By Liam Stack
The New York Times
ANTAKYA, Turkey — Once one of Syria’s closest allies, Turkey is hosting an armed opposition group waging an insurgency against the government of President Bashar al-Assad, providing shelter to the commander and dozens of members of the group, the Free Syrian Army, and allowing them to orchestrate attacks across the border from inside a camp guarded by the Turkish military.
The support for the insurgents comes amid a broader Turkish campaign to undermine Mr. Assad’s government. Turkey is expected to impose sanctions soon on Syria, and it has deepened its support for an umbrella political opposition group known as the Syrian National Council, which announced its formation in Istanbul. But its harboring of leaders in the Free Syrian Army, a militia composed of defectors from the Syrian armed forces, may be its most striking challenge so far to Damascus.
On Wednesday, the group, living in a heavily guarded refugee camp in Turkey, claimed responsibility for killing nine Syrian soldiers, including one uniformed officer, in an attack in restive central Syria.
Photo: Syrian President Bashar al-Assad and Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan. Source - Global Arab Network
Turkish officials describe their relationship with the group’s commander, Col. Riad al-As’aad, and the 60 to 70 members living in the “officers’ camp” as purely humanitarian. Turkey’s primary concern, the officials said, is for the physical safety of defectors. When asked specifically about allowing the group to organize military operations while under the protection of Turkey, a Foreign Ministry official said that their only concern was humanitarian protection and that they could not stop them from expressing their views.
“At the time all of these people escaped from Syria, we did not know who was who, it was not written on their heads ‘I am a soldier’ or ‘I am an opposition member,’ ” a Foreign Ministry spokesman said on the condition of anonymity in keeping with diplomatic protocol. “We are providing these people with temporary residence on humanitarian grounds, and that will continue.”
At the moment, the group is too small to pose any real challenge to Mr. Assad’s government. But its Turkish support underlines how combustible, and resilient, Syria’s uprising has proven. The country sits at the intersection of influences in the region — with Iran, Hezbollah in Lebanon, Saudi Arabia and Israel — and Turkey’s involvement will be closely watched by Syria’s friends and foes.
“We will fight the regime until it falls and build a new period of stability and safety in Syria,” Colonel As’aad said in an interview arranged by the Turkish Foreign Ministry and conducted in the presence of a Foreign Ministry official. “We are the leaders of the Syrian people and we stand with the Syrian people.”
The interview was held in the office of a local government official, and Colonel As’aad arrived protected by a contingent of 10 heavily armed Turkish soldiers, including one sniper.
The colonel wore a business suit that an official with the Turkish Foreign Ministry said he purchased for him that morning. At the end of the meeting, citing security concerns, the colonel and a ministry official advised that all further contact with his group be channeled through the ministry.
Turkey once viewed its warm ties with Syria as its greatest foreign policy accomplishment, but relations have collapsed over the eight months of antigovernment protests there and a brutal crackdown that the United Nations says has killed more than 3,000 people.
Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan of Turkey was personally offended by Mr. Assad’s repeated failure to abide by his assurances that he would undertake sweeping reform. Turkish officials predict that the Assad government may collapse within the next two years.
“This pushes Turkish policy further towards active intervention in Syria,” said Hugh Pope, an analyst with the International Crisis Group. He called Turkey’s apparent relationship with the Free Syrian Army “completely new territory.”
“It is clear Turkey feels under threat from what is happening in the Middle East, particularly Syria,” said Mr. Pope, who noted that in past speeches Mr. Erdogan “has spoken of what happens in Syria as an internal affair of Turkey.”
Turkish officials say that their government has not provided weapons or military support to the insurgent group, and that the group has not directly requested such assistance.
Still, Colonel As’aad, who thanked Turkey for its protection, made it clear that he was seeking better weapons, saying that his group could inflict damage on a Syrian leadership that has proven remarkably cohesive.
“We ask the international community to provide us with weapons so that we, as an army, the Free Syrian Army, can protect the people of Syria,” he said. “We are an army, we are in the opposition, and we are prepared for military operations. If the international community provides weapons, we can topple the regime in a very, very short time.”
The words seemed more boast than threat, and with mass pro-government rallies and a crackdown that has, for now, stanched the momentum of antigovernment demonstrations, the Syrian government appears in a stronger position than it did this summer. Though deeply isolated, Syria’s government felt emboldened by the vetoes of Russia and China of a relatively tough United Nations Security Council resolution. Despite predictions otherwise, the military and the security services, in particular, have yet to fracture in the eight months of a grinding, bloody crackdown.
Colonel As’aad said he defected from the military and fled to Turkey after protests erupted in his home village, Ebdeeta, in northern Idlib Province, drawing a government crackdown in which several relatives were killed and his sister’s house was shelled. But he also fled, he said, because “I knew there was greater potential to lead operations in a place in which I was free.”
He said all the residents of the camp where he lives in Turkey are members of the Free Syrian Army. The camp includes a personal assistant and a “media office” staffed by about a half-dozen people. He said the group’s fighters were highly organized, though only armed with weapons they took when they defected or those taken from slain members of Syrian security and pro-government forces. He would not specify the number of fighters, saying only that it was more than 10,000, and he was unwilling to disclose the number of battalions, claiming that the group had 18 “announced” battalions and an unspecified number of secret ones. None of his claims could be independently verified.
“Our strategy for the future is that we will confront the regime in its weak places, and in the next period we hope to acquire weapons so we can be able to face the regime more strongly,” Colonel As’aad said.
Though many analysts contend that defectors’ attacks in Syria appear uncoordinated and local, Colonel As’aad claimed to be in full operational control. He said that he was in charge of planning “full military operations” while leaving smaller clashes and day-to-day decisions up to commanders in the field. Nevertheless, he is in daily contact with the commanders of each battalion, he said, spending hours a day checking e-mail on a laptop connected to one of four telephones — including a satellite phone — provided to him by Syrian expatriates living in the United States, Europe and the Persian Gulf.
Andrew Tabler, a fellow at the Washington Institute for Near East Policy, said the emergence of the fledgling group was crucial to the larger question of whether the opposition would stick to peaceful protest, as it largely has, or if it would “go down another path to fighting back.”
“They are organized and they are speaking to people outside,” Mr. Tabler said. “But the question is to what degree are they receiving financial support from people outside, such as individuals in Turkey and Saudi Arabia.”