The Free Syrian Army says it has thousands of members and many supporters
An opposition deal for a post-Bashar al-Assad era is in trouble
The Free Syrian Army says it thinks the Arab League mission is a "mockery"
Another double-digit death toll is reported Wednesday
The Free Syrian Army plans to kick off “huge operations” this week against “vital interests” of President Bashar al-Assad’s regime, the force’s commander said Wednesday.
“We prepared ourselves for this stage,” Col. Riad al-Asaad said in Turkey. “We can’t force him off with the peaceful demonstrations, so we are going to force him by arms to leave.”
The anti-government resistance movement, which emerged over the summer, comprises defectors from the larger and better-equipped Syrian army. The fledgling force is flexing its muscles amid international fears of a civil war that could destabilize both Syria and the greater Middle East.
For the past week, during the Arab League’s monitoring mission in Syria, it had suspended all but defensive actions against the regime.
The approximately 100 fact finders for the Arab League have been attempting to determine whether the Syrian government is abiding by an agreement to end the regime’s 10-month crackdown against protests.
But Riad al-Asaad called the Arab League mission a “mockery,” with “no teeth” and no pull. Security forces shot Tuesday at people in front of Arab League observers “who did not do anything about it,” he said.
“We don’t believe in the Arab League mission in Syria. I think they are covering the regime and blocking any international intervention to help the Syrian people,” he said.
On Wednesday, the death toll across Syria was 26 – 19 in Homs, four in the Damascus suburbs, two in Daraa and one in Hama – according to the Syrian Revolution Coordinators Union, an Egypt-based opposition group.
The Free Syrian Army has documented the names of 25,000 of its fighters, 7,140 of them officers and the rest soldiers, the army’s Lt. Col. Mohamed Hamado said. The U.S. State Department says the Syrian armed forces are “comprised of some 400,000 troops upon mobilization,” but analysts say the number is lower.
The resistance group said grass-roots support has helped it carry out operations against government forces. Four days ago, Hamado said Wednesday, the force captured 10 members of the Syrian army and their munitions in Idlib province’s Jabal al-Zawiya and posted videos of them on the Internet.
“We are preparing for big operations and have no faith in Arab League monitors or their useless mission,” al-Asaad said.
Between 5,000 and 6,000 deaths have occurred over the last 10 months during the government crackdown against protesters, according to various accounts. Al-Assad’s government says it is putting down armed terrorists whom it blames for the bloodshed.
As the military opposition resolved to take on the regime, the political opposition faced a possible setback.
A deal that charts Syria’s course if al-Assad’s regime falls appeared to be in danger Wednesday.
The Syrian National Council (SNC) and the National Coordination Body for Democratic Change in Syria (NCB), two major opposition movements, signed an agreement Friday night in Cairo.
But the council, which had said the deal was tentative and dependent on its executive board’s approval, said on its website it is rejecting the proposal and wants a new one.
Walid Buni, a member of the Syrian National Council executive board, said the council leaders had wanted more discussion on what it considered to have been a tentative deal, but the NCB presented it to the news media as a final deal.
Khalid Kamal, an SNC member, said the sides are disagreeing over the percentage of NCB representation and the NCB’s failure to call for the U.N. Security Council to protect civilians.
The NCB, which had said Saturday that the deal was final, could not immediately be reached for comment.
As for the Arab League mission, Secretary-General Nabil el-Araby was due to get a briefing on Syria from the head of the Arab Human Rights Council on Wednesday.
An opposition group said officials had cleaned up a prison in advance of a visit by monitors from the league, which sent its observers into Syria last week.
Monitors have arrived at the central prison in Homs, said the Local Coordination Committees of Syria, an opposition activist group. It charged that prison management had cleaned the place, fixed electrical heating and lighting, and improved the overall living conditions in the prison Tuesday.
The group also said government security forces were besieging the Damascus suburb of Daraya with helicopters, tanks and busloads of troops. The Local Coordination Committees reported unrest as well in Homs, Hama, Daraa and Idlib.
CNN cannot independently confirm events inside Syria because the government restricts the activity of international journalists.
U.S. State Department spokeswoman Victoria Nuland said Tuesday that Syria had failed to live up to its promises to the Arab League.
“For example, the violence hasn’t stopped; far from it,” she told reporters in Washington. “We’ve had reports from independent observers of some 49 new deaths in Syria since the 31st of December. The vast majority of these deaths have been at the hands of government troops, snipers, government armored personnel, etc. We’ve even seen reports that in places, the military is donning police uniforms in order to hide what they’re up to.”
On Wednesday, the state-run Syrian Arab News Agency, citing Foreign and Expatriates Ministry Spokesman Jihad Maqdisi, said he “considered the accusations a blatant interference in the core of the league’s work and the sovereignty of its member states.”
He viewed Nuland’s statements as “an attempt toward deliberate unjustified internationalization of the situation in Syria and an anticipatory stance that harms the performance of the Arab monitors before issuing their preliminary report,” according to SANA.
But Nuland was unfazed. “We remain concerned that, despite promises, despite some sporadic improvements in some places, the violence continues in Syria, and it continues primarily at the hands of the regime,” she said Wednesday.
Arab League ministers are to meet this weekend to “take stock” of the monitoring effort, Nuland said. She said Jeffrey Feltman, assistant secretary of state for Near Eastern affairs, was headed to Cairo to consult with the Arab League ahead of the meeting.
The monitoring team’s preliminary report will be ready Sunday, a day later than initially planned, Nuland said.
The United Nations last month estimated there have been more than 5,000 deaths since mid-March. The LCC said this week more than 5,800 people have been killed. Avaaz, a political activist group, said more than 6,000 people have died.
Journalists Mohamed Fadel Fahmy and Omar al-Muqdad and CNN’s Hamdi Alkhshali and Joe Sterling contributed to this report.