Middle East

Rebel command moves to Syria in sign of confidence

Free Syrian Army fighters from the Al-Faruk brigade rest at the Syrian crossing border point of Tal Abyad, a Turkish-Syrian border crossing captured by the rebels earlier in the week, eastern Syria, Sept. 22, 2012. (AP Photo/Hussein Malla)

BEIRUT: The rebel Free Syrian Army's decision to move its command center from Turkey to "liberated areas" inside Syria shows its growing confidence despite the risk of air strikes, analysts said Sunday.

The FSA announced on Saturday that their command center has been transferred from neighboring Turkey, in a symbolic move for an opposition criticized for being based outside the country.

"The Free Syrian Army command has moved into liberated areas of Syria following arrangements made with battalions and brigades to secure these zones," FSA chief Colonel Riyadh al-Asaad announced in a YouTube video.

Analysts said the move shows the gains on the ground which rebels have made.

"The transfer of the central command is indicative that the FSA has made a great deal of progress and success," said Riad Kahwaji, founder of the Institute for Near East and Gulf Military Analysis (INEGMA).

From a practical standpoint, he said, the move would improve logistics and facilitate communication.

"Whenever you're able to move your command closer to the front lines it makes your operations more efficient. And it's good for morale," he added.

Syria's vast territory is falling increasingly outside the control of government forces, whose monopoly of the skies is the last strength keeping the Damascus regime afloat, a rebel chief told AFP.

Colonel Ahmed Abdel Wahab, who claims to command a brigade of 850 men in the FSA, said that soldiers in most regions, apart from Damascus, are "prisoners of their barracks" while rebels move freely so long as they stay off main highways.

Relocating the rebel command shows that the rebels "have liberated a zone," said Fabrice Balanche, a Syria specialist who heads the French research centre GREMMO. "To install the command in Syria is very symbolic."

But he said the rebels had not gained much in practical terms: "The central command was in Turkey, which was not very far" across the border.

The expert also raised the possibility that the Ankara government, facing criticism from Turkish domestic opposition toward its Syria policies, may have pushed the rebels to leave.

The move, Balanche said, creates a new security problem for the rebels. "They are now at the mercy of aerial attacks."

But with increasingly large swathes of the border area under rebel control, the rebel chiefs have apparently decided to take on such a risk with the goal of unifying ranks.

"It has a strong effect on morale and negates talk that the opposition is in exile when its military wing is at home," Kahwaji said.

The announcement came as the FSA is undermined by internal rivalries, particularly between the central command, set up in Turkey more than a year ago and led by Asaad, and the internal command led by Colonel Qassem Saadeddine.

Another major problem has been the proliferation of splinter groups, with some claiming autonomy of action.

Kahwaji argued that a Syria-based command would help reign in such groups. "They will eventually find themselves better off ... This war can't be won unless everyone is acting collectively and they are organized," he said.

But Balanche said it would take time for rebel fighters in far-flung regions to fall in line with FSA orders: "I don't see it changing rapidly."

"If the command of the FSA can give them arms and money, this is how they will unify their ranks. But if they have nothing to offer, they won't defer to the command of the FSA," he said.

The rebels are also hoping to win the support of the international community which has so far been reluctant to arm the revolt against President Bashar Assad.

"It is the international community that pressured the FSA to reign in its ranks, as they're concerned about the rise of Islamists and jihadists in the rebellion," a Syria expert told AFP on condition of anonymity.

Since late July, the opposition has seized control of at least three key crossings with Turkey, while nearly 80 percent of towns along the Turkish border are outside regime control, according to a watchdog.

"If we had anti-aircraft and anti-tank missiles, we could quickly gain the advantage," rebel commander Abdel Wahab said. "But if foreign countries don't give us these, we will still win. It will take longer, that's all."





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