In Syria crisis, Turkey is caught between Iran and a hard place

Zvi Bar’el reports: “We have agreed that the free Syrian army will not carry out any independent attacks against the Syrian regime,” Ahmed Ramadan, one of the heads of the Syrian National Council, the chief opposition group, stated with satisfaction after meeting with the commander of the Free Syrian Army. “The commander of the free army, Col. Riyad al-Asad, agreed with us that the Syrian protest movement will continue to be a civilian movement and that the free army would open fire only to defend civilians or in cases of danger to life.”

It is not clear whether this agreement – arrived at last Wednesday during a secret meeting in Turkey – will last. It was the first such meeting between the National Council and the free Syrian army, which until now have not worked together, and it seems that the leaders are trying to set up a joint opposition council so that they can close ranks and offer a unified plan of action.

The fear of the National Council – which includes 200 opposition members led by Burhan Ghalioun, a Syrian intellectual living in Paris – is that wildcat attacks like the strike on the Air Force Intelligence base at Harasta near Damascus on November 17 and the attacks on Syrian army convoys, could play into the hands of the regime, which has been trying since the beginning of the uprising to prove that it is fighting a legitimate war against armed gangs.

Another concern is that the establishment of “a military arm” of the protest movement could eventually lead to an internal power struggle between different sections of the opposition and divert the struggle against the regime to the struggle between the various opposition groups.

Asad, an engineer and a member of the Syrian air force who defected to set up the free army at the end of July, now has 15,000 soldiers under his command. He is hoping for a leadership position in the new Syria.

The army he has put together has 11 battalions that are operating in large towns across Syria. Each one consists of companies that rely on local logistic assistance, plus weapons and equipment seized from Syrian army bases or imported from abroad.

According to Turkish and Syrian reports, large quantities of weapons were smuggled into Syria from Libya, via Turkey. Libyan rebels have reportedly also made the journey to Syria to partake in the uprising.

The New York Times reports: The seemingly routine flow of life in central Damascus could leave the impression that there is no crisis, or that the security approach is effective. Yet beneath the mundane, unease grips this capital as fear of civil war supplants hopes for a peaceful transition to democracy. Damascus residents describe the restive suburbs as severed from the city by government checkpoints, and while the security forces control those areas by day, the night belongs to the rebels. A request to visit the suburbs was denied “for your own safety” by a Syrian government official.

Protesters hold “flying demonstrations” inside the city, trying to subvert the control of security forces with a few people gathering briefly to be filmed shouting antigovernment slogans. Damascenes say that they have become so accustomed to hearing slogans chanted in the background, given the almost daily progovernment rallies organized by the government, that it takes a couple minutes to register that people are cursing President Assad. By the time they seek the source, the protesters have faded away.

Yet security forces seem omnipresent, usually materializing in minutes. Government critics say myriad supporters have been recruited into the shabiha, or ghosts, as the loyalist forces are known.

A recent flash demonstration near the central Cham Palace Hotel was dispersed by a group of waiters who flew out of a nearby cafe with truncheons, said an eyewitness. Many university campuses remain tense because student members of the ruling Baath Party have been reporting antigovernment classmates to the secret police.

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