Defected Soldiers Formed Free Syrian Army

Anti-government forces in Syria known as the Free Syrian Army have gained ground against the regime of President Bashar Assad. Steve Inskeep talks to Amr Al Azm about the rebels. Azm is a professor of history at Shawnee State University. He's also a Syrian activist and a member of the opposition advising on strategy.

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RENEE MONTAGNE, HOST:

In other news this morning, the Free Syrian Army has claimed responsibility for the bombing attack in Damascus earlier this week. To learn more about the group, we reached Amr al Azm. He's a Syrian activist and professor of history at Shawnee State University.

STEVE INSKEEP, HOST:

Who is the Free Syrian Army exactly?

AMR AL AZM: Well, you know, the Free Syrian Army started off, basically theses were groups of soldiers, low ranking officers, who began to defect from the regime forces when things started to take an unpleasant and ugly turn as the regime began to repress the uprising more and more.

INSKEEP: So significant numbers of people actually have military experience then.

AZM: Yes. You have to remember that in Syria almost everyone has military experience because we have compulsory military service between two and a half and three years. But the core of the Free Syrian Army was started when these small members of junior to mid-ranking officers and some of their men began defecting.

Most of them just started running back to their homes to, oh, maybe to be with their families, but then as things became much more dangerous, many of them started to go across the border into Turkey. And this is where you had the first of the officers of the Free Syrian Army setting up their base, if you want, under the protection of the Turkish government.

INSKEEP: So does that headquarters actually effectively command military forces somewhere inside Syria?

AZM: Well, yes and no. And this brings us to the very nature of the FSA. The FSA is not a strong cohesive hierarchical organization, as you would think. I mean, when you say army, you think of this, you know, united, cohesive fighting force, but that's not the case of the FSA. It's more along the lines of loose knit groups, bands of individuals who get together and there's not as much coordination as one would have liked to see or would have hoped.

And one of the reasons why this has been a hallmark of the way the FSA is put together is not so much because they don't want to cooperate or don't like to cooperate, but because of security issues. Remember, this is a regime that has very, very strong - a very, very strong security apparatus and a very strong security and intelligence presence on the ground.

People tend to be very fearful and very mistrustful of anyone they don't know, and that has up to a point hindered the cooperation.

INSKEEP: One other thing that people wonder about is how closely connected the rebels are to the United States. The U.S. has said it's providing non-lethal aid. From what you've been able to determine, is that aid helpful and is it really only non-lethal?

AZM: OK. All aid is helpful and we don't get enough of it. The United States has categorically, you know, maintained its position that it will not provide lethal aid, but there are others who are providing that aid and the United States is keeping a watch on who's providing what to who, and that's really where a lot of, I think, U.S. efforts right now are being directed, at trying to gather intelligence, get an understanding of what's going on, who's doing what to who.

And with an eye to the future. I think the main concern for the United States is really the chemical weapons and what happens to those and thinking in a broader sort of security of the region as a whole.

INSKEEP: Oh, the chemical weapons that the Syrian government is believed to have in its possession. Who's providing lethal aid to the rebels, as far as you know?

AZM: Well, the lethal aid comes through a variety of sources. A lot of the weapons that we have come from the inside itself, where basically either soldiers who are defecting bring it with them or guns that exist within the country. I mean, you know, Syria's not exactly a flower petal society.

People do have weapons. But there's also a lot of smuggling. Syria straddles main major smuggling routes which go back decades and even centuries, and they're controlled by various smuggling rings and have been for a very, very long time. So it's just a matter of, you know, what is the commodity that is needed most. Maybe prior to the uprising it was cigarettes. Today it's guns and ammunition and medical supplies.

INSKEEP: So let's be realistic. The rebels are not likely to get a lot of heavy artillery. They're not likely to get a lot of tanks. They're not likely to get the kind of weaponry that the regular Syrian army has. And does that mean that ultimately Assad's regime has to collapse from within, it probably cannot just be defeated straightaway on the battlefield?

AZM: I think ultimately the final battle, if you want, it will end up having to be that major army units themselves, you know, brigades - entire brigades maybe would then break away with their equipment and join the fight. I mean, right now they're engaged in Damascus in, you know, close quarter street fighting. That's the kind of stuff that demoralizes the regime that causes more defections and is leading to the fragmentation of the regime.

INSKEEP: Amr Al Azm is a professor of history at Shawnee State University, also a Syrian activist and member of the opposition advising on strategy. Thanks very much.

AZM: Thank you.

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