New York Times

Even as the government of President Bashar al-Assad intensifies its crackdown inside Syria, differences over tactics and strategy are generating serious divisions between political and armed opposition factions that are weakening the fight against him, senior activists say.

Soldiers and activists close to the rebel Free Syrian Army, which is orchestrating attacks across the border from inside a refugee camp guarded by the Turkish military, said Thursday that tensions were rising with Syria’s main opposition group, the Syrian National Council, over its insistence that the rebel army limit itself to defensive action. They said the council moved this month to take control of the rebel group’s finances.

“We don’t like their strategy,” said Abdulsatar Maksur, a Syrian who said he was helping to coordinate the Free Syrian Army’s supply network. “They just talk and are interested in politics, while the Assad regime is slaughtering our people.” Repeating a refrain echoed by other army officials interviewed, he added: “We favor more aggressive military action.”

The tensions illustrate what has emerged as one of the key dynamics in the nine-month revolt against Mr. Assad’s government: the failure of Syria’s opposition to offer a concerted front. The exiled opposition is rife with divisions over personalities and principle. The Free Syrian Army, formed by deserters from the Syrian Army, has emerged as a new force, even as some dissidents question how coordinated it really is. The opposition inside Syria has yet to fully embrace the exiles.

Earlier this month, the Syrian National Council, and the rebel Free Syrian Army, which is waging an insurgency against the Syrian government, agreed to coordinate their actions. The move followed concerns by some opposition members that the rebel army was undermining the opposition’s commitment to nonviolence by carrying out high-profile attacks and feeding the narrative of the Assad government that it was being besieged by a foreign plot.

On Thursday, a pipeline carrying oil to a refinery in Homs was blown up, casting a huge pillar of black smoke over the city. The official news agency, Sana, placed blame for the attack on an “armed terrorist group,” the phrase the government uses to describe those behind the uprising. Some activists in Homs suggested that the government was responsible, as part of an effort to besiege the city.

The Syrian crisis has shifted geopolitics in the region, complicating an international response. Turkey, once a close ally, has turned emphatically against the Assad government. But Russia, which has close strategic relations with Syria, and China have blocked all attempts to negotiate a resolution against Syria at the United Nations. Meanwhile, Iran has been forging closer ties with Syria, fueling fears of regional unrest.

Turkish officials say they are hosting the rebel forces for purely humanitarian reasons. “We have no intention of sending arms or fighting groups from Turkey to any other country, including Syria,” a senior Foreign Ministry official said Thursday. “They are in Turkey for their own protection.”

But in recent days clashes at the Turkish-Syrian border between the rebels and the Syrian Army have been intensifying, rebel officials say. The Syrian government said Tuesday that it had prevented 35 gunmen from infiltrating Syrian territory from Turkey. The Free Syrian Army said wounded rebels had been taken across the border for treatment. Turkish officials said there were no military confrontations along the borders with Syria, but residents in the Turkish border village of Guvecci said that in recent days they had heard gunfights through the night.

Syrian activists say the Free Syrian Army is organizing a smuggling network to Syria from inside Turkey to supply soldiers, weapons and medical supplies. On a recent day in Gorentas, a rugged Turkish mountain village near the Syrian border, a group of smugglers was seen packing guns into empty flour sacks before speeding away on motorbikes. Asked where they were going, they replied, “Syria, Syria.”

The Syrian National Council insists that it is the only legitimate representative of the Syrian people, including its armed factions. Its leader, Burhan Ghalioun, met for the first time in early December with the Free Syrian Army chief, Col. Riad al-As’aad, in Hatay, where Colonel As’aad agreed to rein in attacks on Syrian government forces. The Turkish Foreign Ministry, which handles news media requests for meetings with Colonel As’aad, declined to make him available.

During an extensive interview with senior members of the Syrian National Council at its newly opened offices in Istanbul, Samir Nashar, a member of the eight-member executive board, said the Free Syrian Army was emerging as the armed force of the Syrian opposition. But he emphasized that the council’s support for it was limited to providing financing and humanitarian aid, not weapons. “We want them to stay within the limits of protecting civilians, not to attack the regime,” he said. “It is better to coordinate with them than to let them do what they want.”

The Free Syrian Army, which says it has about 10,000 fighters, is too small to fend off the brutal crackdown by the Assad government. Council members said the group was badly equipped, reduced to arming itself mostly with the guns of defectors.

One observer who recently spent two weeks in Syria shadowing the rebels described the army as a ragtag group of soldiers, some as young as 16, who wielded AK-47s and showed up at demonstrations to protect civilians. At least some have positions in caves near the Turkish border and smuggle weapons and supplies under cover of night.

Mr. Nashar said that while Turkey was providing a haven to the Syrian opposition, the Syrian National Council was financed with donations from Syrian supporters and from others in the Arab world. The council operates from a small office in Istanbul. “We don’t have a budget,” he said. “We haven’t even opened a bank account yet in Turkey.”

Senior members of the council said recent sanctions imposed by the Arab League, Turkey and the European Union had proved insufficient in the face of the escalating violence of the Assad government, which the United Nations says has killed at least 4,000 people since protests broke out in March.

A senior defector from the Syrian Foreign Ministry said in an interview that if outside countries armed the opposition rebels, it could inflict serious damage on the Assad government. The official, a former ambassador who fled to Istanbul from Syria last week, said Mr. Assad’s state security apparatus was operating in up to 50 locations in Syria. He argued that surgical strikes, in conjunction with a buffer zone inside Syria put into effect by Turkey, would prove fatal to the government.

Opposition officials said the Free Syrian Army, the Syrian National Council and the Turkish government had been engaged in talks in recent days over the formation of a buffer zone in the event of a huge number of refugees.

Since May, 20,201 Syrians have entered Turkey and 8,424 remain, according to the Ankara government.

But senior Turkish government officials said Thursday that a Syrian buffer zone was a “last resort” and that there were no imminent preparations for any kind of military action.

Mr. Nashar called for a buffer zone to be enforced by Turkey in coordination with the Arab League and the international community.

He said the zone was necessary to protect civilians and the growing ranks of defectors who were finding it difficult to find refuge in Syria. “Assad is running a killing regime, and the world is not doing enough,” he said.

The recent defector from the Syrian Foreign Ministry warned that the Assad government was deluded.

“The regime is living in a bubble and have no sense of reality,” he said. “Like Qaddafi, they will only realize it when the end comes.”

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *