Free Syrian Army Partners with Opposition: What's Next for Syria?

By : Subscribe to Daniel's | December 2, 2011 1:50 AM IST

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Syria's non-violent opposition has teamed up with the Free Syrian Army (FSA), a paramilitary group of defected Syrian soldiers fighting against President Bashar al-Assad's regime.

The Syrian National Council (SNC) held a "secret" meeting with the FSA in Turkey this week, where they began a new partnership. The Free Syrian Army, made up of up to 15,000 ex-Syrian soldiers, agreed to stop its offensive against the government and to protect protestors instead.

“The leader of the Free Syrian Army, Col. Riad al-Asaad, has agreed that the movement in Syria will stay as civilian. [The army] will be responsible for protecting civilians during protests,” SNC Executive Committee member Ahmed Ramadan, told Turkish reporters on Wednesday.

The SNC also deflected claims that they would provide the Free Syrian Army with guns and munitions purchased from Libya's new government, which is fresh off of winning its own rebellion.

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“The Syrian National Council met previously with the [Libyan National] Transitional Council in Benghazi, but this was only a meeting. They have offered support to us, especially [in] a political nature, but there has never been any talk of an arms deal,” SNC member Khaled Khodja told Turkish newspaper Today’s Zaman Wednesday.

The FSA sprang up in July as more and more soldiers, angry over orders to shoot unarmed protestors, began defecting from the army. The group largely laid low in Turkey for months, but went on the offensive in November, bombing a number of military facilities in Damascus, including the Air Force Intelligence headquarters compound.

Syrians taking up arms against the government is a new trend in the now nine-month long uprising the country. It is a response to Assad's militarized crackdown on protests and demonstrations. The United Nations said on Thursday that at least 4,000 people have been killed, but activists on the ground say that figure is much higher.

New Sanctions

The European Union (EU) added to its growing list of sanctions against Syria on Thursday, targeting 11 companies and banning 12 more individuals from international travel. The Arab League, which is currently working with the EU to try to stop the violence in Syria, also banned 17 individuals, including Assad's brother and a number of cabinet ministers, from traveling to other Arab states.

Turkey, once an important Assad ally, implemented its own sanctions on Wednesday. Despite being a vocal critic of the violence in Syria, the Turkish government took its time with the sanctions in order to assure that the measures "cause minimal harm to innocent Syrians," according to Bülent Keneş, the editor-in-chief of Today's Zaman.

Turkey's "smart sanctions" will include travel bans on top Syrian officials, and the suspension of arms transfers and sales to the Syrian military, but will not have a detrimental effect on Syrian civilians.

"[In general] sanctions may miss the target and cause harm to an unintended target," explained Keneş. "Indeed, in the past, embargoes imposed on Iraq did nothing to put the targeted Saddam Hussein regime behind the eight ball, but rather added to the existing misery of the Iraqi people. Likewise, the arms embargo against Bosnia and Herzegovina paved the way for massacres and proved lethal to Muslim Bosnians because Serbs and Croats had already armed themselves to the [hilt]."

Turkey has also pledged to block the movement of arms and military equipment to Syria from any other country. This is probably the most important sanction, because if foreign powers came to the aid of the opposition like NATO did in Libya, Iran and Russia would potentially back up Assad and Syria.

Despite the blockade, weapons will probably be able to travel through Iraq and Lebanon, who haven't agreed to any sanctions agianst Damascus. Aware of this, the Free Syrian Army has reportedly been laying mines along the Lebanese border to deter arms dealers.

Unaddressed questions that remain are whether or not Turkey provide arms to the Free Syrian Army or other opposition groups at any point, or do the sanctions extend to more than just the Syrian government? What if, as Keneş says about the Balkans, the national Syrian has "armed themselves to the hilt?" Would Turkey step in to defend "innocent Syrians?"

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