At a funeral for one of the more than 5,400 victims of Syria’s unfolding civil war, fighters from the opposition Free Syrian Army kept a menacing watch, their faces covered with scarves and balaclavas as they stood at the edge of a square, carrying assault rifles and grenade launchers. Thousands of demonstrators marched behind the coffin beneath the green, white and black banner of the opposition — not the Syrian government’s flag. Suspected state security agents were grabbed by the crowd.
The growing violence and assertiveness of the loosely organized military force hinted at the expanding role of armed fighters in a movement that began peacefully more than 10 months ago and that now seems to attract more defectors from Syria’s military by the day. After months of a withering government crackdown on the opposition, many protesters have come to welcome the fighters as a bulwark against the security forces loyal to President Bashar al-Assad.
The Free Syrian Army’s leadership is based over the border in Turkey. It is unclear whether it has any organizational control over the local, ad hoc militias in Syria that one person described as “franchises.” The scene in the square in Saqba showed that the ranks of the fighters had been buttressed by army conscripts and others, including air force veterans. In some places the militias are filled with local men, and in others, like Saqba, many of the defectors come from other parts of the country, welcome but somewhat mysterious guests.
“We don’t know who their commanders are,” said Rafaat Obeid, 37, one of the demonstrators. “We know they protect us.”
The growing numbers of armed rebels — and the determination of the government crackdown — has led to a rising tide of violence. The leader of the Arab League’s observer mission acknowledged on Friday that killings had accelerated despite the delegates’ presence. In a statement, the mission chief, Lt. Gen. Muhammad Ahmed al-Dabi of Sudan, warned of the “significant” escalation of violence in the previous three days and said it threatened negotiations aimed at ending the conflict.
Few of Syria’s opposition strongholds were safe on Friday as a government offensive unfolded across the country. The streets of Homs, Hama and Idlib came under shelling and sniper fire and were choked by clashes with opposition activists.
In the Free Syrian Army, the government faces what is surely a gathering threat. The rebels have fanned out across the country, forming militias that seem to be organizing mostly at a local level.
Khaled Abou Salah, a spokesman for the Homs Revolution Council, said brigades of Free Syrian Army soldiers in the city answered to neighborhood commanders who coordinated their efforts with officers in other parts of the country. The corps included engineers specializing in explosives and civilians, often men wanted by the government. Their ranks were growing, he said.
“Each time they bring new forces here, some of them defect,” he said.
In interviews last week, some residents of Homs, including several Christians and Alawites, expressed fears that hard-line Sunnis known as Salafis were forming armed groups and stoking violence. Those fears — which some said were overblown and ignored similar Sunni worries — reflected mounting concerns among secular activists that as the conflict drags on, an Islamist presence in some militias was giving the uprising an increasingly sectarian character.
One prominent leftist activist in Homs, heeding the concerns, said he was pressing his fellow activists to renounce the armed movement and stick to peaceful protests.
The tensions played out this week between secular and Islamist activists, with the Islamists pushing to name the weekly Friday protests “Al Jihad,” as other activists pushed for “the Right to Self Defense.” The secular activists won.
“The Syrian uprising is not a Sunni jihad against unbelievers,” said Rami, a protest leader in Damascus. “It is a Syrian uprising against a dictator’s regime, and for that reason there are protesters from Alawite, Christian, Druze, Ismaili and other sects,” he said.
In Saqba, a Free Syrian Army commander echoed that sentiment, saying that the fighters in the city crossed sectarian lines. “My colleagues’ names are George, and Joseph,” he said. NYT