By Ruth Sherlock
An insurgent army which claims to be up to 15,000 strong is being coordinated from Turkey to take on President Bashar al-Assad of Syria, which risks plunging the region into open warfare.
The national “Syrian Free Army” aims to be the “military wing of the Syrian people’s opposition to the regime”, its leader told The Daily Telegraph from a heavily guarded camp in eastern Turkey.
Confirmation of an armed force operating with the covert approval of the Turkish authorities follows evidence that attacks inside Syria are causing high levels of casualties in the security forces. It also shows the anger of Recep Tayipp Erdogan, the Turkish premier, with Mr Assad, a former ally whose failed promises of reform have caused a deep rift.
“We are the future army of the new Syria. We are not in league with any particular sect, religion or political party. We believe in protecting all elements of Syrian society,” the Army’s leader, Col Riad al-Assad, said.
Made up of defectors from the regime’s army, SFA fighters are conducting “high quality operations against government soldiers and security agents,” Col Assad said.
Last week the SFA claimed responsibility for the killing of nine Syrian soldiers in battles in a town in central Syria. On Friday a further 17 regime soldiers were reported killed in violent clashes with defected former comrades in the city of Homs, a hotbed of resistance.
The violence has continued this week. There have been unconfirmed reports that nine members of the minority Alawite sect to which Mr Assad belongs were dragged off a bus and killed, while 15 members of the security forces were killed by deserters on Wednesday in two attacks, according to the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights.
The escalation has given new urgency to Wednesday’s fragile agreement between the regime and the Arab League to withdraw the army from the streets. The Observatory said 20 more people died in Homs on Thursday from gunfire and shelling despite the supposed agreement, while today will see an even bigger test as activists challenge Mr Assad with street protests after Friday prayers.
Turkey’s formal position that it has only a humanitarian role in Syria and Col Assad was coy on whether the SFA was conducting cross border operations.
But he said his men were operating across Syria. “Our fighters protect the borders of dissident towns and villages, and attack soldiers who gun down peaceful demonstrators,” he said. “We are armed with guns and ammunition stolen from the regime”.
The size of the movement is unclear, with estimates ranging from 5,000 to 15,000. Many defectors have fled across the border and are being hosted in guarded camps in Turkey.
Col Assad appealed to the international community to impose a ‘no fly zone’ and a ‘no sea zone’.
“We don’t have the ability to buy weapons, but we need to protect civilians inside Syria,” he said. “We want to make a ‘safe zone’ in the north of Syria, a buffer zone in which the SFA can get organised.” With a small weapons supply, his movement is not yet in a position to pose a serious threat to the regime, but its presence marks a definitive change to the original unified opposition policy of peaceful protest.
Col Assad said he wanted his force to be recognised as the military wing of the Syrian National Council – the umbrella political opposition announced at a conference in Istanbul.