Col. Riad Assad, who heads the Syrian Free Army, pledged to scale back attacks… (Associated Press )
Reporting from Beirut — In a significant display of unity, Syrian military defectors fighting to unseat President Bashar Assad have agreed to scale back their campaign and coordinate with the main civilian opposition bloc, according to representatives of both groups.
Leaders of the Syrian National Council and the Free Syrian Army met this week in southern Turkey, which has provided sanctuary to its neighbor's two most prominent dissident groups while pressing them to take steps to avoid all-out civil war.
It was the first official meeting between the council's leader, Burhan Ghalioun, and the Free Army chief, Col. Riad Assad, though there have been lower-level contacts between the groups, said Free Army spokesman Maher Nuaimi.
The council, a dissident umbrella group launched two months ago in Istanbul, Turkey, has been trying to establish itself as the legitimate representative of the Syrian people. But opposition to President Assad's regime is highly fragmented, with vastly different approaches.
The council advocates nonviolence, and the Free Syrian Army has claimed responsibility for high-profile attacks on Syrian forces — a strategy that critics contend plays into the hands of the government by providing a pretext for its bloody crackdown on what began as mostly peaceful protests.
At Monday's meeting, the Free Syrian Army agreed it would not initiate assaults but would continue to "protect and defend civilians," Nuaimi said. "We will not attack units that are staying in their barracks, but we have the right to stop any unit that enters our cities and tries to kill our people."
What effect the pledge has on an increasingly bloody conflict remains to be seen. It is unclear how much control the Free Army's leaders in Turkey have on groups of defectors inside the country.
Much of the fighting has been taking place in areas where opposition activists say security forces are occupying cities and towns, firing on peaceful demonstrators and shelling residential neighborhoods — the kind of assault that demands self-defense as a "legitimate right," Nuaimi said.
The United Nations' top human rights official said Thursday that Syria is reaching the point of civil war, with more than 4,000 people killed since major protests against the regime broke out in March.
"As soon as there were more and more defectors threatening to take up arms, I said this in August before the Security Council, that there's going to be a civil war," Navi Pillay, the U.N. high commissioner for human rights, told reporters in Geneva. "And at the moment, that's how I am characterizing this."
Opposition activists from the Local Coordination Committees said as many as 29 people were killed Thursday, including a woman and her daughter, who were struck down by shelling in the town of Talkalakh in restive Homs province. Most journalists are barred from Syria, so reports cannot be independently verified.
Syrian officials blame the bloodshed on armed gangs of "terrorists" backed by foreign powers aiming to sow divisions in the country. They say more than 1,100 security force members also have been killed.
The president retains considerable support from ethnic and religious minorities that fear an outbreak of sectarian bloodletting if his government is toppled. Most of the country's 22 million people are Sunni Muslims, but the political and military leadership are dominated by Assad's minority Alawite sect, an offshoot of Shiite Islam.
Leaders of the Free Syrian Army acknowledge that many of those defecting are Sunni conscripts. But Rima Filhan, a council spokeswoman who said she was at Monday's meeting, said her organization had received assurances that the Free Army was "a national army, not a sectarian army," and would "protect the country from chaos once the regime falls."
She said the council recognized the Free Army's role in safeguarding civilians, and Nuaimi said the Free Army in turn acknowledged the council's political function.
"It is natural that there is a need for coordination between the two bodies," Filhan said.
The two sides said they agreed to form joint committees to coordinate their efforts and would continue to meet periodically.
Marrouch is a special correspondent.