Army defectors aim to overthrow Syrian regime

A group of military defectors known as the Free Syrian Army is emerging as the first armed challenge to President Bashar Assad`s authoritarian regime after seven months of largely nonviolent resistance.

Last Updated: Oct 06, 2011, 16:27 PM IST

Beirut: A group of military defectors known as
the Free Syrian Army is emerging as the first armed challenge
to President Bashar Assad`s authoritarian regime after seven
months of largely nonviolent resistance.

Riad al-Asaad, the group`s leader and an air force colonel
who recently fled to Turkey, boasted in an interview with The
Associated Press yesterday that he now has more than 10,000
members and called on fellow soldiers to join him in
overthrowing the "murderous" regime.

While analysts said those numbers might be inflated,
al-Asaad was confident more soldiers would soon join his

"They will soon discover that armed rebellion is the only
way to break the Syrian regime," he said in a phone interview
from Turkey. "I call on all the honorable people in the Syrian
army to join us so we can liberate our country," he said. "It
is the only way to get rid of this murderous regime."

The dissident group is gaining momentum that signals a
trend toward militarization of the uprising. That momentum has
raised fears that Syria may be sliding toward civil war.

The movement could propel the revolt by encouraging more
senior level defections, or it could backfire horribly, giving
the regime a new pretext to crack down even harder than it
already has. Nearly 3,000 people have been killed in the
violence since March, according to the UN and activists.

Until the rebels can secure a territorial foothold as an
operational launching pad much like the eastern city of
Benghazi was for the Libyan rebels the defections are unlikely
to pose a real threat to the unity of the Syrian Army.

"The Libyan model is looking increasingly attractive to
the Syrian opposition," said Shadi Hamid, director of research
at The Brookings Doha Center in Qatar. However, he described
the dissident army as a "high risk, high reward situation."
He said territorial gains might encourage the
international community to offer support and make regime
change more real in the minds of outside observers.

"But the flip side of that is that it gives the regime ...
pretext to wipe out a city so it is a very risky move," Hamid

International intervention, such as the NATO action in
Libya that helped topple Muammar Gaddafi, is all but out of
the question in Syria. Washington and its allies have shown
little appetite for intervening in yet another Arab nation in
turmoil. There also is real concern that Assad`s ouster would
spread chaos around the region.

Syria is a geographical and political keystone in the
heart of the Middle East, bordering five countries with which
it shares religious and ethnic minorities and, in Israel`s
case, a fragile truce. Its web of alliances extends to
Lebanon`s powerful Hezbollah movement and Iran`s Shiite
theocracy. There are worries that a destabilized Syria could
send unsettling ripples through the region.

Al-Asaad, the leader of the Free Syrian Army, says all of
the defections so far have been by Sunnis, mostly low-level
conscripts. But he said he expects army support for Assad to
unravel in the coming months as more people are encouraged to
switch sides.

Many of the army`s lower ranking soldiers are Sunni
Muslims although most of the senior posts are held by members
of President Assad`s Alawite sect, an offshoot of Shiite
Islam, as well as other loyalists.

The Syrian opposition has welcomed the formation of the
Free Syrian Army, which disseminates information through the
Internet and a Facebook page, where they sometimes post claims
of responsibility for alleged attacks against "Assad gangs"
and the military. But it is unclear how much command the group
actually has on the ground.

Small-scale defections have been reported in Syria since
early on in the uprising. Al-Asaad said he defected from the
army in July after refusing to heed orders to shoot at

"I couldn`t take it anymore. I left along with others so
we could be free and defend our families and people."

But the numbers have been increasing in the past few
weeks. The defectors, armed mostly with rocket propelled
grenades and guns, operate mainly in the central region of
Homs and the northern Idlib province in the Jabal al-Zawiya
region near the Turkish border.

Al-Asaad said an offensive in the central town of Rastan
last week was meant to try to capture him and his comrades who
announced the formation of several battalions, including the
Khaled Bin al-Walid Battalion in Homs, named after a 7th
century Muslim conqueror of Syria. The army retook Rastan
after five days of heavy fighting with the defectors.

The fighting in Rastan was the most dramatic illustration
on the ground so far of the increasing militarization of the
uprising. The Syrian government denies any defections.