‘Free Syrian Army’ poses growing threat to Assad
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Significant soldier defections have cast attention on the anti-regime “Free Syrian Army”. But the fledgling rebel force is still far from being a match for the Syrian regular army.
On June 28, Syrian army tank driver Manhl al-Adday took a day off to travel to the southern city of Deera. The next day he failed to rejoin his battalion as scheduled. “I was ordered to kill Syrians who were there, unarmed, in front of me. I saw the crimes of [President Bashar] al-Assad’s regime with my own eyes. It is impossible for me to return,” he confessed via Skype this week.
Since going AWOL, tank driver Adday has exiled himself in Turkey and joined an allegedly growing number of Syrian army defectors who have regrouped under the banner of the Free Syrian Army.
Adday says it is too dangerous for him to stay in Syria. “Once a soldier deserts, the regime immediately goes after his family. And I didn’t even have a gun to protect myself since I was a [tank] driver,” he told FRANCE 24.
The actual strength of the Free Syrian Army, or the influence it wields from exile, is difficult to measure. But President Assad, who is facing unprecedented pressure to step down from power, is taking the threat seriously.
Since March of this year, Syrian authorities have countered a growing protest movement with a violent crackdown that has claimed the lives of at least 3,000 people, according to the United Nations. France and the United States have called for strong UN sanctions against Assad, but their efforts have been thwarted in the UN Security Council by Russia and China.
'Ten thousand members and 18 battalions'
In a video that premiered on YouTube on July 29, seven uniformed soldiers announced the formation of Syria’s main military opposition force. The shaky footage showed an officer – a pair of stars on each of his shoulders – reading out a list of names of defectors who had vowed not to fire on peaceful protesters again.
Two months later, the Free Syrian Army claims it has more than 10,000 members organized into 18 separate battalions. Some of the battalions are said to be active within the country. Among the most prominent are the Khaled Bin Walid brigade in the central city of Homs, the Qaashoush brigade in the central city of Hama, and the Al-Harmoush brigade in the northern city of Idlib.
At the head of the opposition force is Colonel Riad al-Assad, one of the most senior officers to have defected. At 50, Riad al-Assad’s career included 31 years in the Syrian Air Force. He is thought to be in exile in Turkey.
“Our new mission is to protect the population and lead the overthrow of the regime. We do so only defensively, even if the [Assad] regime is trying to push us to attack,” he wrote to FRANCE 24 in an email. The rebel Colenel said he was against the idea of arming Syrian civilians, a solution he deemed “too risky”.
During anti-government marches, soldiers in the Free Syrian Army have allegedly concealed themselves among the demonstrators in order to respond to the potential crackdowns by security forces. “We feel a little safer since the Free Army is with us," said Omar Abu Farouk (not his real name), a 22-year-old resident of Homs.
“For example, [the Free Syrian Army] warns us in case of an attack and directs us to safe hiding places. But it does not shoot on all Syrian soldiers. It targets only the ones that kill protesters, especially the pro-regime militias,” said Omar.
Battle lines drawn
For Syrian authorities, the rebel soldiers are no freedom fighters, but traitors and terrorists who belong to “armed groups”. In recent months, reports of clashes between the regular army and deserters have multiplied.
Opposition activists say significant defections triggered the siege of the central city of Rastan by government forces in late September.
“The number of defected soldiers who defended the town was more than 250 soldier [sic], reinforced by a number of soldiers who came from other areas to join in. They managed to hold at bay the brutal attack of the army on the town… Many army members including soldiers and officers were executed after they refused to shoot at civilians or tried to defect,” activists wrote on the website lccsyria.org.
The Syrian Free Army insists that it is doing whatever is possible to protect peaceful civilians. The rebel army claims its soldiers hide outside towns and cities so that regime forces do not turn against populations. “When they desert, soldiers must join the nearest battalion,” said Col. Riad al-Assad.
In an October 7 interview with the Reuters news agency, Col. Assad said that only an armed resistance would overthrow the Assad regime. "Without war, he will not fall," the rebel commander said.
However, the Free Syrian Army is far from reaching this target. Composed mainly of low-ranking soldiers, it counts little firepower – essentially the weapons deserters could walk off with. And to date, no massive wave of defections has been observed.
Even if the number of desertions has increased in recent weeks, the rebel ranks pale in comparison to the government’s 200,000-strong force. "The Free Syrian Army has so far only recorded a few dozen kills," admitted Col. Assad, who is calling for the establishment of an internationally patrolled no-fly zone and buffer area near the Turkish border.