Chief Army Defector Promises Fight To Free Syria

Published February 5, 2012 1:27PM (EST)

BEIRUT (AP) — The commander of a force of rebel Syrian soldiers says they have no choice now but to fight to free the country of President Bashar Assad's regime after Russia and China vetoed a U.N. resolution aimed at resolving the crisis.

Col. Riad al-Asaad, commander of the Free Syrian Army, tells The Associated Press that "there is no other road" except military action by his fighters to topple Assad.

Speaking on Sunday by telephone from Turkey, al-Asaad said Russia and China's veto of the measure was a "strike against the Syrian people," not just the opposition.

THIS IS A BREAKING NEWS UPDATE. Check back soon for further information. AP's earlier story is below.

BEIRUT (AP) — Syria's opposition appealed for international backing on Sunday, a day after Russia and China vetoed a U.N. Security Council resolution aimed at pressuring President Bashar Assad to end his bloody crackdown on an uprising that has raged for almost 11 months.

The double-veto at the Security Council outraged the U.S. and its European allies as well as Arab leaders, and intensified fears among regime opponents that Assad will now unleash even greater violence to crush protesters, feeling that he has protection by his top ally Moscow.

A Syrian state-run newspaper vowed Sunday that Damascus will press its crackdown on the uprising until stability is restored. Early Saturday, regime forces bombarded the restive central city of Homs in what activists said was the deadliest incident of the uprising. They reported more than 200 killed, but the regime denied any bombardment and there was no way to independently confirm the toll.

In new reports of violence on Sunday, the Britian-based activist group Syrian Observatory for Human Rights said troops and army defectors clashed in the northwestern province of Idlib and the southern province of Daraa and said nine soldiers were killed in Idlib.

The Observatory also said that one person was shot dead by a sniper Sunday in the central city of Homs, a hotbed of anti-regime activism. Another activist group, the Local Coordination Committees said nine people were killed Sunday in different parts of the country.

The Russian and Chinese vetoes at the Security Council effectively killed an Arab League plan aimed at ending the violence in Syria that called for Assad to hand over his powers to his vice president and allow creation of a unity government. The resolution would have expressed support for that Arab League plan, putting pressure on Assad, who has rejected it.

Hundreds of regime supporters held a rally in a Damascus square, waving Russian and Chinese flags in gratitude for their blocking the resolution.

"Thanks Russia, thanks China for undermining the Western conspiracy against our country," said Nibal Hmeid, a 24-year-old teacher at the rally. She said Assad should now settle the situation in Syria "decisively and militarily against those armed criminals."

The regime has painted the uprising as the work of terrorists and armed gangs as part of a foreign conspiracy.

Proponents of the Arab League plan are now searching for an alternative to address Syria's crisis, which the U.S. and many European countries have said bluntly can only be resolved by Assad's leaving power.

"The veto is not the end of the world. The revolution will continue and it will be victorious, God willing," Radwan Ziadeh, a prominent figure on the Syrian National Council, the main opposition umbrella group, wrote on his Facebook page.

After 13 of the Security Council's 15 members backed the resolution, he said, countries backing Syria's opposition should form an "international coalition ... whose aim will be to lead international moves to support the revolution through political and economic aid."

Ziadeh said he expected French, U.S. and Arab support for a coalition.

A deeply sensitive question is whether such a coalition would back the Free Syrian Army, a force of army defectors who in recent months have gone beyond protecting protesters in Syria to launching attacks on regime forces and trying to establish overt control in pro-opposition parts of the country.

There appears to be deep hesitation among Western countries to back them, fearing that as Assad cracks down, the opposition could turn more to force of arms and the country could be torn by outright civil war.

In an interview with Al-Arabiya TV on Saturday after the U.N., the head of the Syrian National Council Burhan Ghalioun also spoke of an international coalition but sought to avoid talk of military support for the rebel fighters. However, he did say such support was possible "if necessary" to "protect the Syrian people."

More than 5,400 people have been killed in Syria's crackdown, according to a U.N. count from January that has not been updated, and activists have reported dozens killed daily since.

Arab nations and other backers of the Security Council resolution expressed their anger and frustration at the double veto during an international security conference in the German city of Munich.

Qatar's minister for international cooperation, Khaled al-Attiyah, said the vetoes sent "a very bad signal to Assad that there (is a) license to kill."

Tunisian Prime Minister Hamadi Jebali urged other Arab nations to follow the step his country took Saturday and expel Syrian ambassadors and end recognition of Assad.

"The very least that we can do is to cut our relations to the Syrian regime," Jebali said.

Egyptian Foreign Minister Mohammed Amr signaled frustration that the U.N. resolution was vetoed following "one of the few instances when the Arab League really came forward and put forward a full plan for a settlement."

He said Arab League foreign ministers would meet in Cairo next Saturday to decide on a next step.

The Syrian government Sunday touted the U.N. vetoes as a victory, saying the world must now support the regime's program for resolving the crisis.

The state-run Syrian Tishreen daily, one of several mouthpieces for the regime, said the veto was an incentive for Damascus to continue with announced political reforms, which include drafting a new constitution, allowing the formation of new political parties and holding parliamentary elections.

It said the international community should now back moves for a dialogue between the government and opposition.

At the same time, it vowed that the government would simultaneously continue its crackdown, saying it would "restore what the Syrians enjoyed for decades and what they are demanding today which is stability and security and confronting all forms of terrorism."

The opposition has dismissed Assad's reform plans as attempts to play for time, saying they will accept nothing less than his departure. It has rejected any dialogue with the regime.


AP correspondent Geir Moulson in Munich contributed to this report.


Bassem Mroue can be reached on twitter at

By Salon Staff

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