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Middle East

'Mr Obama, it's time to keep your word and end this slaughter'

Exclusive interview: The leader of Syria's rebel forces tells Loveday Morris why the West must watch no longer

The world cannot continue to sit idly by as Syrian women and children are slaughtered, says the colonel who has positioned himself at the helm of the Free Syrian Army.

He called on the United States and Europe to create a no-fly zone that would enable rebels to establish a base for operations and provide safety for refugees.

Speaking to The Independent from an undisclosed location in the Homs Governorate, Colonel Qassim Saadeddine – who this week laid bare the rifts in the rebel forces as he denounced the leadership of the exiled Colonel Riad al-Asaad – declared the Annan peace plan "dead and buried".

In a message to the US President, Barack Obama, and the Secretary of State, Hillary Clinton, he said: "You said that [President] Assad must go, you said his days are numbered. Words should be matched by deeds. You cannot wait until after the American elections for action. The regime hasn't stopped the killing, hasn't stopped the shelling – you cannot stand still."

A former army colonel from the Homs town of Rastan who defected in February, Colonel Saadeddine says he is not seeking a leadership role in the organisation, but claims to speaks for all the country's regional military councils. His disdain for Colonel Asaad, giving orders safely away from the battlefield from his base in Turkey, is thinly veiled.

"The whole world knows that a true leader is one who stays with his men and fights with them on the field and is of course not outside the country's borders," he said. "I'm a leader in the field, I fight with my men. I don't like to identify myself as a leader, but in terms of decision making my opinions are the ones that are respected."

Colonel Saadeddine rounded on the former French President Nicolas Sarkozy, saying he "didn't deserve to rule France" because had waited too long to show he was a man of his word and lost power, and implored Mr Obama not to do the same. "The US and Europe should move through an international coalition to establish a no-fly zone and buffer zones so that the Syrian people can get rid of their oppressors," he said, adding that this should be done "with or without" the support of the UN Security Council.

The formation of buffer zones or humanitarian corridors, most likely along the Turkish border, has long been mooted, and would give the Free Syrian Army (FSA) a geographical foothold from which to mount attacks. However, the international community remains reticent due to the inevitable involvement of "boots on the ground" and the distant prospect of any UN mandate.

The Security Council has been hamstrung by Russia and China's reticence to move against the regime of President Bashar al-Assad. After meeting the German Chancellor, Angela Merkel, on his first overseas trip since returning to the presidency, the Russian Premier, Vladimir Putin, yesterday rejected assertions that Moscow is propping up President Assad's government, but Moscow has made it clear that it will still block any attempts at intervention.

The fractured opposition does not help the case for those who are seeking outside assistance. The fault lines in the FSA were laid bare when Colonel Saadeddine released a video message earlier this week giving the regime a 48-hour deadline to comply with the terms of the ceasefire before it would consider itself no longer bound by the Annan plan. His ultimatum was rejected by Colonel Asaad and led to a sharp exchange of words.

The rift reflects similar tensions in the non-military opposition, where the frustration of grassroots movements with the largely exiled opposition leadership, has been building. Added to the FSA's difficulties is a limited chain of command, with numerous groups identifying themselves under the banner and a lack of co-ordination between ragtag militias and battalions.

Colonel Saadeddine claims that a clearer structure is now emerging, with 10 regional military councils to which local brigades and battalions are attached. All also have administrative branches that deal with financing, weapons supply and humanitarian aid. But the fact that senior FSA figures including Colonel Saadeddine claim to have been abiding by the ceasefire while the UN has condemned numerous breaches on both sides could indicate its limited control. However, any restraint that might have been exercised now appears to have gone.

Speaking just after his 48-hour deadline expired yesterday afternoon, Colonel Saadeddine said the massacre at Houla, was the most blatant evidence that Assad's regime had no intention of moving towards reconciliation. "They are attacking our women and children, do we just sit and let them kill them? The Annan plan, as far as we are concerned, is none of our business anymore. We can't stand still with our hands on our swords."

What next for Syria? The worst atrocities ... so far

4 February 2012

The start of the siege of Homs: as many as 1,000 civilians are killed within a month in the intense fighting.

10 May 2012

A suicide bomb kills 55 in Damascus. The West is alarmed when jihadists claim responsibility

25 May 2012

The most shocking atrocity of the conflict was the massacre of 100 people, including children, in Houla

30 May 2012

Days after the Houla massacre, rebels found 13 bodies in al-Qusair which had been shot at point-blank range