Syria at risk of civil war, Arab League chief warns

The Arab League is warning that Syria could be headed for civil war, after months of unrest largely unseen by the outside world because few foreign journalists have been allowed into the country. On Friday, a CBC News crew was detained for hours before being released.

CBC News crew released after being detained for several hours at checkpoint

CBC's Susan Ormiston reports from Syria about a warning from the Arab League that tensions in the Middle Eastern country could soon explode into an all-out civil war 3:01

The head of the Arab League says that Syria could be headed for civil war, following months of street protests and a violent government crackdown.

The Cairo-based group has sent more than 160 monitors to the country to gauge whether the regime of President Bashar al-Assad is complying with the terms of a peace plan that Syria signed last month.

Nabil Elaraby said the Assad regime was either not complying or only partially complying with the terms of the peace plan, which was supposed to help bring an end to violence against pro-democracy protesters.

"We are very concerned because there were certain commitments that were not complied with," Nabil Elaraby told the Associated Press in Cairo. "If this continues, it may turn into civil war."

The United Nations estimates that at least 400 people have been killed since the foreign monitors began arriving in Syria on Dec. 26, and that more than 5,000 people have been killed since the uprising began in March.

CBC News crew detained for hours

The death toll is impossible to independently verify because few foreign journalists have been allowed into the country since the uprising began.

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However, the regime recently allowed a small group of reporters into the country, including a CBC News crew.

The CBC team is safe and back in Damascus after being detained Friday at a checkpoint near the town of Duma, which has been a flashpoint since the start of the uprising. A translator was also detained, but was later released.

However, the driver was arrested.

They were detained because they did not have permission to visit Duma. The only permission given by the government for Friday was to cover a pro-Assad demonstration in Damascus.

Reporter Margaret Evans was among those questioned by officials.

She said a crowd of 400 to 500 people thronged a central square in the city Friday to voice their discontent. There was gunfire in the air, Evans said, but it was impossible to determine the source.

Evans said residents in the area told her they've lost about 100 people since the Syrian government's crackdown on dissenters began about 10 months ago. Many more are in jail, the protesters said.

One protester told Evans that he came out to protest every Friday. He said change was slow, but he kept coming because "we have to change the system."

"We are not happy with the system, we are not happy with this regime."

But Assad and his regime also has a genuine and powerful support base, Evans noted.

"Both sides seeming immovable, while the number of dead climbs on both sides."

Changing conflict

Most of the violence has involved security forces firing on unarmed protesters. But in recent months there have been reports of soldiers defecting and attacking the regime's military forces, while some opposition members have begun arming themselves.

Freedom Convoy activists wave independence flags as they shout slogans against Syria's President Bashar al-Assad during a gathering in the Turkish-Syrian border town of Kilis, Gaziantep province. (Umit Bektas/Reuters)

It's impossible to verify how many military defectors are fighting the regime, but the group's leader, Col. Riad al-Asaad, claims there are thousands of former soldiers in his ranks.

Tens of thousands of people took to the streets Friday to protest against the Syrian regime.

More than 20,000 people were demonstrating Friday in the town of Ariha in the northwestern province of Idlib, after Syrian activists called for nationwide rallies to support the army defectors. At least 10 people were killed at the demonstrations after security forces opened fire on the crowds, according to the British-based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights.

Friday's protests came a day after opposition leader Burhan Ghalioun held discussions with the Free Syrian Army leader to assess the group's needs.

In multiple cities north of Damascus, including Homs, security forces clashed with armed resisters. Activists claimed at least 12 people were killed.

Aid convoy

Meanwhile in Turkey, near the border with Syria, scores of activists are staging a two-day hunger strike to protest the Assad regime's refusal to allow them entry to deliver aid and medical supplies for victims of the deadly crackdown on dissidents.

Moayed Skaif, a member of the "Freedom Convoy," said on Friday that group members are refusing food in a bid to protest Syria and to force Turkey into pressuring Syrian authorities into allowing the aid.

In the capital, a video posted online by activists showed dozens of people marching in the neighbourhood of Midan, chanting "Freedom forever, despite you Assad!"

Midan, which has seen frequent anti-regime protests, was hit by a suicide attack last Friday that killed 26 people. The government blamed "terrorists" for the attack while the opposition suggested the regime orchestrated the blast to tarnish the uprising.

Another video posted Friday showed what appeared to be an armoured personnel carrier on fire. The narrator said army defectors attacked the vehicle with a rocket-propelled grenade.

With files from The Associated Press