x Abu Dhabi, UAE Thursday 20 July 2017

'Topple Assad is now the only way'

As the deadline on a UN peace plan passes with no halt to the violence, in Deraa, where Syria's uprising began, an increasingly sophisticated and disciplined opposition movement was planning for a post-regime future.

Activists reported a series of violations of the deal yesterday, including mortars being fired in Homs and soldiers raiding areas in Aleppo province
Activists reported a series of violations of the deal yesterday, including mortars being fired in Homs and soldiers raiding areas in Aleppo province

DAMASCUS // As the deadline on a UN peace plan passed yesterday with no halt to the violence, in Deraa, where Syria's uprising began, an increasingly sophisticated and disciplined opposition movement was planning for a post-regime future.

More than a year after the rebellion began in the south-western Syrian city, veteran civilian activists and rebel fighters of the Free Syrian Army (FSA) are coordinating efforts to topple President Bashar Al Assad and to prevent chaos spreading if his regime collapses, activists say.

"There can be no negotiation with this regime, there is no peace plan, we knew from the very beginning, when we first demanded our freedom, that the only way we would get it is to topple the regime, nothing less," said an activist involved in organising the initial demonstrations in Deraa last March.

Activists reported a series of violations of the deal yesterday, including mortars being fired in Homs and soldiers raiding areas in Aleppo province, as well as army reinforcements arriving in the restive town of Rastan, in central Syria.

In a letter to the UN Security Council, Kofi Annan yesterday called on the Syrian authorities to "make a fundamental change of course" by tomorrow, when a complete ceasefire is due to go into effect.

"It is essential that the next 48 hours bring visible signs of immediate and indisputable change in the military posture of the government forces throughout the country," Mr Annan wrote.

He dismissed Syrian government assurances that army operations had been scaled back in the last week, noting that even "withdrawn" heavy weapons remained in firing range of civilian targets, while "several new localities also appear to have been subject to military operations, including the use of heavy weapons on population centres".

"Despite these assurances from the Syrian government, credible reports indicate that during that same period, the Syrian armed forces have conducted rolling military operations in population centres, characterised by troop movements into towns supported by artillery fire," Mr Annan wrote.

Following talks in Moscow yesterday, the Syrian foreign minster, Walid Moallem, said Damascus was honouring its commitments. He said an undisclosed number of troops had been pulled out of urban centres, although he gave no further details. Similarly he said political prisoners had been freed, without specifying numbers.

Sergey Lavrov, Russia's foreign minister, said he expected "strict implementation of the plan by Syria and Mr Al Assad's regime should have been "more active, more decisive" in implementing the plan. But he also said Syrian opposition groups had failed to endorse the plan and their international allies had not done enough to bring about agreement.

Failure of the UN peace plan had been widely anticipated, not least by the opposition in Deraa, 100km south of Damascus, who said Mr Annan was being exploited by the Syrian authorities to gain more time to kill and arrest activists.

In the past year the opposition in Deraa, on Syria's southern border with Jordan, has evolved from staging haphazard, spontaneous street protests into a well-organised movement uniting civilian demonstrators and armed rebels.

Cooperation between the two wings includes an agreement that civilian activists maintain primacy over armed rebels, according to influential opposition figures in the city.

"The regime will be finished so we have to build ourselves now for what happens when it falls, so there is not a dangerous vacuum," said a leading opposition figure from Deraa. He has played a major role in organising the rebellion in the city

"We have seen what has happened in Libya with all of the different militia groups and we will not allow that to be repeated here, when the regime finally falls there must be order and control," he said.

Street level committees are already in place throughout Deraa city, to maintain local services if the regime in Damascus collapses or if the local authority crumbles. Activists say the committees will ensure that rubbish is collected, food and water distributed and law and order maintained.

Deraa activists also say that, in cooperating with the FSA they have devised a system of registering all weapons in the hands of rebel fighters so that, once the revolt is over, arms can be fully accounted for by any new civilian administration.

Human-rights groups say government forces have committed systematic abuses in trying to suppress the uprising, but have also expressed concern about the behaviour of armed rebels groups, including summary executions of regime security agents and informants.

"The difficulty is that we need people to carry weapons to protect the peaceful demonstrators but those weapons also pose a kind of risk to the uprising, and the only thing to do is manage that and make sure there are strict controls," said the leading Deraa activist.

FSA fighters in Deraa, and their civilian counterparts in the opposition movement, say they want the lightly armed rebels to be supplied with weapons by the West or Arab states.

Despite expressing support for their cause, the US and Europe have all officially refrained from sending materiel to rebels, citing fears munitions will end up in the hands of Al Qaeda inspired Islamic militants.

"There are groups in rural Deraa and they are trying to achieve different goals to the FSA and us; they are Salafis and extremist Muslim," said the leading Deraa activist. "These groups are not part of the FSA and we do not work with them," he said.

Activists advocating a peaceful uprising say they have they have had little choice but to come to terms with a situation that increasingly resembles civil war, and to try and ensure armed rebel factions stay reigned in.

"I would rather no one had weapons but it is good to have the FSA there to protect demonstrators, but it must not lead the revolution," said a female protester from Deraa, in her mid 30s. Her husband was shot and killed taking part in a one of the city's early demonstrations a year ago.

Another influential grassroots activist from Deraa said a twin-track uprising was now under way, with peaceful demonstrations taking place in conjunction with an armed revolt, something he predicted would continue until the regime fell.

"It is wrong to say there is only an armed uprising now, the biggest side of the revolution is still peaceful protests but the FSA gives the protection needed for that to happen," he said. "This is still overwhelmingly a civil and civilian uprising, it is a principled struggle for freedom."

psands@thenational.ae

Joe Lauria contributed to this report from the United Nations in New York???????????