Syrian army Col. Riad Assad, seen here last month in a refugee camp in the… (Hasan Yetmez / Reuters )
Reporting from Antakya, Turkey, and Beirut — From his heavily guarded enclave in Turkey, a leading Syrian defector says he is heading an armed rebellion against the regime of President Bashar Assad.
The brutality of the regime in Damascus left him and others no choice but to switch sides, says Col. Riad Assad, leader of a force called the Free Syrian Army.
"We are the future army of a new Syria," the colonel, who is not related to the president, said in an interview. "We are striking Assad's regime and his army in many spots."
The colonel's boasts of strikes against the Syrian government are impossible to verify, as is his contention that more than 10,000 Syrian soldiers have deserted and taken up arms against their former comrades.
But one thing is clear: The emergence of the armed defectors, enjoying Turkey's apparent protection, is the most dramatic sign yet of Ankara's abrupt split with its ally in Damascus.
On Tuesday, Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan — who has assailed Syria for what he termed a brutal crackdown on protesters — hailed the resistance movement, reported the Turkish daily Zaman.
"I believe the Syrian people will be successful in their glorious resistance," Erdogan declared at a party meeting.
Turkey plans to impose economic sanctions against Syria, Erdogan has said, joining the European Union and the United States. Turkey has also hosted members of a political opposition umbrella group, the Syrian National Council, which was formed in the Turkish city of Istanbul last month and demands the Syrian president's ouster.
Longtime adversaries, Syria and Turkey in recent years had become close allies, cooperating in economic, military and other spheres, as a resurgent Turkey sought to bolster its standing as regional power.
But Damascus' clampdown on Syrians' "Arab Spring"-inspired protests has caused a deep rupture that has reshaped area geopolitics. Syria's close ally, Iran, has voiced displeasure with Ankara's new hostility toward Damascus.
The presence of the Syrian Free Army in Turkey has shone an international spotlight on the regional rift.
Col. Assad said in an interview Monday that his forces were conducting ambushes and other "high-quality operations" against security forces "in cities across Syria."
The group's weapons, the colonel said, are limited to what fleeing soldiers can scrounge from the regular army. He acknowledged that the defector force lacks the military might to pose a threat to the Syrian army, which has about 200,000 troops.
The appearance of armed rebels in Syria has posed something of a quandary for the Syrian opposition movement, which kicked off more than seven months ago with peaceful street demonstrations. Advocates insist that the revolt remains nonviolent and continues to eschew armed insurgency.
Activists say armed rebels constitute a tiny minority of those opposing the regime. But some observers fear an increasing militarization of the conflict and a slide toward civil war.
The scenario in Syria remains in sharp contrast to what happened in Libya, where a military crackdown against protesters quickly evolved into an armed insurrection against the government of Moammar Kadafi.
The Syrian uprising's public face as a besieged protest movement has helped win it sympathy worldwide, including in Washington, where the Obama administration has called for Bashar Assad to step down. The United Nations estimates that more than 3,000 people, mostly civilians, have been killed.
The Syrian government has blamed "armed groups" and "terrorists" for fomenting unrest in Syria and killing more than 1,000 security personnel. It has depicted defectors as traitors and denied reports from the opposition that military morale is low and that soldiers have refused orders to fire on civilians.
In September, Syrian television broadcast an interview with another high-ranking defector, Lt. Col. Hussein Harmoush, who retracted comments that the army had been forced to shoot at civilians.
Harmoush had also defected to Turkey. How he ended up on Syrian TV remains unclear. The Turkish government denied allegations by Syrian activists that Turkey handed Harmoush over to Syria.
Turkish authorities, who maintain that their role is humanitarian, have gone to considerable lengths to ensure Col. Assad's safety.
No journalists are allowed to enter the camp where Assad and fellow defectors live. Any interviews must be arranged through the Turkish Foreign Ministry. A reporter in Antakya, the closest city to the camp, was allowed to speak with the colonel only by telephone.
In the interview, Assad declined to say whether his forces were conducting cross-border operations from Turkey. He appealed to the international community to impose a "no fly" zone similar to what the North Atlantic Treaty Organization enforced over Libya. He also called for a "buffer zone" in Syria that would provide protection for fleeing civilians — and create a haven for his forces.
"We don't have the ability to buy weapons, but we need to protect civilians inside Syria," the colonel said.
NATO officials have said the alliance has no intention of intervening in Syria. Turkey, a NATO member, has not moved to create a buffer zone in Syrian territory.
President Assad told Britain's Sunday Telegraph that Western action against his strategically situated nation would trigger an "earthquake" that would "burn the whole region" and possibly cause "another Afghanistan, or tens of Afghanistans."
Special correspondent Sherlock reported from Antakya and Times staff writer McDonnell from Beirut.