Friday, January 27, 2012
Free Syrian Army Assassinates Opposition Financer
Free Syrian Army Assassinates Opposition Financer
By KAREEM FAHIM
Published: January 27, 2012
SAQBA, Syria — If the scene here on Friday was anything to judge by, the armed opposition to the Syrian government was making inroads and had won control of this town at the doorstep of the capital, Damascus, and perhaps of several other neighborhoods, signaling an escalation of violence in this beleaguered country.
At a funeral for one of the more than 5,400 victims of Syria’s unfolding civil war, fighters from the opposition Free Syrian Army kept a menacing watch, their faces covered with scarves and balaclavas as they stood at the edge of a square, carrying assault rifles and grenade launchers.
Thousands of demonstrators marched behind the coffin beneath the green, white and black banner of the opposition — not the Syrian government’s flag. Suspected state security agents were grabbed by the crowd.
The growing violence and assertiveness of the loosely organized military force hinted at the expanding role of armed fighters in a movement that began peacefully more than 10 months ago and that now seems to attract more defectors from Syria’s military by the day. After months of a withering government crackdown on the opposition, many protesters have come to welcome the fighters as a bulwark against the security forces loyal to PresidentBashar al-Assad.
The Free Syrian Army’s leadership is based over the border in Turkey. It is unclear whether it has any organizational control over the local, ad hoc militias in Syria that one person described as “franchises.” The scene in the square in Saqba showed that the ranks of the fighters had been buttressed by army conscripts and others, including air force veterans. In some places the militias are filled with local men, and in others, like Saqba, many of the defectors come from other parts of the country, welcome but somewhat mysterious guests.
“We don’t know who their commanders are,” said Rafaat Obeid, 37, one of the demonstrators. “We know they protect us.”
The growing numbers of armed rebels — and the determination of the government crackdown — has led to a rising tide of violence. The leader of the Arab League’s observer mission acknowledged on Friday that killings had accelerated despite the delegates’ presence. In a statement, the mission chief, Lt. Gen. Muhammad Ahmed al-Dabi of Sudan, warned of the “significant” escalation of violence in the previous three days and said it threatened negotiations aimed at ending the conflict.
Few of Syria’s opposition strongholds were safe on Friday as a government offensive unfolded across the country. The streets of Homs, Hama and Idlib came under shelling and sniper fire and were choked by clashes with opposition activists.
In the Free Syrian Army, the government faces what is surely a gathering threat. The rebels have fanned out across the country, forming militias that seem to be organizing mostly at a local level.
Khaled Abou Salah, a spokesman for the Homs Revolution Council, said brigades of Free Syrian Army soldiers in the city answered to neighborhood commanders who coordinated their efforts with officers in other parts of the country. The corps included engineers specializing in explosives and civilians, often men wanted by the government. Their ranks were growing, he said.
“Each time they bring new forces here, some of them defect,” he said.
In interviews last week, some residents of Homs, including several Christians and Alawites, expressed fears that hard-line Sunnis known as Salafis were forming armed groups and stoking violence. Those fears — which some said were overblown and ignored similar Sunni worries — reflected mounting concerns among secular activists that as the conflict drags on, an Islamist presence in some militias was giving the uprising an increasingly sectarian character.
One prominent leftist activist in Homs, heeding the concerns, said he was pressing his fellow activists to renounce the armed movement and stick to peaceful protests.
The tensions played out this week between secular and Islamist activists, with the Islamists pushing to name the weekly Friday protests “Al Jihad,” as other activists pushed for “the Right to Self Defense.” The secular activists won.
“The Syrian uprising is not a Sunni jihad against unbelievers,” said Rami, a protest leader in Damascus. “It is a Syrian uprising against a dictator’s regime, and for that reason there are protesters from Alawite, Christian, Druze, Ismaili and other sects,” he said.
In Saqba, a Free Syrian Army commander echoed that sentiment, saying that the fighters in the city crossed sectarian lines. “My colleagues’ names are George, and Joseph,” he said.
They had defected from military bases all over the country, with many saying they had fled after being ordered to fire on the protests. Men from Saqba had begged to join the brigade, usually motivated by revenge after the death of a relative.
Increasingly, the opposition movement seems to be facing a cornered but resilient foe. Arab and Western nations have intensified their efforts in the last week to isolate Mr. Assad’s government, demanding that he hand over power.
At the United Nations on Friday, Morocco presented a new draft Security Council resolution echoing the Arab League’s stance that Mr. Assad cede power to pave the way for a national unity government. The measure was opposed by Russia — and Syria — for hinting at sanctions and an arms embargo, and what the Assad government said was an effort to impose a solution from the outside.
“They deal with us as if we are a former colony that should subjugate itself to their will,” said Bashar Jaafari, the Syrian ambassador. “Syria will not be Libya; Syria will not be Iraq; Syria will not be Somalia; Syria will not be a failed state.”
Instead, the government promised to strike “firmly” at the armed gunmen, like the army defectors in Saqba, who it says represent the true face of an opposition it has branded as terrorists. The message has found sympathetic ears, not only among Mr. Assad’s large base of supporters but also other Syrians who fear that a growing armed insurgency will destabilize the country.
Within the past few days, the security forces have descended on Douma, 10 miles from Damascus, to take back neighborhoods they had ceded to armed gunmen. They did the same in Hama, where the bodies of dozens of executed prisoners were found on Thursday.
In another sign that the conflict might be escalating, there were unconfirmed reports on Friday of large protests in Aleppo, the country’s second largest city and a center of commerce that has stayed largely quiet.
Activists said that at least nine protesters were killed when plainclothes security officers attacked the demonstrations.
Homs was the site of the worst bloodletting. Activists said at least 40 people, including children, had been killed in sectarian killings and government shelling there since Thursday.
Increasingly, the opposition is meeting violence with violence. Opposition figures have warned about the new direction of the uprising as some militias have attacked the security forces as well as people seen — rightly or wrongly — as its supporters.
In Aleppo, Free Syrian Army officers were behind the recent assassination of a prominent businessman who was widely believed to be one of the main financiers of the shabiha, or plainclothes security officers, said Col. Ammar Alwawi, a Free Syrian Army officer in Turkey, who said the militia had been warning the government’s supporters for months to “return to the people.”
“There’s no other option now,” he said.
A Free Syrian Army member who identified himself as Lt. Sayf, said 35 soldiers from the militia were behind a bombing at a checkpoint near Idlib on Friday that killed at least two members of the government’s security forces.
Speaking of his role in the attack, Lieutenant Sayf said, “I thank God, with his blessings, no one from our army got injured and all security at the checkpoint were killed.”
Sabqa itself was hardly safe on Friday. In recent weeks, beneath the tall, dingy apartment blocks of the city, the fighters have fought off government attacks from snipers and tanks. More recently, mortar rounds have landing in the neighborhood, they said. At one point, there was a stampede, after rumors of a government attack.
Residents were mostly at ease in the square, where they talked about the violence of recent months, saying that more than 30 local residents had died.
“I’ve never felt safe in my house — in my country,” Jamal Attaya said as thousands marched past him. “The protests couldn’t go on without them,” he said, referring to the fighters.