This loose collection of defectors and armed civilians claims thousands of members and posts footage of attacks on military infrastructure on Facebook. But the men in north Lebanon, all of them Sunni Muslims, said that they lived in poverty and secrecy, numbering a few hundred at most, and had limited access to weapons, prompting questions about the capability of the organization to have a substantial impact on well-armed and organized Alawite-led Syrian security forces.
“The arms we have are what we defected with, or things that we steal from the other side,” said one, who added that he had been a private in the army. They receive no international help and had been visited by no military attaches, they said, although they would take arms, money or supplies from almost anyone if they offered it.
The defectors have won grudging support from the Syrian National Council, the most prominent political group calling for the fall of President Bashar al-Assad. The council recognized the FSA’s “honorable role in protecting the peaceful Revolution of our people” in a statement last month.
And they have garnered more enthusiastic approval from other Syrian dissidents — who carry banners with the group’s name at demonstrations and chant for them, calling on them to protect civilians from security forces, and hoping the group could one day present a challenge to the military.
One defector, who said he had been a second lieutenant and showed military identification, said that there were about 500 defected soldiers in north Lebanon, working with about 200 on the other side of the border. He said the men took turns to cross the border on foot, along old smuggling routes through newly-laid minefields into Syria.
They do not carry weapons across the border, he said, because to do so would risk execution if they were captured. But they do collect weapons from family and clan members over the border, he said, and spend a few days or weeks in the country, attending protests in the town of Tal Kalakh and surrounding villages to provide some protection from the heavy presence of security forces.
All of the soldiers who had gathered in the Lebanese mountains said they were from the town of Tal Kalakh. They had been deployed across the country, but all fled to their home town when they defected. Thus far, they said, relatively few soldiers had joined the group, simply because they were afraid of the consequences.
Under orders from their superiors, the men said, the defectors have suspended offensive operations over the past two weeks, during a visit to Syria by a monitoring team from the Arab League. They receive orders via a commanding officer from defected Col. Riad al-Asaad, who leads the group from southern Turkey.