no major gains in recent months, it holds no territory and still has no clear leadership." Alan Fraser, a London-based Middle East analyst, tells Reuters that while the number of military defections in Syria appears to be increasing, the number of peaceful protests is declining. 

Civil War? Analysts are worrying that the dynamics at play right now in Syria--growing armed resistance, stagnating protests, and relentless government offensives--could spark a sectarian civil war. The risk, experts tell Reuters, is that "neither side feels they can back down with the opposition fearing they will be hunted down and killed if Assad can reassert control whilst Alawites and other allied groups fear reprisals if he goes." In light of these facts, Reuters states that the opposition's best hope right now may be neither peaceful protests nor armed rebellion. International sanctions, the news agency explains, could put serious pressure on Assad by depriving the government of oil revenue while the broader economy reels from the unrest. 

But Ambassador Ford has some other advice for the Syrian opposition. "One of the things we've told the opposition is that they should not think we are going to treat Syria the same way we treated Libya," he tells Time. "The main thing for the opposition to do is figure out how to win away support from the regime, and not look to outsiders to try and solve the problem."