Riad Al-Asad - AP - 07122011
Riad Al-Asad, head of the so-called free Syrian army. Photo by AP
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"We have agreed that the free Syrian army will not carry out any independent attacks against the Syrian regime," Ahmed Ramadan, one of the heads of the Syrian National Council, the chief opposition group, stated with satisfaction after meeting with the commander of the Free Syrian Army. "The commander of the free army, Col. Riyad al-Asad, agreed with us that the Syrian protest movement will continue to be a civilian movement and that the free army would open fire only to defend civilians or in cases of danger to life."

It is not clear whether this agreement - arrived at last Wednesday during a secret meeting in Turkey - will last. It was the first such meeting between the National Council and the free Syrian army, which until now have not worked together, and it seems that the leaders are trying to set up a joint opposition council so that they can close ranks and offer a unified plan of action.

The fear of the National Council - which includes 200 opposition members led by Burhan Ghalioun, a Syrian intellectual living in Paris - is that wildcat attacks like the strike on the Air Force Intelligence base at Harasta near Damascus on November 17 and the attacks on Syrian army convoys, could play into the hands of the regime, which has been trying since the beginning of the uprising to prove that it is fighting a legitimate war against armed gangs.

Another concern is that the establishment of "a military arm" of the protest movement could eventually lead to an internal power struggle between different sections of the opposition and divert the struggle against the regime to the struggle between the various opposition groups.

Asad, an engineer and a member of the Syrian air force who defected to set up the free army at the end of July, now has 15,000 soldiers under his command. He is hoping for a leadership position in the new Syria.

The army he has put together has 11 battalions that are operating in large towns across Syria. Each one consists of companies that rely on local logistic assistance, plus weapons and equipment seized from Syrian army bases or imported from abroad.

According to Turkish and Syrian reports, large quantities of weapons were smuggled into Syria from Libya, via Turkey. Libyan rebels have reportedly also made the journey to Syria to partake in the uprising.

Turkey is the most important rear base both of the free Syrian army and of the National Council, which was formed in Istanbul in September. The Turkish decision to impose economic sanctions on Syria turned Ankara not only into the Syrian opposition's closest ally but also placed Turkey itself in the role of a practical alternative to Western military intervention.

Between an ayatollah and a hard place

But Turkey is concerned that a tough stance against Syria could exact a high price if Iran decides to flex its muscles. Last week, the commander of the aerospace division of the Revolutionary Guards, Amir Ali Hajizadeh, warned that "if Iran is threatened, we shall hit the NATO radar system that is going to be placed in Turkey and then we shall attack other targets."

The Iranian foreign minister then calmed the fears of his Turkish counterpart, assuring him that was not Tehran's policy. Tehran has other ways to put pressure on Turkey, which imports half of its oil consumption from Iran, some 200,000 barrels daily, and is planning to increase the amount of gas it buys from there.

Speaking in October, Iranian Gen. Yahya Rahim Safavi, the military assistant to Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, warned Turkey that if it did not make clear its foreign policy, "the Turks will find themselves in trouble. If they claim they intend to increase the scope of Turkish commerce by $20 billion, they will eventually have to match their policies with those of Iran."

The warning was aimed at Ankara's approval for NATO to place its anti-missile radar on Turkish soil, but it could be interpreted also as a threat against Turkey's stance toward Bashar Assad's regime in Syria, which Iran supports.

Solving the crisis in Syria is a strategic interest for Turkey, thus its support for the free army's Asad and his new partners. But even in Turkey, officials are aware that the free army cannot bring down the Syrian regime on its own.

"Someone will soon have to employ heavy weapons," a source in the Foreign Ministry in Ankara said. "Guns and revolvers are not sufficient against tanks and helicopters." The question is, who will be the first to agree to use tanks and planes against Syrian President Bashar Assad.

Paying your way out

A new Turkish law passed last week states that, from now on, anyone who has not done his national duty by serving in the army can pay their way to a full exemption.

The cost of this exemption for a Turkish citizen is the equivalent of some $16,200, which will go to the ministry in charge of family affairs and social policy. The money will be earmarked to help families hurt in terrorist activities, needy families whose sons are serving in the armed forces and disabled veterans who were wounded during service in the army or police force.

Turks who remain abroad for more than three years will be able to get an exemption in return for 5,000 to 7,500 euros.

Under pressure from the European Union, Turkey is also examining the possibility of exempting conscientious objectors from military service. Army service is compulsory in Turkey and lasts for 18 months.