Syrian army defections exceed 40,000

Syrian army defections exceed 40,000

MUNICH - Hurriyet Daily News
Syrian army defections exceed 40,000

Syrian soldiers who defected to join the Free Syrian Army are seen among demonstrators during a protest against Syrian President Bashar al-Assad in Idlib in this photo. REUTERS photo

Defections from the Syrian army has exceeded 40,000 according to intelligence revealed by Turkish official sources, while the two-day death toll in Homs is reported as at least 260.

Behind-the-doors diplomacy on Syria has stepped up in Munich, where the 48th International Security Conference continues. One of the key topics discussed here, mainly between the U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton and Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov, is whether possible United Nations sanctions on Syria may lead the way to a Libya-style military action.

Turkish Foreign Minister Ahmet Davutoğlu, who maintains Turkey is against such military intervention unless there is a clear UN resoution based on humanitarian reasons, is involved in the talks as a key player which has a border with Syria of 910 kilometers long.

Under the circumstances, the shift of powers within the Syrian army is gaining importance, regarding the possibility for the Bashar al-Assad regime to leave power due to action form the inside. High ranking Turkish sources who asked not to be named said that for an army of some 270,000 troops (215,000 of this being ground troops), a 40,000-strong loss since August 2011 means losing nearly 15 percent of the armed forces.

Turkish officials anticipate more defections due to the escalating antagonism between the Nusayri minority which supports the al-Assad regime and the majority Sunnis.

“Nearly 80 percent of the higher ranks are of Nusayri origin,” one Turkish source explained to the Hürriyet Daily News. “And 80 percent of lower ranks and foot soldiers are Sunni. There are reports of broken chains of command and soldiers are simply deserting units with rifles in their hands.

Opposition groups in Turkey

Some of those deserters are known to cross the northern border into Turkey and join to the Syrian National Council (SNC), which represents the biggest faction of the Syrian opposition, and also the Free Syrian Army (FSA). Recently, the Daily News has reported that two Syrian generals, one from the army and the other from the air force, namely Mostafa Ahmad al-Sheikh and Redwan Nadoush, joined the FSA comittee founded by Colonel Riad al-Assad last year.

The SNC’s liasion office is in Istanbul but the main activity is reportedly carried out around the camps where refugees from Syria are kept in the bordering Hatay, a province which stil appears to be a part of Syria in maps of the al-Assad regime, which denies a 1938 plebicite held in the province to join Turkey.

Turkish officials categorically deny that members of the FSA are having military training in Turkey. “Civilian or military, Turkey’s doors are open to the Syrian opposition,” one ranking source told a group of journalists in Munich. “But they cannot have military training within Turkish borders and none of them can carry weapons in Turkey. [This restriction comes] despite the fact that the Syrian regime had hosted a terrorist organization’s headquarters and training camps for some 15 years, claiming a lot of lives in Turkey.”

This statement is a reference to the presence of the outlawed Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK) in Syria and Syrian-controlled parts of Lebanon between 1983-1998, until Damascus had to send PKK leader Abdullah Öcalan out of the country upon pressure by Turkey. Öcalan currently serves a life sentence in Turkey, after being nabbed as he left a Greek Embassy in Kenya in 1999.

While reports are flowing from all capitals to Munich regarding the mounting death toll in Syria and about insurgents closing in on Damascus, the future of the country after the Baathist rule collapses has been put on the diplomacy table.