As the Syrian military continues to kill protesters despite Damascus's agreement two days ago to withdraw its forces from the streets, a small army of Turkey-backed defectors is seeking international assistance to protect civilians in Syria.
The 'Syrian Free Army' (SFA), a band of between 5 and 15 thousand Syrian military defectors camped in eastern Turkey and under Turkish protection, aims to become the military wing of the opposition Syrian National Council. "We are the future army of the new Syria. We are not in league with any particular sect, religion, or political party. We believe in protecting all elements of Syrian society," Col. Riad al-Assad, the SFA's leader, told the Daily Telegraph. Colonel Assad also called on the international community to impose a no-fly zone and a naval blockade to aid the SFA in protecting Syrians from Damascus's forces.
"We don't have the ability to buy weapons, but we need to protect civilians inside Syria," he said. "We want to make a 'safe zone' in the north of Syria, a buffer zone in which the SFA can get organised." With a small weapons supply, his movement is not yet in a position to pose a serious threat to the regime, but its presence marks a definitive change to the original unified opposition policy of peaceful protest.
He told Reuters last month that he believes war is the only way to topple Syrian President Bashar al-Assad and end the violence against civilians.
Assad says that the SFA is coordinating opposition troops across Syria, though he did not comment on whether the SFA was conducting cross-border raids from its camps in Turkey. Turkey has formally committed only to humanitarian aid to Syrian refugees, though the Telegraph notes that it has provided Assad with a personal security detail and controls access to him through its foreign ministry.
Turkey's support for the SFA further underscores how far Ankara has turned against its southern neighbor. In a commentary for the Christian Science Monitor, Joshua W. Walker writes that Turkey has progressed from silent ally to vocal critic, and is now "leading the push for international action and sanctions against Damascus."
Ankara is publicly hosting Syrian opposition leaders along with insurgents who have based themselves within Turkey’s borders, and has reportedly been secretly arming the same forces. It’s preparing unilateral sanctions that go far beyond what any Western power has thus far attempted. ...
...Muslim-majority Turkey’s credibility as a democratic model for the region is being put on the line with every suppressed Syrian protest and refugee who flees to Turkey. Prime Minister Erdogan also recognizes Turkey’s historic opportunity: “Turkey is playing a role that can upturn all the stones in the region and that can change the course of history.”
Turkey's potential involvement in military intervention in Syria is apt to cause political debate within Ankara. Turkey's English-language Hürriyet Daily News writes that a Turkish opposition leader warned yesterday that the West had a "plot" to invade Syria. “The West has written a plot about democracy and liberty, and they are staging it. But this plot of democracy and liberty is nothing but the plot for an invasion,” Birgül Ayman Güler told the Hürriyet Daily News.
But a Libya-like scenario, of Western military support of native rebels, is still far off. NATO chief Anders Fogh Rasmussen said Monday that the organization has "no intention whatsoever" to intervene in Syria, and Paul Koring of the Globe and Mail writes that Syria's political and geographical location in the heart of the Middle East put Syria in a very different situation than Libya, one that would make Western intervention very difficult.
But Nation editor Robert Dreyfuss writes in a commentary for the Guardian's Comment is Free that some hawks, like US Sen. John McCain (R) of Arizona and Jeffrey White of the Washington Institute for Near East Policy, are pushing for Western military involvement, and that if the situation continues to get worse, intervention may become possible. "Somehow," Dreyfuss writes, "things that are 'totally ruled out' get ruled in when facts change."