By The Associated Press
BEIRUT (AP) — 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 on Wednesday 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 ranks.
“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 U.N. 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 added.
International intervention, such as the NATO action in Libya that helped topple Moammar Gadhafi, 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 protesters.
“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.
This week, the group posted a statement by the officers Khaled Bin al-Walid battalion announcing their withdrawal from Rastan to protect the lives of innocent civilians — and pledged more attacks.
The fighting in Rastan was the most dramatic illustration on the ground so far of the increasingly militarization of the uprising. The Syrian government denies any defections.