By Zeina Khodr
You need the Turkish government’s approval to have a face-to-face meeting with Colonel Riad al-Asad, who is currently in a refugee camp close to the Syrian border.
But the head of the Free Syrian Army (FSA) can be reached over the phone. Most of the time he seems to be in no mood to talk, like a man who is up against insurmountable odds.
“They know our demands. We have repeatedly told them what we want. There is no need for me to spell them out again,” the colonel told me when I asked him about the first congress being held by the main political opposition, the Syrian National Council, in Tunisia.
Did you send a representative to that meeting?, I asked.
“No, they didn’t invite us,” he replied.
I then asked him whether he thought the Free Syrian Army should have been among the scores of mostly exiled and dissident Syrians who were outlining future strategies.
His answer was blunt: “Yes, we should have.”
The Free Syrian Army, which is a group of army defectors, has become the official armed opposition, at least in the eyes of many protestors.
“The Syrian National Council [SNC] hasn’t done anything for us to say that they are our representatives,” Abu Omar said. “It took them a long time to recognize the presence of the Free Syrian Army.”
In a meeting late November, the civilian opposition and the army rebels met in Hatay, Turkey, to coordinate their struggle against the Syrian government. A member of the SNC said they agreed the FSA’s role would be to protect the people, not to attack.
The SNC had been reluctant to back the armed struggle, one of the many issues dividing an already divided opposition. Recognition of the FSA for some hasn’t been enough. They want those who claim to speak in their name to give logistical support to the FSA.
“They [SNC] need to get the international community to create a no-fly zone … a buffer zone. That would encourage more defections from the army because the soldiers will find a safe place to operate,” Abdul Wahab said.
Omar is one of these defectors. He is a 16-year-old who recently escaped to Turkey from the northwestern Syrian province of Idlib where the number of army defectors has been on the rise. But Omar said the defectors are being killed by government troops because they only have light weapons.
“They have nowhere to hide. They should be given assistance because they are our only change to topple the government,” he told me.
The FSA is already trying to gather strength in areas of northwest Idlib province which border Turkey.
An FSA spokesman told me that the Syrian army is unable to enter the region of Jabal Zawiya without suffering casualties.
This claim which is hard to verify, but one a wounded protestor who is receiving treatment in a Turkish hospital backed it up.
“Defectors are strong in Jabal Zawiya. They are keeping the security forces away from the area,” Mohammed said.
It’s hard to independently gauge the opposition’s strength in that region but many videos posted on the internet appear to show soldiers defecting in large numbers.
Idlib is strategic territory lying on the mountainous and often porous border with Turkey. It has been an area known for frequent smuggling activity and some people now say the old routes are now being used by opponents of the Syrian government.
If the opposition controls portions of the province, the border could serve as a supply line. That’s why the Syrian army has sent reinforcements to the area.
The FSA is still not a threat to the state. Even so, there are those who are pinning hopes on the fighters to give them a chance against the state.
But there are others who fear that strengthening them could lead to a full-blown armed insurgency.
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|Timothy V. Gatto|