Safak Timur, AFP
Last updated: 1 December, 2011

Syria’s opposition and rebels hold talks in Turkey

Syria’s civilian opposition and army rebels have agreed to coordinate their struggle against President Bashar al-Assad’s regime, an official said Thursday.

The first meeting between the Syrian National Council and the Free Syrian Army earlier this week in Turkey appeared to mark a change of tack from the SNC’s previous reluctance to back the armed struggle.

“It is agreed that it would be a coordinated movement, there would be coordination,” the SNC’s Khaled Khoja told AFP.

He said the meeting in the southern Turkish province of Hatay on November 28 was attended by SNC head Burhan Ghaliun and FSA chief Riyadh al-Asaad, whose forces comprise deserters from the Syrian military.

“The council recognised the Free Syrian Army as a reality, while the army recognised the council as the political representative” of the opposition, Khoja said.

He did not specify how organic the links between the two movements would be but the meeting marked a new step in efforts to unite opposition to Assad, who is under growing pressure to step down.

His repression of pro-democracy protests in recent months has earned Damascus a barrage of international condemnation and intensifying economic sanctions that are slowly crippling the country’s economy.

“We agreed that the duty of the Free Syrian Army is to protect people, but not to attack,” said Khoja, a member of the SNC’s foreign relations committee.

“Protecting minorities, preventing possible conflicts among the factions by sending its troops to conflict areas,” Khoja added, enumerating some of the FSA’s duties.

He quoted rebel leader Asaad as vowing to follow the political line set by the SNC, which has been touring Western and other capitals to muster support for its bid to unseat Bashar al-Assad.

The meeting between the council and the rebel army came after the head of the SNC last week urged the FSA to refrain from launching attacks against Assad’s forces and save the country from civil conflict.

“We would like this army to carry out defensive actions to protect those who have left the (regime’s) army and peaceful demonstrations, but not take on offensive actions against the army,” Ghaliun of the council had said.

Colonel Asaad on the other hand in a telephone interview with AFP had called for foreign air strikes on “strategic targets” in Syria to speed up the fall of the regime.

He said the Free Syrian Army, which now claims 20,000 men in its ranks, wanted the international community to provide it with logistical support.

Limited foreign intervention would allow the FSA “to triumph in a relatively short time” Asaad had said.

The United Nations says more than 3,500 people, most of them civilians, have been killed since the protests first broke out in mid-March, while thousands of people have been detained.

The FSA has stepped up attacks in recent weeks and openly claimed responsibility for deadly operations against the army and pro-regime militiamen.

Last week the FSA claimed an attack on a bus in the centre of Syria that killed seven senior military pilots.