News / Middle East

Syrian Army Defectors Go on Offense, Militarizing Syria's Uprising

Demonstrators protest against Syria's President Bashar al-Assad gather in Hula, near Homs, November 13, 2011.
Demonstrators protest against Syria's President Bashar al-Assad gather in Hula, near Homs, November 13, 2011.

Multimedia

Audio

Thousands of Syrian army deserters who joined the country's opposition movement have been staging more frequent and deadly attacks on forces loyal to President Bashar al-Assad in recent days.

Those offensive operations by the lightly-armed and loosely-organized Free Syrian Army have increasingly militarized what has been a largely peaceful eight-month uprising against the government.

In recent weeks, the rebels engaged in battles with pro-Assad troops in the northwestern province of Idlib, central province of Homs and southern province of Daraa.

On Wednesday, the Free Syrian Army escalated the fighting by attacking military facilities on the outskirts of the capital, Damascus for the first time.

Syrian opposition activists say the rebels struck an air force intelligence complex in the suburb of Harasta with rockets and gunfire.

Watch a related report by Elizabeth Arrott

Chris Phillips, a Syria expert with the Economist Intelligence Unit in London, says the air force base is notorious for using repression to prevent dissent within the military.

He says he believes the attack on the base was a symbolic effort by the rebels to intimidate pro-Assad forces rather than an attempt to seize facilities controlled by the much stronger military.

A Look At Syria's Main Opposition Groups

  • Syrian National Council:

    - Turkey-based coalition of varying ideologies is Syria's largest opposition grouping.
    - Secular dissident Bourhan Ghalioun announced the council's formation in October and said it rejects foreign intervention. Rejects dialogue with President Bashar al-Assad's government and has been urging him to resign.
    - Has created a general assembly, a general secretariat and an executive committee whose members will chair the council on a rotating basis.

  • National Coordination Committee:

    - Primarily based in Syria.
    - Wants the government to enact reforms though dialogue and by building new civilian institutions.
    - Headed by Hassan Abdul-Azim, who has been demanding an end to President Assad's crackdown as a condition for any dialogue between the government and the opposition.

  • Free Syrian Army:

    - Comprised of military defectors.
    - Initially formed to protect civilians but has increasingly gone on the offensive against pro-government forces.
    - Activists say the group launched a high-profile attack Wednesday against a military intelligence complex near Damascus. It used rockets and other weapons to damage the building. Also, the group says it has created a temporary military council that intends to unseat President Bashar al-Assad's government.
    - The group claims to have at least 15,000 members but those claims have not been independently verified.
    - Colonel Riad al-Asaad formed the group shortly after he defected in July.

Phillips also says the Syrian rebels have been emboldened in recent days by the Arab League's decision to suspend the Syrian government's membership and by Jordanian King Abdullah's call for Assad to step down.

He says the rebels have interpreted those moves as an opportunity to bring their fight to the capital, which has been largely quiet since the uprising began in March.

"I believe that by attacking the outskirts of Damascus, they're trying to send a message to the, for want of a better word, undecided people in Damascus - to let them know that this is going to start affecting their lives as well, and now is the time to join the uprising, to play their cards,"  said Phillips.

The Free Syrian Army released a statement late Tuesday saying that it has formed a temporary military council whose goal is to weaken the Syrian security forces.

But Phillips says the rebels have given mixed messages in the past week about their desire to militarize the uprising, indicating that they remain fragmented.

"We're talking about a lot of different pockets of people, rather than a clear, structured, united command," he said.

Phillips says the Syrian rebels do not appear ready to engage in the kind of armed rebellion that overthrew Libyan leader Moammar Gadhafi.

The Syrian military has not yet seen whole units or generals defecting to the opposition as they did in Libya. And the Syrian rebels do not control a territory. Libyan transitional forces used the city of Benghazi as a launching point for their rebellion that grew out of a largely cohesive opposition base.

Syria's opposition is fragmented into at least three groups.

VOA's Elizabeth Arrott speaks with Syria analyst Nadim Shehadi via Skype about the attacks and what they mean for activists advocating peaceful protest:

Nadim Shehadi, an associate fellow of the London-based Chatham House, says divisions will hinder a united militarized movement to civil war.

"The opposition narrative - the dominant opposition narrative - is still that of a non-violent and peaceful protest," he says.

And, Shehadi adds, that makes international military moves less likely.

"The Syrian National Council has sent a document to the Arab League and to the U.N. appealing for the protection of civilians under the duty-to-protect laws which is a universal obligation under U.N. rules, so there is a call for protection of civilians, under the duty to protect but it is different than calling for a foreign military intervention as we understand it," he says.

Follow our Middle East reports on Twitter
and discuss them on our Facebook page.

Michael Lipin

Michael covers international news for VOA on the web, radio and TV, specializing in the Middle East and East Asia Pacific. Follow him on Twitter @Michael_Lipin

You May Like

Is Air Travel Safe?

Aviation expert says despite tragic losses of Malaysian Airlines flights 370 and 17, industry experienced lowest fatality rate in recorded history last year More

Multimedia 100 Days Later, Nigerian Girls Still Held

Activists holding rallies in Nigeria and several other countries to mark 100th day of captivity for more than 200 schoolgirls being held by Boko Haram More

Chocolate Too Bitter? Swap Sugar for Mushrooms

US food technology company develops fermentation process using mushrooms to reduce bitterness in cocoa beans, believes it will cut sugar content in candy More

This forum has been closed.
Comments
     
There are no comments in this forum. Be first and add one

Featured Videos

Your JavaScript is turned off or you have an old version of Adobe's Flash Player. Get the latest Flash player.
US Carriers Suspend Travel to Israeli
X
Carolyn Presutti
July 23, 2014 1:21 AM
The United States is prohibiting American carriers from flying to Israel's airport in Tel Aviv for 24 hours, because of rising violence between Israel and Hamas militants. The action was announced on Tuesday, after a rocket fired by Hamas militants in the Gaza Strip landed near the airport. As VOA's Carolyn Presutti tells us, international officials soon may have to determine which combat zones are too dangerous for commercial flights.
Video

Video US Carriers Suspend Travel to Israel

The United States is prohibiting American carriers from flying to Israel's airport in Tel Aviv for 24 hours, because of rising violence between Israel and Hamas militants. The action was announced on Tuesday, after a rocket fired by Hamas militants in the Gaza Strip landed near the airport. As VOA's Carolyn Presutti tells us, international officials soon may have to determine which combat zones are too dangerous for commercial flights.
Video

Video NASA Focuses on Earth-Like Planets

For decades, looking for life elsewhere in the universe meant listening for signals that could be from distant civilizations. But recent breakthroughs in space technology refocused some of that effort toward finding planets that may harbor life, even in its primitive form. VOA’s George Putic reports on a recent panel discussion at NASA’s headquarters, in Washington.
Video

Video IAEA: Iran Turns its Enriched Uranium Into Less Harmful Form

Iran has converted its stockpiles of enriched uranium into a less dangerous form that is more difficult to use for nuclear weapons, according to the United Nations’ Atomic Energy Agency. The move complies with an interim deal reached with Western powers on Iran's nuclear program last year, in exchange for easing of sanctions. Henry Ridgwell reports for VOA from London.
Video

Video Relic of Saint Draws Catholics Worried About Immigration Issue

A Roman Catholic saint who is a figure of devotion for those crossing the border into the United States is attracting believers concerned about the plight of undocumented immigrants. Mike O'Sullivan reports from Los Angeles, where a relic of Saint Toribio has drawn thousands to local churches.
Video

Video US Awards Medal of Honor for Heroics in Bloodiest of Afghan Battles

U.S. combat troops are withdrawing from Afghanistan, on pace to leave the country by the end of this year. But on Monday, U.S. President Barack Obama took time to honor a soldier whose actions while under fire in Afghanistan earned him the Medal of Honor. VOA's Jeff Seldin has more from the Pentagon.
Video

Video Ukraine Rebels Surrender MH17 Black Boxes

After days of negotiations, a senior separatist leader handed over two black boxes from an airliner downed over eastern Ukraine to Malaysian experts early Tuesday. While on Monday, the U.N. Security Council unanimously demanded that armed groups controlling the crash site allow safe and unrestricted access to the wreckage.
Video

Video In Cambodia, HIV Diagnosis Brings Deadly Shame

Although HIV/AIDS is now a treatable condition, a positive diagnosis is still a life altering experience. In Cambodia, people living with HIV are often disowned by friends, family and the community. This humiliation can be unbearable. We bring you one Cambodian woman’s struggle to overcome a life tragedy and her own HIV positive diagnosis.
Video

Video Nature of Space Exploration Enters New Age

Forty-five years ago this month, the first humans walked on the moon. It was during an era of the space race between the United States and the Soviet Union. World politics have changed since then and -- as Elizabeth Lee reports -- so has the nature of space exploration.

AppleAndroid