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December 22, 2011 Inquiry & Analysis Series No. 776

Syrian Uprising Supported by New Libyan Regime

December 22, 2011 | By N. Mozes
Syria, Libya | Inquiry & Analysis Series No. 776

Introduction

In light of the Syrian regime's brutal suppression of the popular uprising in the country, which has so far cost the lives of over 5,000 people, and since Arab and international efforts to end the violence have failed, the Syrian uprising seems to be changing its character: the protests, which in the past were largely peaceful, are giving way to armed struggle against the security apparatuses, similar to the armed struggle that took place in Libya.

Some of the armed action is sporadic, carried out by civilians or by soldiers who have defected from the Syrian army and joined the protestors after refusing to open fire on civilians. Other armed operations are carried out by the Free Syrian Army, headed by Riyadh Al-As'ad, which, in addition to defending citizens and responding to attacks by the security apparatuses, also initiates attacks against these apparatuses throughout the country.[1]

One of the main umbrella organizations of the Syrian opposition, the Syrian National Council (SNC), which is supported by the Free Syrian Army, opposes the shift to armed struggle, because it fears it might lead to civil war. SNC chairman Burhan Ghalyoun has repeatedly called upon the Free Syrian Army to avoid clashing with the regime's armed forces, and has discussed this matter with Free Army commander Riyadh Al-As'ad. The latter said in response that his army is committed to the SNC platform and to the principle of non-violent protest.


Members of the Free Syrian Army[2]

Recently, alongside increasing reports of armed clashes between the Syrian security forces and the Free Syrian Army, the Western and Arab press has reported that this army receives assistance from Western elements,[3] but especially from the new regime in Libya. This document will deal with the ties that are developing between the Libyan regime and the Syrian uprising.

Libyan Regime Recognizes Syrian National Council

To date, the new Libyan regime is the only regime worldwide that has recognized the SNC as the legitimate representative of the Syrian people, and has closed Syria's embassy in its capital.[4] Explaining the decision to close the embassy, a member of Libya's National Transitional Council, Moussa Al-Kouni, pointed to the shared fate of the Libyan and Syrian peoples, which have both suffered under dictatorships, and stated that the Syrian regime had assisted the Qadhafi regime in fighting the Libyan rebels.[5] Subsequently, an SNC delegation headed by Burhan Ghalyoun visited Libya. Ghalyoun said: "We are part of the same revolution – the Arab freedom revolution. It is only natural that we should cooperate, reach understandings, and help one another..."[6]

The UAE daily Al-Bayan pointed out that the Libyan regime's recognition of the SNC could have economic implications, since the Syrian regime has funds deposited in Libya that can be transferred to the SNC.[7] In fact, according to Ghalyoun, the Libyans have promised to assist the SNC financially, but Libya's cash flow problems are delaying the transfer of the funds.[8]

Libyan Military Assistance for the Syrian Uprising

While no one denies that the new Libyan regime supports the Syrian uprising politically and financially, reports about Libyan military assistance for the have been denied and qualified, especially by the Syrian side. Apparently, the Syrian opposition fears that militarizing the uprising might drag Syria into a deadly civil war, as happened in Libya, and is also concerned about losing legitimacy in the eyes of Arab and Western circles, and about losing control of the armed militants, which might result in a slide into anarchy after Bashar Al-Assad's fall. The Libyan regime has likewise denied the reports about military assistance, perhaps in response to domestic criticism that Libya must focus on its own problems.

However, reports on Libya's military assistance are persistent. Al-Jazeera reported that during his October 17, 2011 meeting with the SNC delegation, the chairman of the Libyan National Transitional Council, Mustafa 'Abd Al-Jalil, expressed a willingness to provide the Syrian rebels with every kind of assistance, including military assistance.[9] According to the London daily Al-Sharq Al-Awsat, SNC officials met with Libyan officials and army officers to discuss the issue of military and logistical support for the Syrian uprising. 'Abdallah Naker, head of the Tripoli Rebels' Council, who attended the meeting, said that the Syrian oppositionists had "asked for every type of assistance that could be obtained, [namely] weapons, money and men," and expressed a willingness to meet their request.[10]


Soldiers of the Free Syrian Army[11]

The British Daily Telegraph reported that 'Abd Al-Hakim Belhadj, chairman of the Tripoli Military Council, met in Turkey with the heads of the Free Syrian Army, on Al-Jalil's behalf, and offered them assistance in funds, weapons, fighters and training.[12] A Syrian oppositionist website claimed that according to an understanding between the Libyan regime, Turkey, and the Free Syrian Army, the Libyans will send the Syrian rebels a shipload of arms via a port in Turkey.[13]

According to an Egyptian daily, Al-Jalil's statement about his country's willingness to assist the Syrian uprising "opened the gates" for Libyan fighters wishing to assist the Syrian revolutionaries, and 600 of them entered Syria via Turkey in order to join the Free Syrian Army.[14] The Russian paper Krasnaya Zvezda assessed that the first attack on Syria would be carried out by a battalion of Libyan rebels under the command of 'Abd Al-Hakim Belhadj. The paper also claimed that his men are already deployed along the Syria-Turkey border.[15]

The Free Syrian Army and sources close to the Libyan Military Council denied these claims. Free Syrian Army spokesman Maher Al-Na'imi said that his organization has no ties with any Arab or foreign elements,[16] and members of the organization in Lebanon and Turkey denied that hundreds of Libyans have been dispatched to help them.[17] Sources close to the Libyan Military Council denied that Belhadj has arrived at the Turkey-Syria border in order to lead a military attack on Syria.[18]

The political allies of the Free Syrian Army likewise seem to have reservations about the Libyan military assistance. Responding to Al-Jalil's October 17 offer of assistance, the head of the SNC delegation, Burhan Ghalyoun, relied: "At present we have no need for weapons, because our revolution is non-violent."[19] Ghalyoun has repeatedly called on the Free Syrian Army to refrain from clashing with the Syrian armed forces,[20] and has met with its commander, Riyadh Al-As'ad, in order to reinforce this message. At the meeting, Al-As'ad emphasized that his army is committed to the SNC's political platform, which stresses the non-violent nature of the revolution.[21] A similar position was expressed by Riyadh Al-Shaqfa, general guide of the Syrian Muslim Brotherhood, which is a member of the SNC. He said that the soldiers of the Free Syrian Army could "make do with the weapons they took when they defected," and that they "do not need weapons for [purposes of] offense, only for defense."[22]

As for the Syrian regime, it is naturally happy to use the reports about military assistance in order to refute the revolutionaries' claims about the non-violent nature of the revolution, to justify its iron-fist policy towards what it calls the "armed terrorist gangs," and to attack the countries that allegedly support them. Syrian Foreign Minister Walid Al-Mu'allem said: "Our problem with the neighboring countries [has to do with] the arms smuggling, and [with the fact that they] fund armed militants and train them in special camps, while Syria is extending its hand [in attempt] to cooperate with these countries and control the border."[23] Syria's former ambassador to Turkey, Dr. Nidhal Qabalan, went even further, saying that the Syrian army has been attacked by Libyan mercenaries who infiltrated the country via Turkey. He warned that Syria knew the location of the mercenaries' bases in Turkey and the identity of those training and assisting them, and that the Syrian army would chop off the arms and legs of anyone who dared to attack it.[24]

Libyan Call to Support the Uprising Politically, Not Militarily

Criticism of the military assistance allegedly provided to the Syrian rebels by the Libyan regime was also voiced in Libya. Journalist Ramadhan Ahmad Jarbou' wrote in the daily Libya Al-Yawm: "Supporting the Syrian opposition is justified, [because] the Assad regime assisted the Qadhafi regime, which was almost its perfect twin... However, in my opinion, this support must be limited to humanitarian, media, and diplomatic assistance. As for direct military assistance, in men and gear – it must be based on a joint Arab decision by the Arab League or on an international [decision] by the [UN] Security Council. Anything else supersedes the mandate granted to the [Libyan] interim government. Such a step can [only] be taken by an elected government accountable to a parliament... [Such moves] may have been accepted [in the era] before Qadhafi's fall – but now that we are rid of him, our main goal should be to rebuild our state and our security, and prepare for the elections and for [the drafting of a new] constitution... The interim government must distance itself from any position or move that would burden [the Libyans]...

"It's only natural that many of our rebels, desiring victory or revenge [against the Syrian regime], should wish to join their brothers in Syria. However, this should be their own personal decision. There is no need to announce that we approve it, because nobody can prevent them [from going] if they choose to do so... Sovereignty is in the hands of the people, and it is [the people] who [must] make decisions in matters of war and peace and the expenditure of funds – not the interim government, which is limited to certain tasks. I have no doubt that many of us want to take revenge upon the Syrian regime and to punish it for helping Qadhafi massacre his people. However, [right now] it is time for us to build a state worthy of that name, with institutions and rights... There are many ways to assist the Syrian nation that expressed its solidarity with us and helped us. I am sure they will understand our position... We can do nothing more than express sympathy and a position supportive of the Syrian people's demands..."[25]

*N. Mozes is a research fellow at MEMRI.

Endnotes:

[1] On November 15, 2011, the Free Syrian Army claimed responsibility for an attack on an air force intelligence base near Damascus. The air force intelligence is heavily involved in the regime's battle against the defectors. It should be noted that a defector told the British Guardian that the Free Syrian Army does nothing and that "the real revolutionaries are here in Syria." The Guardian (UK), December 11, 2011.

[2] Alquds.com, November 12, 2011.

[3] According to the French weekly Canard Enchaine, French intelligence officers met in northern Lebanon and southern Turkey with representatives of the Free Syrian Army, with an eye to helping them organize the army and training it in guerilla warfare (Champress.net, November 23, 2011). The daily Le Figaro reported that France provides the rebels with sophisticated night vision and communications equipment (blog.lefigaro.fr, November 28, 2011). The Lebanese daily Al-Safir stated, citing the Turkish daily Milliyet, that the US assists the Free Syrian Army with funds and weapons, and that US and NATO officers are training its soldiers in Turkey. (Al-Safir, Lebanon, December 8, 2011). It should be mentioned that, though Turkey shelters the Free Syrian Army, officials in Ankara have said that they will not allow any attacks on Syria from Turkish territory. Riyadh Al-As'ad confirmed that Turkey's assistance is only humanitarian, not military (Sooryoon.net, December 20, 2011).

[4] The chairman of the Tunisian Al-Nahda party, which won the recent elections in the country, has likewise recognized the SNC as the legitimate representative of the Syrian people. He also announced that the Syrian ambassador would be expelled from Tunisia, though a formal decision to this effect has yet to be taken. Burhan Ghalyoun said on December 19, 2011 that the decision will be taken soon. Sooryoon.net, December 20, 2011.

[5] Champress.net, October 10, 2011.

[6] Al-Jazeera TV, October 18, 2011.

[7] Al-Bayan (UAE), October 21, 2011.

[8] Wall Street Journal (USA), December 2, 2011.

[9] Al-Jazeera TV, October 18, 2011.

[10] Al-Sharq Al-Awsat (London), November 27, 2011.

[11] Arabic.rt.com, December 21, 2011.

[12] The Daily Telegraph (UK), November 27, 2011.

[13] Sooryoon.net, November 27, 2011.

[14] Al-Yawm Al-Sabi' (Egypt), November 28, 2011.

[15] Redstar.ru, November 30, 2011.

[16] Al-Sharq Al-Awsat (London), December 10, 2011.

[17] The Daily Telegraph (UK), November 27, 2011.

[18] Almanaralink.com. December 3, 2011.

[19] Al-Jazeera TV, October 18, 2011.

[20] Al-Sharq Al-Awsat (London), December 10, 2011.

[21] Sooryoon.net, November 29, 2011.

[22] Al-Sharq Al-Awsat (London), December 5, 2011.

[23] SANA (Syria), December 1, 2011.

[24] Aksalser.com, December 2, 2011.

[25] Libya Al-Yawm (Libya), December 6, 2011.

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