Syrian Brass Defect, Buoying Rebels
By NOUR MALAS and SIOBHAN GORMAN
Several high-ranking Syrian military officials joined the opposition to President Bashar al-Assad on Thursday and Friday, in the Syrian conflict's biggest wave of military defections to date.
The defections appeared to boost Syria's armed opposition, and exposed corrosive sectarian splits in Syria's army, between a largely Sunni core of soldiers and the highest officials, many of whom are from the same minority Alawite sect as President Assad
An antigovernment demonstration in Idlib, northern Syria, on Friday.
The defections also appeared to lay the ground for new struggles within Syria's already-fractured opposition. The rebel Free Syrian Army, led by a former Syrian army colonel since its founding last year, has since been joined by higher-ranking officers. A brigadier-general who defected in January is preparing to split into his own armed group, rebels familiar with his plans said Friday.
U.S. intelligence officials said that while the opposition movement is fractured—they cited 32 constituent groups from around Syria, including Islamist, Kurdish and secular groups—the armed rebels appear to be gaining momentum against the regime. The rebels are likely to win out eventually, these officials said, but are up against a more powerful military than insurgents faced in Libya.
"The odds are against [the regime], but they're going to fight very hard," said one senior U.S. intelligence official.
On Friday, Syria's military widened an offensive on Syria's restive north, sending hundreds of people fleeing into Turkey, according to the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights. Syrian forces also resumed artillery attacks on the city of Homs, killing at least 68 people across the country, the London-based activist group said.
At least 50 officers have defected from the army over the past week, including 15 who crossed into Turkey on Thursday and Friday, senior rebel leaders said. The latest wave, these people said, included six brigadier-generals, four colonels and a female first lieutenant.
Turkey's state-run Anadolu news agency said 234 Syrian refugees crossed into Turkey since Thursday, including four defected generals, two colonels and a field officer. The agency hasn't typically catalogued defections.
The Free Syrian Army, a patchwork group of defectors and local militias fighting the regime's forces, has become the focus of international attention, despite a joint United Nations-Arab League effort to pursue a diplomatic track on Syria.
On Saturday, the joint U.N.-Arab League envoy, Kofi Annan, is scheduled to meet with Syria's president in Damascus. Mr. Annan is expected to urge Mr. Assad to step aside in an orchestrated power hand-over aimed at stanching violence that has killed well over 7,500 people, based on U.N. estimates.
Syria's president has already rejected such calls. Syria's leading opposition group, the Syrian National Council, on Friday slammed the international call for dialogue with a regime it accused of waging "a genocide war against the Syrian people."
"The world cannot distract us with the matter of dialogue," council President Burhan Ghalioun told the pan-Arab Al Arabiya television. He also said the opposition group had received funding from Arab states to help equip the Free Syrian Army.
Syria's mounting economic crisis now likely stands as the regime's greatest point of vulnerability, the U.S. intelligence officials said Friday. International sanctions against Mr. Assad's regime have sharply curtailed oil exports. Unemployment has shot up to 15%, factories are closing, food prices are rising and fuel prices have doubled, they said.
The high-ranking defections announced Friday are significant, analysts say, because they could give credence to a rebel group so far dominated by young conscripts and led by colonels who appear to have little command over a growing ground insurgency.
The FSA is led by Col. Riad al-As'ad, who held on to the top spot even after the January defection of Brigadier General Moustafa al-Shaikh, who now heads a military council meant to absorb higher-ranking defectors.
Rebels say the council works within the rebel army. The two officers appear to maintain contact, separately, with different groups on the ground in different regions of Syria.
Brig. Gen. Shaikh now plans to split off and form his own group in coming days amid disagreements over the rebel army's relationship to the Syrian National Council, if rebel and opposition leaders can't come to a power-sharing compromise, rebels familiar with his plans said Friday. The move could make it vastly more difficult for the opposition council to coordinate, fund and equip the rebels.
Defections haven't yet penetrated the core of Mr. Assad's support base in the military and security services, where the top cadre of officials largely hail, like the president, from the Alawite sect. The rank and file of the army is dominated by officers from Syria's majority Sunni Muslim sect.
Senior rebels said Friday that recent defections were partly due to Sunni officers coming under increasing threat from higher-ranking Alawites.
"The situation has changed very quickly in Syria," said Col. Aref Hammoud, who was among dissident soldiers who greeted the incoming defectors in the southern Turkey camp that houses the Free Syrian Army. "Everyone, including top generals, now fear for their lives."
Mr. Hammoud described recent high-ranking defectors relaying stories of Sunni officers in Syria being detained, and their families being pursued.
"Just being Sunni is suspect," he said. A higher-ranking defector said some 2,000 Sunni officers have been detained since the start of the uprising last year.
Syrian government forces also appear to have started to pursue rebel leaders seeking refuge in neighboring Turkey, as they simultaneously crush rebel strongholds inside Syria.
Senior defectors confirmed that Turkish authorities last week thwarted a planned kidnapping of Col. As'ad, the FSA's founder.
And on Wednesday, Syrian security forces detained the family of Brig. Gen. Fayez Amro, the deptuty of the rebels' Higher Revolutionary Military Council.
Mr. Amro's wife and six children were kidnapped by members of Syria's powerful air-force intelligence, said Fahd Almasri, a Paris-based spokesperson for the council.
The Syrian regime also benefits from growing support from Iran, the U.S. intelligence officials said. Initially, Tehran provided non-lethal aid, like crowd suppression materials and Internet surveillance capabilities. Recently, the aid has become more lethal to include small arms. "In the last couple months, the Iranians really have gone all-in," one of the intelligence officials said.
The regime's tactics have become increasingly brutal, with apparent disregard for civilian casualties, the intelligence official said, citing satellite photos that showed mosques, schools and medical facilities in the Bab Amr neighborhood being hit by artillery.
Al Qaeda in recent months has turned against the Syrian regime, and the Assad regime has blamed it for carrying out spectacular attacks in the Damascus and Aleppo. U.S. intelligence officials believe al Qaeda is attempting to infiltrate the Syrian opposition forces without their knowledge. That dynamic could bolster the regime's argument that they are fighting an extremist insurgency, officials said.
—Siobhan Gorman in Washington and Ayla Albayrak in Istanbul contributed to this article.
A version of this article appeared Mar. 10, 2012, on page A7 in some U.S. editions of The Wall Street Journal, with the headline: Syrian Brass Defect, Buoying Rebels.