The uprising in Syria may be entering a new phase. The critical event is that Syrian Army defectors are beginning to form a dissident army. From The Washington Post:
A group of defectors calling themselves the Free Syrian Army is attempting the first effort to organize an armed challenge to President Bashar al-Assad’s rule, signaling what some hope and others fear may be a new phase in what has been an overwhelmingly peaceful Syrian protest movement.
For now, the shadowy entity seems mostly to consist of some big ambitions, a Facebook page and a relatively small number of defected soldiers and officers who have taken refuge on the borderlands of Turkey and Lebanon or among civilians in Syria’s cities.
Many of its claims appear exaggerated or fanciful, such as its boasts to have shot down a helicopter near Damascus this month and to have mustered a force of 10,000 to take on the Syrian military.
But it is clear that defections from the Syrian military have been accelerating in recent weeks, as have levels of violence in those areas where the defections have occurred.
“It is the beginning of armed rebellion,” said Gen. Riad Asaad, the dissident army’s leader, who defected from the air force in July and took refuge in Turkey.
“You cannot remove this regime except by force and bloodshed,” he said, speaking by telephone from the Syria-Turkey border. “But our losses will not be worse than we have right now, with the killings, the torture and the dumping of bodies.”
His goals are to carve out a slice of territory in northern Syria, secure international protection in the form of a no-fly zone, procure weapons from friendly countries and then launch a full-scale attack to topple the Assad government, echoing the trajectory of the Libyan revolution.
In the meantime, the defected soldiers are focusing their attention on defending civilians in neighborhoods where protests occur, while seeking to promote further defections, he said.
If the group achieves even a fraction of those aims, it would mark a dramatic turning point in the six-month standoff between a government that has resorted to maximum force to suppress dissent and a protest movement that has remained largely peaceful.
Defections are not new, but until now most have consisted of small groups of disgruntled soldiers fleeing orders to shoot civilians, then taking refuge in local homes, where they are hunted down and captured or killed, often along with those who sheltered them.
The phenomenon was causing so many civilian casualties that protest organizers this summer appealed to soldiers to not defect until they could count on sufficient numbers to make a difference, said Wissam Tarif, an activist with the human rights group Avaaz.
Soldiers with the Free Syrian Army say they are hoping that point has now been reached. Large-scale or high-ranking defections are still unlikely, because the overwhelming majority of the officer corps belongs to Assad’s minority Alawite sect, said a defected first lieutenant who has taken refuge in the Lebanese border town of Wadi Khaled and makes frequent clandestine visits to Homs to support the Free Syrian Army’s activities.
The city of Rastan is one of the focal points, according to Reuters:
Undeterred by the crackdown, more deserters declared the formation of another rebel military unit, of uncertain size, in the same area. And in a sign of increasingly heavily armed opposition to Assad, people in the nearby city of Homs said rebel soldiers hit a government tank with a rocket.
Hundreds of soldiers who have refused orders to fire on protesters have formed the Khaled Bin al-Walid battalion, named after the Arab conqueror of Syria, in Rastan. The force, led by Captain Abdelrahman Sheikh, has some tanks. Colonel Riad al-Asaad, the most senior military defector, is active in the area.
The region around Homs and the adjoining province of Idlib on the border with Turkey have emerged as hotspots of armed resistance, although the bulk of the armed forces, commanded by officers from Assad’s Alawite minority, has remained nominally loyal, with tight surveillance by Alawite secret police and soldiers who disobey orders to crush protests risk being shot.
A senior diplomat in Damascus said rebel units were a mixed bag of deserters but that only the efforts of the Alawite officer corps were preventing much larger units joining them. “The deserters so far are a hodgepodge,” the diplomat said. “They did not train together and whole divisions are not leaving because of the Alawite control.”
While it is too soon to tell if this is a real turning point, pro-Assad forces are taking the threat very seriously. From Reuters:
Syrian forces backed by tanks and helicopters stormed into the central town of Rastan on Tuesday to crush army deserters who are fighting back after months of mostly peaceful protests against President Bashar al-Assad, residents said.
Early on Tuesday, dozens of armored vehicles entered Rastan, a town of 40,000 on the Orontes river north of Homs, after tanks and helicopters pounded it with heavy machineguns through the hours of darkness.
“Tanks closed in on Rastan overnight and the sound of machineguns and explosions has been non-stop. They finally entered this morning,” said a resident named Abu Qassem.
The Telegraph provides more detail on the situation in Rastan:
The Daily Telegraph has witnessed devastating scenes from the key city of Al Rastan – a city which bridges the country’s north-south divide – in which tanks and other heavy weapons are being used against schools and homes. Armed opposition groups have taken to building barricades against the onslaught. And according to residents many parts of Al Rastan have become no-go zones with skirmishes and military raids a daily occurrence.
The much feared ‘shabiha’ – pro-Assad militias- storm houses, hunting defected soldiers and arresting suspected dissidents as they go – ‘looking for reasons to kill’ one resident said. Government snipers sit atop local security headquarters during the day, picking off those who venture too close, whilst at night more random shootings follow.
After three days of fighting, Rastan is still in dispute. According to Asharq Alawsat, the Syrian State news agency has reported that seven soldiers were killed. In addition:
One army defector operating in the province of Idlib, northwest of Rastan, said the defectors in the town were using guerrilla tactics against the heavily-armed loyalist forces.
“Rastan has been churning out army officers for decades and there is a lot of experience among the defecting soldiers. Assad is mistaken if he thinks that he can wrap up the attack quickly,” he said, adding that agricultural terrain made it difficult for the regular army to seal off the area.
The Rastan area is a recruiting ground for Sunni conscripts who provide most of manpower in the military, which is dominated by officers from Assad’s minority Alawite sect.
Residents say that at least 1,000 deserters and armed villagers have been fighting the loyalist forces which are backed up by tanks and helicopters.
Where does this lead? From Reuters and The Telegraph:
Julien Barnes-Dacey, Middle East analyst at Control Risks said unless more defections occur “the regime won’t face a meaningful military challenge.” He said the key question is “whether or not this will spread and result in a more decisive break right across the military, (which is) unfortunately most likely to happen along sectarian lines with Sunni conscripts joining the opposition and Alawite officers and elite units holding firm with Assad.”
The government blames the violence on armed gangs, who it says have killed 700 members of the security forces. Its version of events may finally becoming a self-fulfilling prophecy — to the chagrin of many protesters who had been determined to keep their movement peaceful and deny the authorities any pretext for the violence they have meted out.
Many believe the image of city in revolt is one the government will find increasingly difficult to combat with stories about terrorists and ‘western agents’. In Damascus one opposition member expressed his delight: ‘This is a whole city of 100,000 who oppose the government. It’s unbelievable! They may have tanks and heavy weapons, but the people fight on.’
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