Defections from Syria’s armed forces are growing

The Economist reports: The glue and the guts of President Bashar Assad’s regime are the army and its allies in the police and the Mukhabarat, the intelligence service. So far they have generally stayed loyal. But defectors are growing in number and are getting better organised.

Since the start of the uprising in March there have been defections, mainly from the ranks of Sunni conscripts. Some flee the country, others hide among civilians. In July, Riad al-Asaad, a colonel in his 50s, left for Turkey and announced the formation of the Free Syrian Army. Another group, calling itself the Free Officers’ Movement, also emerged.

At the time the two organisations were thin. Defecting soldiers worked in small and disparate groups. But in late September the two outfits announced a merger. They now seem more coherent. The Free Syrian Army says it has 22 “battalions” across the country, with field leaders taking orders from a central command in Turkey. These include the Khalid bin Walid battalion in Homs, where clashes with loyalist forces have been fiercest. In the past few weeks, fighting has also broken out in Idlib, in the north-west, and al-Bukamal, on the border with Iraq.

The role of defectors is changing. “Defected soldiers initially just fled, then they came out with weapons behind protesters just to ensure they were safe to go out,” says a man who received military training and took part in Free Syrian Army actions. Now he says the army defectors are becoming more belligerent, attacking checkpoints, armed pro-regime gangs and military equipment. They often make grandiose claims, for instance to have disabled tens of tanks at a time. These are probably exaggerations. But ambushes of convoys of security men are certainly taking place.

In an exclusive interview with The Daily Telegraph, President Assad dismissed the Syrian National Council, a broad front bringing together most of his main opponents.

“I wouldn’t waste my time talking about them,” he said. “I don’t know them. It’s better to investigate whether they really represent Syrians.”

He insisted that anti-government demonstrators were being paid and were motivated by money

“You have a lot of money being paid every day, a lot of money moving across the border,” he said. “Part of this money actually supports our economy.”

Speaking to the Sunday Telegraph, President Assad warned that foreign intervention in his country would “burn” the whole Middle East.

“Syria is the hub now in this region,” he said. “It is the fault line, and if you play with the ground you will cause an earthquake … Do you want to see another Afghanistan, or tens of Afghanistans?

“Any problem in Syria will burn the whole region. If the plan is to divide Syria, that is to divide the whole region.”

Opposition groups and activists accused the Syrian leader of raising false fears to deter action against his regime, which has killed at least 3,000 civilians, including 187 children, in months of street protests.

“After eight months of uprisings, why do you think this will suddenly descend to civil and then regional war?” said Nasser Ahme, a Kurdish activist member of the Sawa, or ‘Together’, youth movement, speaking from a hiding place in Turkey.

“He is trying to make the uprising seem threatening to the West and the Middle East,” said Walat Afimeh, another member of the group.

In Damascus, where Assad’s interview has been widely reported, ordinary Syrians voiced support for his views.

“Everybody’s talking about it,” said a café owner, Maher Omran, interviewed in the presence of a government minder. “What he said was powerful and very comforting for the Syrian people.”

Despite the unpopularity of the regime in many quarters, it also enjoys some uncoerced support. Massive demonstrations in support of Assad have taken place in three Syrian cities, including the capital, over the past week. Independent observers said the participants did not appear to have been forced to attend.

The latest pro-regime rally, yesterday, saw thousands of people holding Assad posters in the central square of the southern city of Sweida.

Activists meanwhile renewed the call for a Libyan-style no-fly zone, and the equipping of the ‘Syrian Free Army’ (SFA) – an opposition military group composed of defecting soldiers.

However, Western diplomatic sources said that there was “no appetite” for military intervention against Syria.

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