|Syria’s nascent opposition appears divided on a fundamental question: whether to take up arms or remain peaceful in its efforts to overthrow President Bashar al-Assad.
|Despite reports that an army of Syrian defectors will soon begin a military campaign against the Assad regime, members of the Syrian National Council (SNC), which met last Sunday in İstanbul, say there “exists no collective will for violence” among the country’s mass opposition movement.
“Though we fear that some groups may be calling for an armed struggle, there is absolutely no mainstream desire to make the revolution a military one,” SNC spokeswoman Bassma Kodmani told Today’s Zaman in an interview on Friday.
Kodmani’s remarks come amidst a growing number of defections in the Syrian army, which have left some experts predicting the rise of armed clashes between opposition forces and the military loyal to President Assad.
In an interview with Reuters, the highest ranking defector from Syria’s military and leader of the Free Syrian Army vowed to overthrow Assad on Friday, saying that he plans to direct the first armed resistance movement against the embattled regime.
Col. Riad al-As’aad, who recently defected from the Syrian air force and currently claims to command a force of 15,000 deserters, said rebel forces have already begun to ambush the Syrian security force in the country’s northern regions. The colonel now claims that he will soon return his military command to Syria after fleeing to the Turkish province of Hatay weeks ago.
«Without a war, he will not fall. Whoever leads with force cannot be removed except by force,» As’aad told Reuters in a Syrian refugee camp in Hatay.
The SNC, a 230-member assembly of opposition voices which includes the Muslim Brotherhood, Syrian Christians, liberals and other political bodies within Syria, met last Sunday in İstanbul to discuss the future policy and leadership of the opposition movement. A statement issued in İstanbul on behalf of the SNC demanded support from the international community and said world countries have a responsibility to “protect them and stop the crimes and gross human rights violations being committed by the current illegitimate regime.”
But although it says it represents the Syrian people, the council is known to have no link to Col. As’aad or his Free Syrian Army. Yaser Tabbara, a Muslim rights activist and council member, clarified that the council is neither affiliated with the Free Syrian Army nor seeking to direct the actions of the local coordination committees in Syria. Instead, Tabbara stated, the council acts as a “political umbrella” which provides political and moral unity for protest groups in Syria. “Our mandate is not to organize a rebellion on the ground,” Tabbara stated.
Those Assad opponents who call for a peaceful revolt against the regime say armed action could only worsen the situation and there are fears, including in Turkey, that an escalation of violence in Syria, particularly with an armed opposition, may lead to a sectarian civil war.
But As’aad said that while Assad’s rule was discriminatory, it would not lead to sectarian war. «The regime depends on a sect … and it is a sectarian and discriminatory regime. But our people are wiser than that. All Syrians are one people, whether Alawite, Druze or Christian or even the Kurds. We respect them and we consider them our family,» he told Reuters.
According to the council representatives, however, a peaceful campaign would best isolate Assad. “We are here to ensure the peaceful nature of the revolt because we wish to build political momentum. In this way we can make Assad totally isolated. And Assad must be completely delegitimized in the international community,” she said.
“Our strength is that we really represent the people. Eighty percent of the coordination committees within Syria have given us their support. They and the majority of the Syrian people support the nonviolent revolution which is the position of the council. Just today I saw signs that protesters were holding up in Syria. They said ‘We support the Syrian Council.’ The people of Syria support a peaceful revolt,” Kodmani explained. “Though we fear that some groups may be calling for an armed struggle, there is absolutely no mainstream desire to make the revolution a military one.”
The question of a violent or peaceful campaign against Assad would have ramifications for Turkey as well, given that it has hosted several meetings of the council over the past months, and because many council members as well as the colonel are currently based in Turkey. Foreign Minister Ahmet Davutoğlu said in a televised interview on Thursday night that Turkey could take measures, including military ones, if the situation in Syria turns into a security threat against Turkey.
“As Syria’s neighbor, there are also many steps that we can take. Everyone knows that,” Davutoğlu said. When asked whether military measures are also included in these steps, the minister said, “Of course, if the situation [in Syria] becomes a security threat for us.”
“Every domestic crisis in Syria affects Turkey, Iraq, Lebanon, Israel, Palestine and Jordan. It affects the whole region. In this regard, there is no other country more important than Syria today. So, when an internal conflict in Syria poses a risk to Turkey, we will take all necessary measures,” he said.