The most senior officer to defect from Syria's armed forces is plotting a series of guerrilla attacks and targeted assassinations from self-imposed exile in Turkey in an attempt to topple the regime.
Colonel Riad al-As'aad, 50, is the head of a newly formed Syrian Free Army – a force made up of defectors from the Syrian military – devoted to overthrowing the regime of Bashar al-Assad by military force in apparent connivance with his Turkish protectors. "They [the regime] forced us to respond," he told The Independent. "We are organised inside. We are soldiers, we are working. Our power is slowly growing."
Colonel As'aad said that he co-ordinates daily with officers on the ground through intermediaries moving between Syria and Turkey.
The government of Turkey has turned on the Assad regime because of the shooting of hundreds of peaceful protesters and has called for sanctions against its neighbour.
The opposition has formed a new umbrella organisation, the Syrian National Council, announced last week in Turkey, which includes most major opposition groups. Syria yesterday said that it would take "tough measures" against any country that recognised the body as the country's rightful authority.
Colonel As'aad lives under constant guard by Turkish security officials in Turkey's Htay province. The colonel, who served as an engineer in the air force for 31 years, claims that his strategy is based on guerrilla attacks and assassinations of security force figures and state-sponsored militia amid signs of growing armed resistance against the regime after months of protests.
However, he denied being responsible for attacks on civilian figures considered close to the regime, such as the son of Syria's Grand Mufti who was killed last week in an ambush. Instead, he blamed such attacks on the government, accusing them of trying to provoke sectarian conflict.
He said 10,000 to 15,000 soldiers had defected from the approximately 200,000-strong Syrian military and said he was hoping to relocate his command into Syria soon to lead those who had stayed to fight against the regime. He claims that morale among the Syrian armed forces is low and that defections will increase in the coming weeks.
"Without a war, he will not fall. Whoever leads with force, cannot be removed except by force," he told Reuters news agency. "The regime used a lot of oppressive and murderous tactics so I left, so that I will be the face outside for the command inside, because we have to be in a secure area and right now there is no safety in all of Syria."
The uprising against the regime began in mid-March amid a wave of anti-government protests in the Arab world that has so far toppled autocrats in Tunisia, Egypt and Libya. President Assad has reacted with deadly force that the UN estimates has left some 2,900 people dead. Turkey, whose Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan cancelled plans to visit a refugee camp for fleeing Syrians in the region yesterday, kept up the pressure on its neighbour.
It condemned the killing of an ethnic Kurdish leader in Syria on Friday and warned President Assad's government that violent suppression of the opposition "cannot turn back the course of history".
A group of protesters broke into the Syrian embassy in Berlin and two other Syrian diplomatic missions in Germany and Switzerland over the weekend in what appeared to be protests against the killing of the Kurdish politician, Mashaal Tammo. More than 50,000 mourners marched through the north-eastern city of Qamishli for his funeral. Security forces fired into the crowds, killing five people.
The funerals for the five were held yesterday. Amateur videos posted online showed a crowd that was carrying a black banner and Kurdish white, green, red and yellow flags.
"The people want to execute the President," the crowd at the funerals chanted. "Assad is the enemy of God."
* Syrian protesters stormed three of their country's diplomatic missions in Germany and Switzerland in what appeared to be a protest against the killing of a Kurdish opposition leader, police said yesterday.
Syria's embassy in Berlin was stormed on Saturday, and another group of protesters took on the consulate in the northern port city of Hamburg hours later, damaging the buildings and tagging walls with slogans denouncing President Bashar Assad's autocratic regime, police officials said.
In Switzerland, five men were arrested after forcing their way into Syria's mission to the United Nations in Geneva on Saturday.