As part of our continuing coverage of what by many accounts can be viewed as a pro-democracy uprising in Syria, Middle East Voices has been speaking with individuals who have joined the growing force of armed rebels known as the Free Syrian Army.
Now, in a Middle East Voices exclusive, VOA’s Cecily Hilleary interviewed Colonel Riad al-Asaad, the commander of the FSA. The interview was conducted in Arabic with VOA reporter Mohamed Elshinnawi.
Al-Asaad told us that despite being grossly under-resourced, he is getting more and more recruits every day. The latest reports put the size of the armed opposition force at anywhere between 1,000 and 25,000. In his interview, the colonel told us that he unequivocally is not seeking a coup and supports the Syrian National Council as the legitimate representative of the people. He also stressed that the force he is assembling is inclusive and non-sectarian. Finally, he makes a plea to U.S. President Barack Obama to offer quick and decisive support for the resistance and underscores that the establishment of a buffer zone, as proposed by Turkey and France, could accelerate defections and change the course of the conflict.
Hilleary: What is your mission?
Al-Asaad: As Commander of the Free Syrian Army [FSA], my mission is to protect the protesters and defend Syrian people and cities against violations, the killing of innocent people, and I seek an end to this regime, which is a criminal, brutal regime run by gangsters who are unlawfully ruling Syria.
…whether safety zones are created or not, whether a no-fly zone is imposed or not, we will continue our revolution and, God willing, victory will be coming soon…
Hilleary: Do you have enough manpower and weaponry to accomplish this mission?
Al-Asaad: No. The FSA is not equipped with the necessary equipment. However, we are on the ground fighting back, using our strong beliefs, supported by the entire population, and that is enough to enable us to protect our people and topple the regime in a short period of time, God willing.
Hilleary: France and Turkey have been talking about establishing a buffer zone inside the Syrian border with Turkey. How would the creation of such a zone help your mission?
Al-Asaad: It would help a great deal because it would encourage soldiers and officers who want to defect, but are scared to do so due to a lack of protection. They are forced now to continue with the Assad regime, but once a safety buffer zone is created, a lot of soldiers and officers will be encouraged to defect, which would greatly impact the regime’s army, as it would collapse from within.
…the Syrian Army is beginning to disintegrate from within…
Hilleary: If you don’t receive the support you are asking for—say, a no-fly zone – what then?
Al-Asaad: We are continuing our revolution. We are constantly defending our people and our country, so whether safety zones are created or not, whether a no-fly zone is imposed or not, we will continue our revolution and, God willing, victory will be coming soon, as our strength is fortified day after day, while the Syrian regime is disintegrating.
Hilleary: Today, we have seen a mass defection and formation of an entire new brigade in Idlib. How many total defectors are there in Syria today?
Al-Asaad: My estimate is that the opposition force is huge in numbers, and thank God, every day, we see new defections. We have forces spread all over Syria – with new defections daily. Actually, the Syrian Army is beginning to disintegrate from within.
Hilleary: In making the decision to turn against the Syrian army, the defectors face tremendous risks.
Al-Asaad: The risks are great. They are facing assassinations, arrest and death sentences. However, any Syrian who has decided to defect has been willing to devote his life, without fear, to going forward with the struggle against the regime – to the end.
Hilleary: Are they all under the FSA’s command—and have there been any difficulties coordinating with the various brigades?
Al-Asaad: Yes. There were some difficulties. That’s why we have formed regiments on the ground across Syria and we communicate on a daily basis. I am not working alone. There are officers assigned to command different areas, and each one is communicating with his area and coordinating with officers in that area. So we are in complete coordination with each other. Operations are carried out with my knowledge and they are carried out in a systematic, well thought-out strategy against Assad’s forces.
Hilleary: Are Shi’a, Sunni and Alawites represented among your ranks? Some media reports have…
Al-Asaad: Not at all. We reject sectarianism, as we have suffered from it under this regime for 40 years of injustice and oppression that used a sectarian approach. As for us, we reject such an approach and we are open to all people and allow all factions to join the FSA, with no discrimination whatsoever between Alawites, Druze, Christians and even Kurds. We invite all to join this Free Army, so that it can be a real national army that is really protecting the country and allowing every Syrian citizen the right to live in a secure country, within their beloved homeland.
It is not a civil war. It is rather a war by the regime against its own people…
Hilleary: If the FSA were to succeed in its mission of overthrowing President Assad, it may be perceived by many as another military coup. Is the FSA or yourself making a bid for power?
Al-Asaad: No. It will never be a military coup. We support the Syrian National Council [SNC], which represents the Syrian people. We are not seeking a military coup -I assure you we are not. So far, we are not interfering in politics. We rejection factionalism and we do not indulge in politics. The Free Syrian Army was formed on non-partisan, non-political grounds. It is the country’s army, for all Syrians, with just one mission: to protect the homeland and its citizens. The Free Syrian Army isn’t involved in politics now and won’t be in the future.
Hilleary: Today, we hear that the United Nations has, for the first time, referred to the crisis in Syria as a “civil war.” Do you agree with that assessment?
Al-Asaad: No. It is not a civil war. It is rather a war by the regime against its own people. It is a gangster’s campaign against the Syrian people. Ironically, the regime perceives the Syrians as slaves. That is why this criminal gang is launching a war against a helpless people.
I assure you, Syrians have been killed by the tens of thousands – not just 4,000 [the U.N.'s latest figure] – because thousands are missing and their loved ones have never learned their whereabouts, especially for those in detention camps and prisons. A lot of detainees were found dead on the streets or in forests. The brutal torture of detainees by the regime has resulted in many deaths—so the regime has resorted to just dumping their bodies into the woods or along roadways.
I call on President Obama to really support the Syrian people quickly – until this regime falls
Hilleary: If you had a chance to deliver a personal message to the U.S. President, what would you tell him?
Al-Asaad: I urge President Obama to stand by the Syrian people, who have been dealt with unjustly. Syrians are being killed, raped, subjected to theft. They are losing their homes. Syrians deserve the same rights to freedom that American people enjoy, so I call on President Obama to really support the Syrian people quickly – until this regime falls. The entire Syrian population has already decided that this regime should leave.
Middle East Voices routinely reaches out to officials representing the pro-Assad side of the conflict in Syria. As part of this ongoing effort, we have contacted, among others, the Ministry of Information in Damascus and the Embassy of Syria in Washington, D.C. To date, none of them have responded to our requests for statements or interviews.
Cecily began her reporting career in the 1990s, covering US Middle East policy for Dubai-TV English. She has lived and/or worked in the Middle East, North Africa and Gulf regions, consulting and producing for several regional radio and television networks and production houses, including MBC, Al-Arabiya, the former Emirates Media Incorporated and Al-Ikhbaria. She brings to VOA and MEV a keen understanding of the region's top social, cultural and political issues.