BEIRUT – The militarization of Syria's uprising has strengthened the most radical elements on both sides of the bloody, 13-month-old conflict, sidelining the moderate voices that many see as the best hope for Syria's future.
The shift is clear in the images pouring out of the country: Gunmen prowling the streets, tanks rolling through cities and hails of mortar fire are more common scenes than protesters carrying olive branches and chanting for peaceful democratic change.
Members of the Syrian opposition want nothing less than the removal of the Baath party regime, while the government appears determined to crush the uprising no matter how many Syrians lose their lives. This could make it even more difficult for the already faltering peace plan of international Arab envoy Kofi Annan, which calls for a dialogue over Syria's future.
"Activists who have wider visions, open minds and represent the revolution's democratic and liberal ambitions were subjected to killing, detention and extreme torture," said Yassin Haj Saleh, who was jailed in Syria from 1980-1996 for joining a communist group.
Moderates have been forced to "hide or emigrate," he wrote in the pan-Arab Al-Hayat daily.
The U.N. estimates some 9,000 people have been killed in Syria since March 2011, when the uprising began with mostly peaceful protests against President Bashar Assad. But a government crackdown led many Syrians take up weapons, transforming the conflict into an insurgency.
The few voices of compromise on the regime side also appear to be disappearing. Earlier this month, former Information Minister Mohammed Salman, along with several Baath party officials and intellectuals said they will stop their National Democratic Initiative that they launched last year with the aim of transforming Syria into a democratic, pluralist and civil state, though under Assad's rule, an idea even many moderates in the opposition consider impossible.
Syrian news websites quoted Salman as saying that they decided to stop the initiative after they got no response from different parties "to try solve the Syrian crisis politically." Some opposition websites, such as All4Syria, said Salman came under extreme pressure from regime hard-liners.
The sidelining of moderate voices on both sides will most likely give a bigger role to hard-liners who believe that Syria's worst crisis in decades can only be solved with force.
A fighting force known as the Free Syrian Army has launched attacks on military checkpoints and other government targets. Last month, Human Rights Watch accused Syria's armed opposition of carrying out serious abuses, including the kidnapping and torture of security forces.
In a sign that the violence is spiraling out of control, residents of the central city of Homs — a hotbed of dissent against the regime — say the fighting often takes on haunting sectarian overtones. Tit-for-tat sectarian killings have taken place between majority Sunnis, who largely back the opposition, and minority Alawites, who stand by the regime.
Some in the opposition argue resorting to violence plays directly into the regime's hands by giving the military an excuse to crack down even harder, and by scaring off moderates who disagree with the regime but fear the alternative could be extremism.
"The authorities are playing the ethnic and sectarian game in a very well studied manner to terrorize the Syrian people," said Fares Tammo, a Kurdish activist who lives in Iraq. His father, Mashaal, a prominent Kurdish opposition figure, was assassinated in October.
Since the uprising began, Assad portrayed himself as the lone force who can ward off the radicalism that bedevils neighboring Iraq and Lebanon. The regime also has a distinct advantage in an armed conflict, as its army is strong and has remained loyal to Assad.
The Free Syrian Army, by contrast, have little more than AK-47s and rocket-propelled grenades, and they acknowledge running low on ammunition and money.
As the conflict becomes more violent, parts of the opposition movement are taking on overt religious overtones and Islamic movements in and out of the country are vying to gain influence over the revolt in hopes of gathering power if Assad falls. A string of anti-regime suicide bombings have raised fears of al-Qaida involvement.
The groups range from violent jihadi movements to political moderates like the Muslim Brotherhood, which has already used the Arab Spring revolts to vault to power in Tunisia and Egypt elections.
Still, their growing influence is causing divisions in an already fractured opposition.
Amer Mattar, a Syrian journalist who was forced to flee the country after being convicted of "weakening national sentiments" — a term often used against those who challenge the regime — said Assad tried to militarize the protests from the start.
"The regime wants weapons to be the only solution in Syria," Mattar told The Associated Press by telephone from Jordan. "But we will not allow that. Peaceful protests will continue."
Bassem Mroue can be reached on twitter at http://twitter.com/bmroue
EDITOR'S NOTE — Bassem Mroue is a correspondent in Lebanon who has covered the Middle East since 1992.