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Originally published Wednesday, February 29, 2012 at 4:02 AM

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Syrian opposition forms military council

Syria's main opposition group formed a military council Thursday to organize and unify all armed resistance to President Bashar Assad's regime, pushing the conflict another step closer to civil war.

Associated Press

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BEIRUT —

Syria's main opposition group formed a military council Thursday to organize and unify all armed resistance to President Bashar Assad's regime, pushing the conflict another step closer to civil war.

The Paris-based leadership of the Syrian National Council said its plan was coordinated with the most potent armed opposition force - the Free Syrian Army - made up mainly of army defectors.

"We wanted to organize those who are carrying arms today," SNC president Burhan Ghalioun told reporters in Paris, saying any weapons flowing into the country should go through the council. "The revolution started peacefully and kept up its peaceful nature for months, but the reality today is different and the SNC must shoulder its responsibilities in the face of this new reality," he added.

When asked whether Syria was headed for civil war, Ghalioun tried to play down the risks by saying:

"No, the uprising in Syria was from the start and it will remain foremost a popular peaceful movement. The task of the military council is to protect those peaceful protesters and civilians."

The SNC has called for arming rebels in the past, but this was the first time it sought to organize the fighters under one umbrella. The plan coincides with a ferocious government offensive on the opposition stronghold of Homs in central Syria that has been going on for nearly a month.

On Wednesday, the Syrian regime showed a new determination to crush its opponents, vowing to "cleanse" the rebel-held district of Baba Amr in Homs from "gunmen," as activists reported troops massing outside.

Syrian activists said government forces have cut off communications to Bab Amr, jamming satellite phone signals as they mass for an apparent ground assault. The neighborhood has been under siege for about four weeks and hundreds have died in shelling.

Authorities had previously blocked land and mobile phone lines, but activists were able to communicate with the outside world with satellite phones.

The activist Revolutionary Council of Homs said it could no longer reach anyone inside Baba Amr. All satellite signals were jammed, it said.

Rami Abdul-Rahman, head of the British-based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights, said there was "fierce fighting" at the entrances to Baba Amr and troops have been unable to enter so far.

The deteriorating security situation prompted the U.K. to close its embassy in Syria and withdraw all diplomatic staff, Britain's foreign secretary said Thursday.

The Syrian conflict that began as mostly peaceful protests, met by an iron-fisted military crackdown, has turned increasingly militarized. There are near daily clashes between armed military defectors and government forces and the rebels have managed to capture and hold small pieces of territory, notably in and around Homs and along the northern border with Turkey.

The opposition's main problem over the past year has been its inability to coalesce behind a single leader or ideology beyond toppling the regime. Western powers trying to help the anti-government forces oust Assad have repeatedly stressed the importance of the fragmented opposition pulling together. The SNC announcement seemed to respond to those calls.

"The Military Bureau will track the armed opposition groups, organize and unify their ranks under one central command, defining their defense missions while placing them under the political supervision of the SNC, and coordinating their activities in accordance with the overall strategy of the revolution," the SNC said in a statement.

Also Thursday, the U.N.'s top human rights body condemned Syria for its "widespread and systematic violations" against civilians in the crackdown on opposition groups.

Members of the U.N. Human Rights Council on Thursday voted 37 in favor and three against a resolution proposed by Turkey. Three members of the 47-nation body abstained and four didn't vote.

The resolution calls on Syria to immediately stop all attacks on civilians and grant unhindered access to aid groups.

Russia, China and Cuba objected to the resolution.

The Geneva-based council's vote carries no legal weight but diplomats consider it a strong moral signal that may encourage a similar resolution in the powerful U.N. Security Council.

The U.N. estimated that more than 7,500 people have been killed since the anti-Assad struggle started in March 2011, when protesters inspired by successful Arab Spring uprisings against dictators in Tunisia and Egypt took to the streets in Syria. As Assad's forces used deadly force to stop the unrest, protests spread and some Syrians took up arms against the regime.

Activists put the total death toll at more than 8,000, most of them civilians.

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