x Abu Dhabi, UAEMonday 24 July 2017

Rebel Syrian fighters grow in strength as 400 defect in one day

Turkish government offers tacit support to group but western diplomat doubts level of coordination among the Free Syrian Army.

In a video posted on YouTube last week a dissident Syrian soldier holds up his ID card. The FSA’s leadership says it is a growing threat to Bashar Al Assad.
In a video posted on YouTube last week a dissident Syrian soldier holds up his ID card. The FSA’s leadership says it is a growing threat to Bashar Al Assad.

ISTANBUL // A group of Syrian army deserters that is fighting to topple the government in Damascus may be too weak to challenge the country's military directly but is gathering momentum with guerrilla attacks on the regime, observers say.

Support for the Free Syrian Army (FSA), whose leadership is based in Turkey, is expected to grow as Bashar Al Assad, the Syrian president, has ruled out any compromise in the eight-month-old uprising in his country and has vowed to crush the protest movement against his government by force, according to Celalettin Yavuz, an analyst in Ankara.

"Assad has entered a dead-end street," Mr Yavuz, the deputy director of the Turkish Centre for International Relations and Strategic Analysis (Turksam), told The National by telephone this week. "In this situation, the FSA is becoming stronger."

Mr Yavuz said the FSA is made up almost entirely of Sunni Muslims, while the political and military leadership in Syria is dominated by Alawites, a situation echoing the main religious fault-line in Syria. The deserters, who are mostly lower-rank soldiers, are armed with rocket-propelled grenades and other weapons but do not possess tanks or artillery, he said.

While the FSA appears to lack an elaborate organisation and was operating in small groups, it still could hurt the regime, added Mr Yavuz, a former officer of the Turkish navy who has taught at the military's National Security Academy in Istanbul. "They are able to inflict damage because the regular Syrian army is not that strong," he said. "They can employ guerrilla tactics, like planting roadside bombs."

Last week, the FSA attacked a Syrian air force intelligence base in the outskirts of the capital, Damascus. It has also claimed attacks on installations of the security forces in other parts of the country, such as Aleppo in the north. The United States, Russia and Turkey have all voiced concern that the escalation could lead to a civil war in Syria.

"They are the real heroes of this revolution," an anti-regime protester in the central city of Hama, the site of a massacre by Mr Al Assad's father and predecessor in 1982 and a hotbed of resistance against the regime, told the Associated Press. "Everyone else has abandoned us."

The FSA was formed in the summer and is led by Colonel Riyadh Al Asaad, a former Syrian army officer who has fled to Turkey. Col Asaad has said in several media interviews that the FSA has 15,000 soldiers in Syria, organised in 22 battalions. According to statements on the group's Facebook page, new soldiers have been joining the FSA almost daily. The regular Syrian army has about 300,000 soldiers.

In an interview with Turkey's semi-official news agency Anadolu, Col Asaad said that almost 400 soldiers had deserted the Syrian armed forces on a single day last week, after 15 officers joined the FSA the week before. "Desertions are increasing day by day," he said. His statements could not be independently verified.

Col Asaad described his group as a growing threat to the Syrian regime. "Right now, the Free Syrian Army is fighting against the brutal regime in an efficient manner in every Syrian city. There is coordination and cooperation between the different units", he said in his interview with Anadolu.

However, there are doubts about the level of efficient coordination within the group. Last Sunday, Col Asaad denied an earlier statement by his fighters who had said the FSA had launched an attack on Mr Al Assad's Baath party headquarters in Damascus. According to the Associated Press, the FSA had said in a Facebook post that was later removed that it fired rocket-propelled grenades at the ruling party HQ.

The FSA's military capabilities are also being questioned by some observers.

"We know that there are deserters, and that there are groups of deserters that have kept their weapons," said a western diplomat in Ankara, the Turkish capital. "But we do not have information pointing to an organised structure. There are small, dispersed groups."

The diplomat, speaking on condition of anonymity because he was not authorised to discuss the issue publicly, said the FSA did not appear to be a serious military fighting force. "We don't think they have a big [military] significance, except for delivering hit-and-run attacks," the diplomat said.

The Turkish government has given tacit support to the group. Col Asaad and other Syrian deserters were gathered in the same refugee camp in southern Turkey, a Turkish diplomat said last month. Turkish authorities have also provided the colonel with the opportunity to speak to the media. On Facebook, the FSA is asking for donations to Turkish bank accounts.

Hosting the FSA leadership in Turkey fits Ankara's wider policy on Syria. After trying in vain to convince Mr Al Assad to implement political reforms, the Turkish government has grown increasingly critical of Syria's leader since the summer and has started to support exile opposition groups.

Officially, Turkey's motives in hosting FSA leaders are purely humanitarian. "Thousands of people have arrived from Syria," the Turkish diplomat said about refugees fleeing across the border. Guards manning the border did not differentiate between deserters and other refugees, he said. "What are we supposed to do? Send them back to Syria? Would that be an option?"

tseibert@thenational.ae