Rivalry Among Syrian Defectors Could Mean Another Military Coup

Disagreements between the army officers and soldiers could lead to the creation of separate militias, which could make it difficult to build a consensus around a leadership that could serve as an alternative to the regime.

Even as the Arab coalition against the Syrian regime tightens, and while Saudi Arabia has withdrawn its inspectors to the country and Qatar has upped the pressure to refer the crisis to the United Nations, fissures are emerging within the Syrian opposition which threaten to transform the uprising in the country from a civil protest movement into a military coup.

The fault line runs between two senior officers locked in a struggle for power over the Free Syrian Army, a force composed of deserters from the Syrian military, which numbers over 20,000 combatants. The force scored a number of achievements recently, the most important of which thus far is the takeover of the resort city of Zabadani, 45 km from Damascus. The deserter army is commanded by Col. Riyad al-Assad, who defected several months ago and set up his command headquarters in Turkey, as well as a logistical base and a bank account to which donations by citizens and governments are transferred.

Homs Syria - Reuters - 16.12.2011

However, two weeks ago, a Gen. Mustafa al-Sheik, head of the chemistry department and security officer of Syria's northern region, defected from the army, along with his son, also an officer, and thus created a problem in the command hierarchy of the Free Syrian Army. Al-Sheikh demands the creation of a supreme military council, headed by himself, which will coordinate all of the military operations against the regime.

On the other side, al-Assad decided that, despite al-Sheik's senior rank, he, al-Assad, is the supreme commander of the Free Syrian Army, as he was the first senior officer to defect, as well as the one who laid the force's organizational and operational infrastructure. The argument between the senior officers is already causing a rift among the defectors, some of whom have already abandoned al-Assad's loyalists and joined al-Sheikh. All this after it became clear that al-Assad was not capable of paying his loyalists, as Turkey has decided to close his Turkish bank account.

Into the controversy stepped Burhan Ghalioun, head of the Syrian National Council, the umbrella group of the civilian protest movement. Ghalioun met with General al-Sheikh, angering the spokesperson of the Syrian Free Army, Lama al-Atasi. Last week al-Atasi published a Facebook status saying, "We heard that you are pushing division within the ranks of the Free Syrian Army. I ask you: Who are you working for?"

While the Free Syrian Army and the Syrian National Council have had their differences about how to conduct the uprising, this was the first time that such harsh words were exchanged publicly. At the same time, officers of the Free Syrian Army began to speak out against the civilian occupation organization. According to a report published on Ilaf, one of the defecting officers, Khaled Yousef, said that "the Syrian National Council does not represent the revolution." According to him, "The Council is disconnected from the suffering of civilians, and we request of the people that they reject its legitimacy."

The immediate concern is that the disagreements between the army officers and the soldiers will lead to the creation of separate militias, each of which will conduct its own, independent battle and attempt to attain achievements in the field, but that this will also make it easier for the Syrian army to act against each force separately. Additionally, the disagreements are making it especially difficult to build a consensus around a leadership that could serve as an alternative to the regime, at a point when Arab states are already sending funds to each body separately, and thus the entire struggle could end up losing. Over the longer term, the military activities of both forces could be a basis for taking power from Assad, creating a situation in which Syria will exchange one military regime for another.

Alongside the military conflict, there are also differences of opinion within the civilian opposition. Part of it, primarily the leadership of the Syrian National Council, supports UN intervention and additional sanctions, while the others demand Western military intervention. However, there is no Western will to intervene militarily, while the ruler of Qatar's proposal that Arab forces be sent to Syria is unacceptable to the Arab League. The result is that the Arab League remains with the proposal to continue the useless inspections, which show how more and more Syrians are being killed each day.