BEIRUT — The leaders of the rebel Free Syrian Army said Saturday they have moved their command center from Turkey to Syria with the aim of uniting rebels and speeding up the fall of President Bashar Assad’s regime.
Brig. Gen. Mustafa al-Sheikh, who heads the FSA’s Military Council, told The Associated Press that the group made the move last week. He would not say where the new headquarters is located.
The FSA has been the most prominent of the rebel groups trying to remove Assad from power, although its authority over numerous locally-based networks of fighters is limited. And its commanders have come under criticism in the past for being based in neighboring Turkey while thousands are dying on the ground in Syria.
FSA commander Col. Riad al-Asaad issued a video titled “Free Syrian Army Communique Number 1 from Inside” that the command has moved to “liberated areas.”
In the past few months, rebels have been able to capture wide swaths of territory along the Turkish border and three border crossing points on the frontier, which has allowed them to ferry both materiel and people to help in the fight to oust Assad. The rebels also have seized control of several neighborhoods in the northern Syrian city of Aleppo, the country’s largest and commercial capital, in weeks of bloody fighting.
Despite the announcement that the FSA’s command center has been shifted to Syria, the rebels will continue to rely on Turkey, which has been one of the bases for fighters and supplies flowing back and forth into Syria.
In the video, al-Asaad, wearing a military uniformed and surrounded by about a dozen gunmen, said the aim of moving its command operations into the rebel-held areas is to “start the plan to liberate Damascus soon, God willing.”
The colonel said the FSA rejected offers from outside powers to make “suspicious deals” in which it replaces Assad’s regime.
“Our aim is not to be a replacement for the falling regime that is taking its last breaths, but our aim is that what the Syrian people agree on will be the substitute,” he said. “We are only part of the Syrian people.”
Activists say that nearly 30,000 people have been killed since Syria’s crisis began in March last year. The uprising began with largely peaceful protests against Assad’s regime, but has since morphed into a civil war in the face of a brutal government crackdown.
“There are liberated areas now and it’s better for the command to be with the rebels instead of being abroad,” al-Sheikh said from Turkey. The general said he has been going back and forth to Syria.
Al-Sheikh said moving the command to Syria “will speed up the fall of the regime because it will give a big boost to the morale of rebels and there will be a command to follow-up on operations.”
Also Saturday, the Turkish military deployed three howitzers and an anti-aircraft gun near the border with Syria, the private Turkish news agency Dogan reported. Earlier this week, the Tal Abyad crossing between Syria and Turkey in that area came under rebel control, but fighting in the region has continued to rage as Syrian regime forces attempt to retake the crossing.
Dogan news agency video showed at least three large military trucks towing the guns along a highway.