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.



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

Germany Celebrates 25 Years of Unity

October 3 is a public holiday, marking the day in 1990 when East Germany and West Germany reunited More

Analysts: Russia's Syria Strikes Shake Regional Powers

If Moscow bolsters Assad, Saudi Arabia, other Gulf countries may feel obliged to step in More

Video Innovative Nano-Tech Water Filter Prevents Disease

It can absorb contaminants like copper, bacteria, viruses and pesticides, says Askwar Hilonga, who has been successfully trying out his product in Arusha More

This forum has been closed.
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.
Russia’s Syria Involvement Raising Concerns in Europei
Luis Ramirez
October 02, 2015 4:45 PM
European nations are joining the United States in demanding that Russia stop targeting opposition groups other than the Islamic State militants as Russian warplanes continue to conduct raids in Syria. The demand came in a statement from Britain, France, Germany, Qatar, Saudi Arabia, Turkey and the United States Friday. VOA Europe correspondent Luis Ramirez reports.

Video Russia’s Syria Involvement Raising Concerns in Europe

European nations are joining the United States in demanding that Russia stop targeting opposition groups other than the Islamic State militants as Russian warplanes continue to conduct raids in Syria. The demand came in a statement from Britain, France, Germany, Qatar, Saudi Arabia, Turkey and the United States Friday. VOA Europe correspondent Luis Ramirez reports.

Video First Self-Driving Truck Debuts on European Highways

The first automated semi-trailer truck started its maiden voyage Friday, Oct. 2, on a European highway. The Daimler truck called 'Actros' is the first potentially mass-produced truck whose driver will be required only to monitor the situation, similar to the role of an airline captain while the plane is in autopilot mode. VOA’s George Putic reports.

Video Nano-tech Filter Cleans Dirty Water

Access to clean water is a problem for hundreds of millions of people around the world. Now, a scientist and chemical engineer in Tanzania (in East Africa) is working to change that by creating an innovative water filter that makes dirty water safe. VOA’s Deborah Block has the story.

Video Demand Rising for Organic Produce in Cambodia

In Cambodia, where rice has long been the main cash crop, farmers are being encouraged to turn to vegetables to satisfy the growing demand for locally produced organic farm products. Daniel de Carteret has more from Phnom Penh.

Video Migrant Influx Costs Europe, But Economy Could Benefit

The influx of hundreds of thousands of refugees and migrants is testing Europe’s ability to respond – especially in the poorer Balkan states. But some analysts argue that Europe will benefit by welcoming the huge numbers of young people – many of them well educated and willing to work. Henry Ridgwell reports from London.

Video Botanists Grow Furniture, with Pruning Shears

For something a bit out of the ordinary to furnish your home, why not consider wooden chairs, crafted by nature, with a little help from some British botanists with an eye for design. VOA’s Jessica Berman reports.

Video New Fabric Helps Fight Dust-Related Allergies

Many people around the world suffer from dust-related allergies, caused mainly by tiny mites that live in bed linen. Polish scientists report they have successfully tested a fabric that is impenetrable to the microscopic creatures. VOA’s George Putic has more.

Video Burkina Faso's Economy Deeply Affected by Political Turmoil

Political turmoil in Burkina Faso over the past year has taken a toll on the economy. The transitional government is reporting nearly $70 million in losses in the ten days that followed a short-lived coup by members of the presidential guard earlier this month. The crisis shut businesses and workers went on strike. With elections on the horizon, Emilie Iob reports on what a return to political stability can do for the country's economic recovery.

Video Fleeing Violence, Some Syrians Find Refuge in Irbil

As Syrians continue to flee their country’s unrest to seek new lives in safer places, VOA Persian Service reporter Shepol Abbassi visited Irbil, where a number Syrians have taken refuge. During the religious holidy of Eid al-Adha, the city largely shut down, as temperatures soared. Amy Katz narrates his report.

Video Nigeria’s Wecyclers Work for Reusable Future in Lagos

The streets and lagoons of Africa's largest city - Lagos, Nigeria - are often clogged with trash, almost none of which gets recycled. One company is trying to change that. Chris Stein reports for VOA from Lagos.

Video Sketch Artist Helps Catch Criminals, Gives a Face to Deceased

Police often face the problem of trying to find a crime suspect based on general descriptions that could fit hundreds of people in the vicinity of the crime. In these cases, an artist can use information from witnesses to sketch a likeness that police can show the public via newspapers and television. But, as VOA’s Greg Flakus reports from Houston, such sketches can also help bring back faces of the dead.

Video Thailand Set to Build China-like Internet Firewall

Thai authorities are planning to tighten control over the Internet, creating a single international access point so they can better monitor content. VOA Correspondent Steve Herman reports from Bangkok on what is being called Thailand’s own "Great Firewall."

Video Croatian Town’s War History Evokes Empathy for Migrants

As thousands of Afghanistan, Iraqi and Syrian migrants pass through Croatia, locals are reminded of their own experiences with war and refugees in the 1990s. VOA's Daniel Schearf reports from the town of Vukovar, where wartime scars still are visible today.

Video Long Drought Affecting California’s Sequoias

California is suffering under a historic four-year drought and scientists say even the state's famed sequoia trees are feeling the pain. The National Park Service has started detailed research to see how it can help the oldest living things on earth survive. VOA’s George Putic reports.

VOA Blogs