|Members of the FSA who once served for the national army say their conscience guided them to defect [YouTube]|
The attack by the Free Syrian Army (FSA) on an air force intelligence base in the suburbs of the capital Damascus on November 16 has raised the profile of the band of army deserters, who are seeking to end President Bashar al-Assad’s long rule.
Depending on whom you believe, the group is believed to number between 1,000 and 25,000.
What is certain though, is that the deserters want to bring the Syrian government to its knees – by targeting its biggest strength, its 500,000-strong army.
Speaking to Al Jazeera, Colonel Ammar al-Wawi, the commander of the FSA’s Ababeel battalion, said: “Our only goal is to liberate Syria from Bashar Assad’s regime.
“To put it simply, we carry out military operations against anyone who targets the peaceful protesters.”
|Wawi said the latest offensive on the air force base in Damascus follows a series of attacks|
The formation of the FSA was formally announced in July in a web video released by a group of uniformed defectors from the Syrian military, who called upon members of the army to defect and join them.
The FSA has a facebook page where it posts statements and news from across the country regarding its latest offensives, recruits and clashes with government forces. The page has more than 11,500 fans.
Wawi said the latest offensive on the air force base in the Damascus suburbs of Harasta follows a series of attacks that were “as serious and as effective”.
He said that, a day earlier, members of his Aleppo province-based battalion attacked Aleppo’s airforce intelligence complex, located on the outskirts of city.
“We were able to target one of the eight Battlefield Range Ballistic Missiles (BRBM) present there.”
Unlike the attack on the air force base in Damascus, Wawi said the offensive did not gain activists and media’s attention because the base was located in an uninhabited area.
He listed other areas where his battalion had carried out attacks in the north of the country, including in the towns of Maaret al-Numan, Kafr Nabl, Jabal al Zawyeh and Kfar Roumeh.
Since July, the FSA has evolved to include 22 battalions that are spread across the country, said Wawi.
He said those who refuse to follow commands from the Syrian military to crack down on protests turn to one of the battalions located in their province.
But while the field command is inside Syria, FSA’s central command is located in a camp in Turkey’s southern Hatay province near the borders with Syria.
On November 16, the FSA announced the creation of a temporary military council which it said aims to “bring down the current regime, protect Syrian civilians from its oppression, protect private and public property, and prevent chaos and acts of revenge when it falls”.
The council is chaired by Colonel Riyadh al-Asaad, who defected from the regular army to initally form the FSA.
The council’s leadership also includes four colonels and three majors.
Wawi said that the FSA embraces more than 25,000 army deserters, including many high ranking officers.
Colonel Rashid Hammoud Arafat and Colonel Ghassan Hleihel, from the ranks of the republican guards, are the latest high-profile defectors, he said.
Speaking to Al Jazeera, Colonel Hammoud said that while he was in the regular army he kept in contact with the FSA and continued to provide them with advice and support.
“But a few days ago, the FSA told me that I should announce my defection and encourage more soldiers to join their ranks. So I did,” he said.
Like many other army defectors, the colonel announced his defection in a video and posted it on the FSA’s facebook page.
According to Wawi, so many soldiers and officers are defecting every day that he has lost count. He said they are continuously being organised into the different battalions.
Rami Abdel Rahman, the head of the UK-based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights, said that the figures for the membership of the FSA are exaggerated.
He estimates that less than 1,000 soldiers have deserted the regular army.
“I am in contact with defectors on the ground and I respect their decision to leave the government forces. But admiration is one thing and accuracy is another,” he said.
“The Free Syrian Army is giving people false hope that they have the required strength to topple the regime.
“But one must keep in mind that the formal Syrian army is compromised of more than 500,000 soldier, not to mention the hundreds of pro-government Shabbeeha [thugs].
“So betting on the ability of the Free Syrian Army to overthrow Assad is a losing bet.”
While anti-Assad Syrians agree that their uprising, which started in March, must continue until the current government is toppled, they do not necessarily agree on the role of the FSA in it.
“Those who count on peaceful means only to overthrow the regime are delusional”
– Colonel Ammar al-Wawi, the commander of FSA’s Ababeel battalion
Randa, a 24-year-old anti-government activist who lives in the Damascus suburb of Zabadani, said: “The FSA has unfortunately only been effective in tarnishing the peaceful image our revolution had possessed.”
However, Wael, a 27-year-old resident of the central city of Homs’ Baba Amr neighbourhood, which saw major clashes between the regular army and deserters, said: “We cannot watch the government forces killing our friends and families and continue to say we want a peaceful revolution.”
The main opposition bloc, the Syrian National Council (SNC), has tried to maintain a middle-ground.
They voiced their sympathy with deserters and acknowledged their “legitimate role of protecting unarmed protesters,” but they also said that they did not support the FSA’s offensives.
“We must maintain the peaceful nature of the Syrian revolution and we are in continuous dialogue with the FSA to co-ordinate our political stance,” Bassma Kodmani, the spokeswoman of the SNC, told Al Jazeera.
However, it remains to be seen how much influence could the SNC exert on the FSA.
Wawi tells Al Jazeera: “Those who count on peaceful means only to overthrow the regime are delusional.”
Follow Basma Atassi on Twitter: @Basma_