Syrian defectors protected by Turkey illustrate split between the countries

By RUTH SHERLOCK AND PATRICK J. MCDONNELL | Los Angeles Times | Published: November 2, 2011

ANTAKYA, Turkey -- From his heavily guarded enclave inside Turkey, a leading Syrian defector says he is heading an armed rebellion against the regime of President Bashar Assad.

The brutality of the regime in Syria left him and others no choice but to switch sides, says Col. Riad Assad, leader of a force called the Free Syrian Army.

"We are the future army of a new Syria," the colonel, who is not related to the president, said in an interview. "We are striking Assad's regime and his army in many spots."

The colonel's boasts of strikes against Syria are impossible to verify, as is his contention that more than 10,000 Syrian soldiers had deserted and taken up arms against their nation.

But one thing is clear: The emergence of the armed defectors, enjoying Turkey's apparent protection, is the most dramatic sign yet of Turkey's abrupt split with its ally in Syria.

On Tuesday, Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan -- who has assailed Syria for what he termed a brutal crackdown on protesters -- hailed the resistance movement, reported the Turkish daily Zaman.

"I believe the Syrian people will be successful in their glorious resistance," Erdogan declared at a party meeting.

Turkey plans to impose economic sanctions against Syria, Erdogan has said, joining the European Union and the United States. Turkey also has hosted members of a political opposition umbrella group, the Syrian National Council, which was formed in Istanbul last month and demands the Syrian president's ouster.

Longtime adversaries, Syria and Turkey in recent years had become close allies, cooperating in economic, military and other spheres, as a resurgent Turkey sought to bolster its standing as regional power.

But Damascus' clamp-down on Syria's Arab Spring-inspired protests has caused a deep rupture that has reshaped area geopolitics. Syria's close ally, Iran, has voiced displeasure with Turkey's new hostility toward Syria.

The presence of the Syrian Free Army inside Turkey has shone an international spotlight on the regional rift.

Col. Assad said in an interview Monday that his forces are conducting ambushes and other "high quality operations" against security forces "in cities across Syria."

The group's weapons, the colonel said, are limited to what fleeing soldiers can scrounge from the regular army. He acknowledges that the defector force lacks the military might to pose a threat to the Syrian army, with some 200,000 troops.

The appearance of armed rebels inside Syria has posed somewhat of a quandary for the Syrian opposition movement, which kicked off more than seven months ago with peaceful street demonstrations. Advocates insist the revolt remains non violent and continues to eschew armed insurgency.

Activists say armed rebels constitute a tiny minority of those opposing the regime. But some observers fear an increasing militarization of the conflict and a slide toward civil war.

The scenario in Syria remains in sharp contrast to what happened in Libya, where a military crackdown against protesters quickly evolved into an armed insurrection against the government of Moammar Gadhafi.

The Syrian uprising's public face as a besieged protest movement has helped win it sympathy worldwide, including in Washington, where the Obama administration has called for Assad to step down. The United Nations estimates that more than 3,000 people, mostly civilians, have been killed.

The Syrian government has blamed "armed groups" and "terrorists" for fomenting unrest in Syria and killing more than 1,000 security personnel. It has depicted defectors as traitors and denied reports from the opposition that military morale is low and that soldiers have refused orders to fire on civilians.

In September, Syrian television broadcast an interview with another high-ranking defector, Lt. Col. Hussein al-Harmoush, who retracted comments that the army had been forced to shoot at civilians.

Harmoush also had defected to Turkey. How he ended up on Syrian TV remains unclear. The Turkish government denied allegations by Syrian activists that Turkey handed Harmoush over to Syria.

Turkish authorities, who maintain that their role is humanitarian, have gone to considerable lengths to insure Col. Assad's safety.

No journalists are allowed to enter the camp where Assad and fellow defectors reside. Any interviews must be arranged through the Turkish Foreign Ministry. A reporter in Antakya, the closest city to the camp, was only allowed to speak with the colonel by telephone.

In the interview, Assad declined to say whether his forces were conducting cross-border operations from Turkey. He appealed to the international community to impose a "no fly zone," similar to what the North Atlantic Treaty Organization enforced over Libya. He also called for a "buffer zone" inside Syria that would provide protection for fleeing civilians _ and create a haven for his forces.

"We don't have the ability to buy weapons, but we need to protect civilians inside Syria," the colonel said.

NATO officials have said the alliance has no intention of intervening in Syria. Turkey, a NATO member, has not moved to create a buffer zone inside Syrian territory.

President Assad told the British Sunday Telegraph that Western action against his strategically situated nation would trigger an "earthquake" that would "burn the whole region" and possibly cause "another Afghanistan, or tens of Afghanistans."

Special correspondent Sherlock reported from Antakya and Times staff writer McDonnell from Beirut.

Distributed by MCT Information Services

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