Many of its claims appear exaggerated or fanciful, such as its boasts to have shot down a helicopter near Damascus this month and to have mustered a force of 10,000 to take on the Syrian military.
But it is clear that defections from the Syrian military have been accelerating in recent weeks, as have levels of violence in those areas where the defections have occurred.
“It is the beginning of armed rebellion,” said Gen. Riad Asaad, the dissident army’s leader, who defected from the air force in July and took refuge in Turkey.
“You cannot remove this regime except by force and bloodshed,” he said, speaking by telephone from the Syria-Turkey border. “But our losses will not be worse than we have right now, with the killings, the torture and the dumping of bodies.”
His goals are to carve out a slice of territory in northern Syria, secure international protection in the form of a no-fly zone, procure weapons from friendly countries and then launch a full-scale attack to topple the Assad government, echoing the trajectory of the Libyan revolution.
In the meantime, the defected soldiers are focusing their attention on defending civilians in neighborhoods where protests occur, while seeking to promote further defections, he said.
If the group achieves even a fraction of those aims, it would mark a dramatic turning point in the six-month standoff between a government that has resorted to maximum force to suppress dissent and a protest movement that has remained largely peaceful.
There is still scant evidence that the defectors are anywhere close to presenting a serious threat to Assad. Diplomats and activists say it is clear that the Free Syrian Army does have a presence in several locations, including the central city of Homs, the remote northern area of Jabal Zawiya near the Turkish border, and the eastern town of Deir al-Zour.
There have been frequent reports of firefights between defected soldiers and the regular army in these areas, but the numbers involved do not appear to be as large as the Free Syrian Army claims.
“I don’t think the numbers are big enough to have an impact one way or another on the government or on the contest between the protesters and the government,” said U.S. Ambassador Robert Ford, speaking by telephone from Damascus. “The vast majority of protests are still unarmed, and the vast majority of protesters are unarmed.”
There are nonetheless signs that the Free Syrian Army is expanding and organizing as reports of violent encounters increase. The group has announced the formation of 12 battalions around the country that regularly post claims on the group’s Facebook page, including bombings against military buses and ambushes at checkpoints.