That at least some of those calling for an end to President Bashar al-Assad’s rule have resorted to force is not new. Within weeks of the uprising’s start in March, there were reports of scattered violence as people swarmed into the streets in huge numbers across the country for overwhelmingly peaceful demonstrations.
In the city of Homs, the challenge posed to a minority-Alawite-led regime by a mostly Sunni protest movement rapidly inflamed sectarian tensions. There the uprising is evolving into a conflict between armed supporters on both sides of the divide.
But in recent weeks, attacks and ambushes have been on the rise across a swath of territory in the northern and central provinces of Idlib, Homs and Hama, as well as in eastern Deir al-Zour and the countryside around Damascus.
Though many of the attacks are claimed by the Free Syrian Army, which says it represents a force of 10,000 defected soldiers and officers, many diplomats and human rights groups suspect the claims are exaggerated. Defections have been taking place, they say, but it appears civilians have taken up arms out of frustration with the failure of peaceful protests.
Free Syrian Army officers insist that the only civilians allowed to join their ranks are activists wanted by the government. But they also acknowledge that defected officers outside the country exert little command and control over those carrying out attacks on the ground.
Turkey does not permit the rebel troops to wage cross-border attacks or allow them to smuggle arms into the country, said Capt. Aiham al-Kurdi, a defector in Turkey who identifies himself as the Free Syrian Army’s coordinator for Hama.
A greater amount of support comes from Lebanon, where lax controls have allowed arms, activists and defected soldiers to crisscross the border. Over the past week, Syrian soldiers have been laying mines along the border in an effort to curtail the traffic.
Still, a defected army lieutenant in the Lebanese border town of Wadi Khaled said, there is little contact between defected soldiers outside the country and the ad hoc groups that have sprung up inside. “We don’t have communications with them, and they don’t communicate with each other,” he said.
The notion of defectors defending civilians against government brutality has been embraced by protesters. In Hama, activists credit the Free Syrian Army with the recent attacks but say it is only acting to defend protesters.
“You will never hear of a protester carrying a weapon, never,” Hama activist Saleh al-Hamawi said via Skype. “The Free Syrian Army is acting like any army should act, which is to defend the people. They are in no way attacking first.”
The ambush in Hama must have happened because the police were on their way to suppress a protest, Hamawi said. But neither he nor the Free Syrian Army’s Hama coordinator in Turkey knew about the attack or who might have carried it out.