Prominent Syrian activist Michel Kilo said he fears that if protesters against President Bashar Al-Assad fall into the strongman's trap and take up arms, it will lead to a disastrous civil war.
"If protestors decide to take up arms, there is a great risk that the situation will deteriorate and that Syria will slide towards a religious or civil war.
"If that happens, then we will all be the losers," Kilo told AFP in an interview.
Kilo, 71, a writer who has opposed the ruling Baath Party since it came to power in 1963, was jailed from 1980 to 1983 and from 2006 to 2009.
He is a member of the National Committee for Democratic Change (NCDC), formed on 17 September, which includes Arab nationalists, socialists, Marxists, members of the Kurdish minority and independents such as Kilo.
"From the very beginning, the regime has followed a plan - push the protesters to extreme options, to take up arms. A peaceful civil movement is not what it wants at all," Kilo said.
"It wants an armed movement, linked to Islamic extremism," he said, warning that pressure for a harder line was growing in the face of continued heavy bloodshed, with the United Nations saying that more than 2,700 had been killed by security forces since March.
"The young, peaceful militants have been reduced to despair. They say they are being cut down without mercy every day while they are unarmed," he said, adding that the idea of "protected demonstrations" was gaining ground.
In Homs, the central town known for its opposition to the Assads, both the late father and his current ruling son, protests are now protected by armed demonstrators, while deserters from the army have taken on that role elsewhere.
"I am afraid that in the next step, protestors will take armed action because the regime continues to hit the demonstrations," Kilo said.
At the same time, he noted that the country's religious minorities were afraid that the protest movement "could degenerate into extremism and violence.
"We have to reassure them by insisting on the peaceful nature of the movement, on the principle of equality for all citizens in a state open to all - including current members of the (ruling) Baath party."
He said that to begin talks with the opposition, the regime would have to create a "favourable climate - drop the use of force, stop assassinations, allow peaceful demonstrations and free all political detainees."
As for the young people at the heart of the protest movement, Kilo praised their bravery and selflessness in taking to the streets while he and his fellow opposition leaders had never achieved that much.
"We are in some ways complementary. They have adopted our ideas about the state, liberty, multi-party rule and the separation of powers," he said.
"We belong to the world of parties and small groups but they are part of society at large."
Kilo rejected any idea of foreign intervention to depose Assad, since this would set off a violent reaction and the opposition wanted a peaceful outcome.
Such a course "would lead to a pro-American Syria and not a Syria free and sovereign," he said, adding that after four decades of political struggle, his only wish was to see the country "democratic and free."