NORTHERN SYRIA: Syria's largest armed opposition group is undergoing a drastic reorganisation and relocating its leadership to rebel-held territory in a bid to win vital international support, a general told AFP.
Mustafa Sheikh heads the military council that presides over the Free Syrian Army (FSA) but which has been criticised for failing to bring order to an organisation some of whose members have been implicated in suspected war crimes.
Its units fighting to bring down Syrian President Bashar al-Assad are poorly equipped and increasingly resentful of the international community -- particularly the West for refusing to provide it with heavy weapons and implement a no-fly zone.
But in an interview with AFP in northern Syria, Sheikh said that in the past 10 days, the FSA had started to restructure itself into five divisions -- north, south, east and west, and the coast -- and would elect new leaders.
"We are getting closer and closer to becoming organised, so that we can get to a stage that is accepted by the international community," he told AFP.
He said the FSA's priorities were organisation and securing heavier weapons than the Kalashnikovs and improvised rockets many units currently make do with.
"This body will operate in an organised and disciplined manner. When this happens, the international community will know where these weapons are going," he said.
Washington has said it is working "very hard" to help the opposition unite in its struggle, but has voiced concern that extremist Islamist fighters have hijacked what began as a peaceful uprising.
It has said that the Syrian National Council, an umbrella grouping of largely exiled dissidents, is no longer a valid leader of the opposition and called for representation from those on the front line.
Sheikh said the FSA leadership, based largely in neighbouring Turkey, is countering criticism from its rank and file, by relocating around 200 officers -- including himself -- back to "liberated" parts of Syria.
"Leaders and officers should not be away from the front, away from their soldiers. It's better to stay, for a better organisation, for better morale and for better control on the field, it's preferable," he said.
Although accurate numbers are impossible to confirm, Sheikh claimed 70,000 soldiers and 25 percent of the officer class had now defected, although nearly half are in prison.
He insisted that the FSA represents all Syrians, despite strong evidence, at least in northern Syria, that it is overwhelmingly made up of Sunni Arabs.
"The armed groups are like militias. We as officers do not accept that at all. In that light, it's important for military institutions to get out of political agendas and for the military institutions to represent all the Syrian communities."
The goal is not just securing firmer international support. The restructuring is also symptomatic of the rivalries and power struggles that beset the uprising.
Sheikh singled out the Muslim Brotherhood, whose leaders were exiled by the Assad regime, accusing it of controlling the SNC and of buying the loyalty of militias.
Last week, the UN High Commission for Human Rights said a video purporting to show rebels executing Syrian soldiers appeared to have been a war crime.
The video, posted on YouTube, appeared to show Syrian rebels beating around 10 injured soldiers before lining them up on the ground and executing them.
Sheikh said the fighters were under investigation and would be put on trial, once courts resume work in a post-Assad Syria.
"Maybe there are no real mechanisms for accountabilty at the moment and at this level, but at a later stage, they will start to hold accountable all the people who made mistakes against human rights and against minorities," he said.