ANTAKYA, Turkey — The rebel Free Syrian Army said it has begun the "battle for the liberation of Damascus," as clashes with government forces raged in the capital for a third day. The battles come as more than 1,000 Syrians, including a defecting brigadier-general, fled to Turkey overnight.
On a cross-border visit to the Turkish city of Antakya, Ahmad al-Kanatre Abu Hamza, commander of the Omar al-Mukhtar battalion of the Free Syrian Army, said the FSA is making big gains in territory and manpower. The commander said he sees increasing defections by Syrian soldiers.
“The number of defectors is now 100,000 and now they are defecting in bigger groups - this is a new phenomenon," Abu Hamza said. "The reason for the higher number of defections is that the regime is carrying out so many massacres every day. And the soldiers realize this regime must fall.”
Videos given to VOA by activists claim to show stockpiles of weapons amassed by the FSA. But Abu Hamza denied Syrian government claims that foreign powers are arming what it calls the FSA "terrorists." He said the FSA needs more foreign protection.
The rebel commander said, “We need a no-fly zone, it’s so important the world does this, because Assad’s jets are firing on unarmed people and targeting anything that moves. We have no way to protect ourselves.”
Many FSA fighters are based at Turkish refugee camps like Yayladagi. One fighter - an ethnic Turkman - who did not want to give his name, said he recently returned from fighting in Syria's Idlib province. His account cannot be verified.
“The FSA controls big parts of Syria,” he said. “Actually the Syrian government is really only in control in the center of big cities like Damascus, Aleppo and inside Latakia. All around the cities, almost everywhere is under the control of the FSA.”
On Tuesday, fierce fighting continued for a third day in the Syrian capital. The FSA claimed the "battle for the liberation of Damascus" has begun. But analysts question whether rebels have the manpower and arsenal to defeat Syrian armed forces.
Still, at the Yayladagi outpost, buoyed by recent FSA advances, rebel fighters and refugees gathered for an anti-Assad protest.