Free Syrian Army Rises to Take on Assad

Some in Syrian opposition asking for foreign help.

The peaceful uprising in Syria is becoming a violent revolt as the Free Syria Army rises to defend the people against the Assad regime. Close to 3,000 civilians have been murdered, 20,000 are imprisoned and 7,500 are living in refugee camps in Turkey. Pleas for foreign intervention are growing, anti-regime militias are forming, and military defectors continue to join the ranks of the Free Syria Army. With every protester killed, civil war becomes more likely.

On September 23, the Free Officers Movement officially merged into the Free Syria Army, led by Colonel Riad al-Assad. The leader of the Free Officers Movement, Lt. Col. Hussein Harmoush, disappeared on August 27 after meeting with Turkish officials. He was later seen on Syrian state television parroting the regime’s propaganda. The Erdogan government has been accused of handing him over to Assad in exchange for nine members of the Kurdistan Workers Party, which Turkey denies. The Foreign Minister laughably claims, “He himself decided to go back.” At the same time, Turkey is threatening Assad over his brutal crackdowns and has hit him with an arms embargo.

“You cannot remove this regime except by force and bloodshed. But our losses will not be worse than we have right now, with the killings, the torture and the dumping of bodies,” Col. Riad al-Assad said. So far, the Free Syria Army has killed at least 80 of the regime’s soldiers and hired mercenaries. Another report put the number of casualties among the regime’s security forces since the uprising began at about 700.

The Free Syria Army’s strategy is to replicate the success of the Libyan rebels. For now, it wants to defend protesters as they come under attack and expand its ranks with defectors. It hopes to kick the regime’s forces out of an area in the northern part of the country, creating the Syrian equivalent of Libya’s Benghazi. From this safe haven, it hopes to win international support and ultimately bring Assad down. The rest of the opposition has yet to endorse taking up arms. The Local Coordination Committees in Syria are still opposed to violence.

The Free Syria Army and some other opposition groups are now asking for foreign help. The Syrian National Council rejects any intervention that “compromises Syria’s sovereignty” but is asking for a no-fly zone.  The Syrian Revolution General Commission in Washington D.C. wants “limited Western intervention” that includes an arms embargo, a no-fly zone, economic pressure and a peacekeeping mission to protect civilians. Farid Ghadry of the Reform Party of Syria, another D.C.-based group, is calling on the West to directly support the Free Syria Army with arms and logistics.

The FSA is hoping that foreign allies will provide it with weapons, enact a naval blockade, and give it financing from the frozen assets of regime officials. It is also asking for a U.N. resolution expressing support for its fight and demanding that the regime release political prisoners and soldiers it imprisoned for refusing to fire on civilians. It also wants the U.N. to call on Assad to return his soldiers to their barracks. On October 4, Russia and China vetoed a U.N. resolution threatening the regime with sanctions. “The courageous people of Syria can now see clearly who supports their yearning for liberty and universal rights and who does not,” said U.S. ambassador to the U.N., Susan Rice.

U.S. ambassador to Syria, Robert Ford, implores both sides to forgo violence and is telling the opposition to not count on the U.S. military for backup. “One of the things we’ve told the opposition is that they should not think we are going to treat Syria the same way we treated Libya,” Ford said. He is warning the Free Syria Army that “you don’t have enough force to fight the Syrian army, you’re not even close. We have to be realistic.” He suggests that the opposition be patient as sanctions take their toll on the regime. At the same time, a State Department spokesman was careful not to condemn the Free Syria Army, saying it isn’t surprising that people have begun “to use violence against the military as an act of self-preservation.”

The Free Syria Army claims it has 10,000 soldiers, a number that is impossible to verify and some doubt, organized into 12 brigades, with the largest being the 2,000-strong Khalid Bin Walid Brigade in Homs. Despite its relatively low numbers, the Free Syria Army and its supporters are putting up a strong fight. It just took the regime’s forces several days and 3,000 arrests to seize the strategic city of Rastan in Homs Province, where about 1,000 defectors and residents fought the regime.

The FSA is ambushing vehicles transporting members of the regime’s vicious Allawite militia, called the Shabbiha. On October 1, it killed 5 militiamen near the Iraqi border. Nearly a dozen suspected regime informants have ended up dead in the city of Homs, such as the son of the Grand Mufti. The city is on the edge of civil war as rifles costing up to $2,000 each are being found. About 500 soldiers switched sides in and around Homs Province. At least three regime vehicles have been ambushed there, checkpoints are coming under fire, and a tank was struck with an RPG. There are clashes reported around the country at Deir al-Zour, the Mezzeh military airport near Damascus, Daraa, the northwestern province of Idlib, and Harasta, which lies on the outskirts of Damascus. There has also been fighting in the capital and dozens have defected in Hama and Latakia.

The FSA’s strength will grow as it shows its success and more defectors and civilians join it. On September 26, the regime arrested 7 soldiers and killed 4 when they tried to defect in Idlib near the Turkish border. A U.S. official estimates that there have been about 10,000 total defections. One defector said 4,000 soldiers are being held by the regime in Damascus alone for disobeying orders. An opposition site says over 22,000 troops have been jailed, including 7,000 officers. Armed groups allied with FSA are rising up near the borders with Iraq, Jordan, Lebanon and Turkey.

The Free Syria Army has not joined any political party or opposition council and does not appear to have an Islamist orientation. A senior opposition leader in Homs says that the Syrian military is very secular, and so the defectors are not very religious. A journalist who interviewed members of the FSA said they “do not appear to consider themselves mujahedin or otherwise fit the stereotype of Islamic extremists. Accordingly, individuals…[say] Islam does provide them with inspiration and strength but they do not fight for Islam and their goals are generally secular.”

Since the uprising began, protesters have been peaceful as the tortured bodies of children are returned to families, demonstrators are mercilessly killed in the streets, and areas of unrest come under siege without access to food and medicine. The Bashar Assad regime is finally getting a taste of its own medicine.