- Associated Press - Wednesday, November 23, 2011

BEIRUT Attacks by army defectors are transforming the Syrian uprising into an armed insurgency that threatens to spiral into civil war.

The Free Syrian Army (FSA) holds no territory, appears largely disorganized and is up against a fiercely loyal and cohesive military that will stop at nothing to protect the regime.

Still, without foreign military intervention or significant cracks in President Bashar Assad’s iron rule, the rebel group has emerged as the best hope for a growing number of protesters who have all but given up on peaceful resistance.

“They are the real heroes of this revolution,” said one anti-regime protester in the central city of Hama, the site of a massacre by Mr. Assad’s father and predecessor in 1982 and a hotbed of resistance to the regime. “Everyone else has abandoned us.”

Like most Assad opponents who spoke to the Associated Press, he asked that his name not be used for fear the regime will retaliate against him or his family.

There are concerns the presence of an organized armed rebel group has given authorities a pretext to crack down even harder on dissent, pushing the country toward civil war.

The sectarian divide in Syria, where members of Mr. Assad’s minority Alawite sect rule over a Sunni Muslim majority and others, means an insurgency could escalate quickly.

The leader of the Free Syrian Army, breakaway air force Col. Riad al-Asaad, acknowledges nearly all the defectors under his command - some 15,000 - are low-level Sunni conscripts.

The men are armed with rocket-propelled grenades, rifles and guns they took with them when they deserted, as well as light weapons they acquired on the black market, he says.

The FSA holds no territory in Syria and Gen. al-Asaad himself is based in Turkey, where thousands of Syrian refugees have taken shelter since the uprising began.

Communication with defectors on the ground is one of the biggest challenges to the group’s growth.

Still, the FSA is a credible threat to the Assad regime, said Riad Kahwaji, CEO of the Institute for Near East and Gulf Military Analysis in Beirut.

“We’re talking about troops who know the enemy very well, because they were members of these forces,” Mr. Kahwaji said. “They know them by name, their culture, their habits. They know all the secrets. They are a serious threat to the regime.”

The standing army in Syria is estimated to be about 250,000, but that figure is closer to 700,000 if one includes the reserves, Mr. Kahwaji said.

The top brass and many members of the standing army belong to Mr. Assad’s Alawite sect, but the reserves are mainly Sunni.

“If [the conflict] continues at this rate, you’re going to have pure Alawite troops fighting Sunni troops,” Mr. Kahwaji said in a telephone interview.

FSA attacks have grown increasingly sophisticated in recent weeks, prompting worldwide alarm that the situation in Syria is spiraling out of control.

Russia’s foreign minister compared an FSA attack last week on an air force intelligence compound outside Damascus to the beginning of a civil war, and U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton said the Syrian defectors could fuel a civil war.

Although it remains unclear exactly how powerful the FSA is, the attacks appear to have grown in the past few weeks as its members carried out ambushes that have killed dozens of soldiers and security personnel.



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