Asharq Al-Awsat visits the Free Syrian Army
Antakya, Asharq Al-Awsat- In southern Turkey, just a stone’s throw from the Syrian border live around 65 Syrian soldiers and officers in a camp protected by Turkish forces. They make up something resembling a command council for what is known as the “Free Syrian Army” which is led by Colonel Riyad al-Assaad, the highest-ranking Syrian army defector so far.
The officers assemble under Al-Assaad’s leadership at the site where its precise location is kept secret but which Asharq Al-Awsat has been given exclusive access to visit and observe the officers and soldiers’ activities and coordination with their colleagues in Syrian territories who Col. Al-Assaad asserts are “definitely more than 10,000 defectors” who are present all over Syria.
The Free Syrian Army has set up a press office at its command center, with an official spokesman in the form of Capt. Ammar al-Wawi, who told Asharq Al-Awsat that the center’s activities focus on contacting and updating television channels, newspapers, and other media organs on its undertakings, pointeding out that the center has been equipped with modern communications equipment for carrying out this task.
Capt. Al-Wawi, who was wearing an official suit and a blue tie which contrasted with the military environment of the camp that is built on sandy soil and has white tents, said he was happy for the birth of his new daughter he called Kifah in the hope of naming the child after her Nasr [victory] after the victory he and his colleagues are wishing for.
Col. Al-Asaad who commands the new “army” appears calm and modest in his blue sports suit. His voice is calm and low but when it comes to “serious talk”, he raises it and talks as someone confident of a victory he is expecting, forecasting “a disgraceful fate” for Syrian President Bashar al-Assad and his colleagues “which will be only similar to the fate of his ally Col. Muammar Gaddafi who had called himself the (king of kings) while he is now a fugitive like the rats to which he had compared his rebelling people.”
Col. Al-Assaad stressed to Asharq Al-Awsat that the number of soldiers who have defected from the regime has certainly exceeded 10,000 and are inside Syrian territories, and that no more than 36 officers are with him in Turkey. Al-Assaad told Asharq Al-Awsat “We have formed a complete army and distributed the regiments and companies according to the system operating in the regular Syrian army’s command.” He justifies this by saying “there is a need to create an army nucleus capable of controlling matters and which turns into an official army after the regime’s downfall.” He adds: “At first, we acted individually but with the increase in the number of defectors, we saw that we needed an organization and a framework for this movement so as to become an effective force.” He asserted that the new army “will be far from politics, partisanship, and sectarianism.”
Al-Asaad points out that the “Free Army” is operating on the ground and carrying out daily operations against the regime, assuring the Syrian people rebelling against injustice that “this army is close to them and will protect them at every point in the Syrian territories.” He made it clear that the “Free Army’s” operations were limited at first to the shabbihah, the security forces, and the air intelligence which is curbing the splits in the army. He disclosed however that this army would start targeting the regular army and said: “We excluded it (the regular army) at first but we are now forced to target it. We are going to strike with all our force. There is no scope for manoeuvring because our people are being butchered by this army. Today, there is shelling targeting civilians by warplanes and these belong to the regular army’s air force and not to the shabbihah and security forces.”
The “army’s” armament part is still weak but Al-Assaad asserts that it “is forming itself and collecting weapons little by little”, pointing out that the source of these weapons “are some Syrian quarters with which we are dealing. We are not dealing with foreign quarters and we do not have external support.” But he noted that “the only coordination now is with the Turks”, hoping that they would take a stand and said he was expecting “a decision of great importance from them very soon.” He says: “The Turks are the only ones standing with us now. The Arabs have let us down and therefore we have no one except them.” He added that “there is no military coordination with Turkey yet” but did not hide his hope of this happening. In reply to a question about the significance of the Turkish exercises, he hopes “that the coming days will reveal many things.”
When the time comes to talk about politics, Col. Al-Assaad reveals an inclination toward cooperating with the National Council which will become the opposition’s political façade. Al- Assaad says: “We are hoping the National Council will coordinate with us and be the political façade for the process of bringing down the regime after which the process of building a national state that is definitely civilian will start.” In reply to a question about the extent of coordination with the council, he said: “There are so far contacts with some figures. They are establishing their own bodies. They established the foreign affairs committees. When the time comes to establish the defense committee, then they must coordinate with us. We must be in this committee.” He pointed out that the army command tried to contact all the Syrian opposition parties “and tried to bring all these parties together.” Al-Assaad thanks God that agreement was reached to establish this command “after concessions were made by some.”
Al-Assaad and his colleagues in exile are demanding from the Syrian people “to stand fast and remain strong” and promising them “that the regime’s downfall is soon, very soon, and the fate of its leader will be the same as the fate of Gaddafi who is running from one place to another.” He expressed hope that the world “will take a firmer stand toward the Syrian regime”, adding that this regime “is a ruling gang” and stressing that the “Free Army” rejects any foreign military intervention and all it wants is “an air and naval embargo.” Despite asserting that the people would continue the peacefulness of their revolution, he believes that the regime would not fall except by force “(Syrian President Hafiz) Al-Assad seized power by force and this regime can only be brought down by force.”