In recent weeks, military operations against the Syrian army have been increasing in frequency. Most attacks have been claimed by a rebel force that calls itself the Free Syrian Army (FSA), made up of defectors of the Syrian army, which has been carrying out a bloody government-ordered crackdown on pro-democracy demonstrators in the country.
In a telephone interview, NOW Lebanon spoke with the FSA leader, Colonel Riad Assaad, a defected army officer who is currently based in Turkey after fleeing his home country.
What are the main obstacles the FSA is currently facing?
Colonel Riad Assaad: Our biggest challenge actually resides in the lack of weapons and ammunition, a problem from which we are suffering greatly. We could certainly attract more manpower if we had an adequate and constant supply of weapons. A humanitarian corridor and a buffer zone would provide safety and an added guarantee to the soldiers who choose to join us.
How many divisions do you have currently under your command?
Assaad: There are 22 divisions, including those of Abou Obeyda, Khaled Ben Walid and the Harmoush clan.
What types of weapons are the FSA currently using?
Assaad: Most arms are of the light and medium type, including Kalashnikovs, rocket-propelled grenades and guns. Defectors are relying mostly on weapons they have access to and that they can smuggle out.
Who is financing the FSA? Is it benefiting from the military expertise and support of foreign countries?
Assaad: We are receiving donations from our Syrian brothers who live in exile, however, no foreign country is financing our activities. As I said before, we are in dire need of weapons, which remain at the heart of the equation.
What role has the Syrian population played vis-à-vis the FSA? Is it true that civilians are taking up arms against the regime of President Bashar al-Assad?
Assaad: The Syrians are our people; they are protecting us and providing us with cover. We are relying on guerilla warfare, an obvious option when battling a regular army, so the population’s role is key. However, I do not believe that citizens are fighting alongside the FSA. The only information I have about citizens possibly engaged in battle [training] is [in] the Alawite Mountains located around Latakia. I heard that the regime was training special paramilitary forces in that region from the Alawite community for a possible civil war.
There have been reports that the FSA is using Lebanon as a base. Is there any truth to this rumor?
Assaad: No. Syrian activists and defectors are being pursued and arrested in Lebanon, which makes the activity of the FSA on Lebanese territory impossible.
What have been your most successful military operations?
Assaad: We have conducted in recent weeks several military operations both on military convoys and army positions over the entire country, from Daraa to Deir Zour, Banyas, Jabli, the Damascus suburbs, Hama and Idlib.
International correspondent George Malbrunot reported several months ago that Manaf Tlass, an officer in the Syrian Republican Guard and the son of former Defense Minister Mustapha Tlass, had been sidelined and was seemingly under house arrest. Do you believe the rumor to be true?
Assaad: Such information is pure propaganda. Tlass has always been at the service of the regime and doing their dirty work. The same applies to his son.
Is it true that President Assad has recalled several members of the “old guard,” including Ali Douba of the military intelligence and Ali Mamlouk, the special security advisor?
Assaad: Assad set up a special crisis unit as soon as the Tunisian revolution began. He recalled all the officers who participated in the Hama massacre [in which the regime of Assad’s father killed over 10,000 people after a rebellion of the Muslim Brotherhood in 1982], including Douba and Mamlouk.
Do you believe that the deteriorating economic situation and the recent Arab League sanctions against Syria will benefit the opposition by swaying the undecided as well as the Syrian bourgeoisie?
Assaad: The bourgeoisie staunchly supports the regime, and I doubt it will change its stance. Its members have built their fortunes on the ashes and corpses of the Syrian people. The sanctions will only worsen a situation that is already quite difficult, with the rampant inflation affecting the prices of all primary goods. The economic measures voted on by the league will fail to impact the elite, safely tucked away in their mansions and castles. As for the government, it will keep on printing money to pay the wages of government employees.
What does the FSA currently require to beef up its position internally?
Assaad: The creation of an independent buffer zone as well as humanitarian corridors would definitely provide us with a huge advantage. That should be done, of course, in coordination with the FSA. Weapons and ammunition are again a major issue.
What message do you want to send to the Syrian people?
Assaad: I would like to tell them that they are heroic by fighting a regime that, with God’s will, will soon fall. Look at what happened to [Libyan leader Moammar] Qaddafi! The dictator who called his people rats died like one, in a sewer. Assad has called us germs—let us see what his end will be like.
Are you afraid that you might share the fate of Lieutenant Colonel Hussein Harmoush, who was allegedly kidnapped in Turkey before he was arrested by the Syrian authorities?
Assaad: No I am not afraid. I am aware of the dangers and am remaining confident.