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Divided opposition is key to Syrian regime's power

By Jamal Halaby

Associated Press

Published: Tuesday, Feb. 14 2012 9:54 p.m. MST

FILE - In this Jan. 20, 2012 file photo, Syrian army defectors gather at the mountain resort town of Zabadani, Syria, near the Lebanese border. As the Syrian revolt grows deadlier by the day, President Bashar Assad's greatest advantage lies in the lack of unity among the disparate forces opposing him. Since the uprising began in March, a chorus of voices has risen against the regime. In addition to the rebel fighters who see force as the only option, there are distinguished exiles who hold little sway back home, aging dissidents who spent years locked in Syrian prisons and tech-savvy young people desperate to cast off a suffocating dictatorship. (AP Photo, File)

The Associated Press

BEIRUT — At a rented house just outside Syria's border, a dissident known only as "The Doctor" maps out attacks. Planners speak by Skype with fighters on the ground in Syria, while others raise money, drumming up cash from fellow exiles to buy weapons.

The safe house offers a glimpse into the Free Syrian Army, a group of army defectors and others who are trying to overthrow President Bashar Assad by force.

The FSA has emerged as a significant hope for many Syrians who have all but given up on peaceful resistance against government tanks and snipers waging a deadly crackdown on protesters. But the group is highly decentralized — and comprises just one faction in a deeply divided and fractious Syrian opposition.

As the West and Arab states consider offering direct support to Assad's opponents, there are serious questions about whether any opposition group is even remotely prepared to take the helm after more than 40 years under Assad family rule.

Indeed, Assad's greatest advantage has been the weakness and lack of unity among the disparate forces opposing him.

Since the uprising began in March, a chorus of voices has risen against the regime. Besides the rebel fighters, there are distinguished exiles who hold little sway back home, aging dissidents who spent years locked in Syrian prisons and tech-savvy young people desperate to cast off a suffocating dictatorship.

Also within opposition ranks are various ideologies and motivations, from secular forces to religious conservatives to outright radicals. Separately, there are worries that al-Qaida will take advantage of the chaos to increase its clout and carry out attacks on Assad's regime.

The FSA allowed the Associated Press to visit one of its safe houses outside Syria on condition its location not be identified to avoid problems with the host country. The simple rented house is one of several the group operates in neighboring nations.

About 50 dissidents were gathered there, some communicating with commanders in the field via Skype, others coordinating the smuggling of medical supplies and fighters across the border.

They map out plans and advise fighters, sometimes after consulting with fellow operatives in Jordan, Turkey, the United Arab Emirates, Kuwait and Saudi Arabia, the dissidents said.

But so far, they have received no material support from other governments.

"We're an orphan group with a fighter surplus, but a serious deficit in weapons, ammunition and funding to finance our military operations against Assad's criminal army," said the man who asked to be identified as "The Doctor" — a nom de guerre he gained for his help in treating the wounded before he fled Syria.

The rebel fighters are mainly armed with automatic weapons and rocket-propelled grenades stolen from the military or bought on the black market — or even from corrupt members of Assad's military, "The Doctor" said.

Funding comes from exiles overseas. Mohammed Jebouri, a 40-year-old Syrian who normally lives in Oslo, Norway, said he raised around $20,000 last week from Syrian expatriates in Europe and the Middle East.

In the yard, three uniformed men were training an activist smuggled across the border, teaching him to organize protests.

Tear down posters of Assad wherever you find them, a bearded man instructed the young man. Knock on doors to rally supporters. "Shout to remind people of how Assad's criminal army is killing them and torturing their women and kids."

Above all, he added, always keep a lookout for snipers on rooftops.

"I'm not afraid," insisted Hamza al-Hariri, 30, a motorcycle mechanic from Daraa who was smuggled across the Syrian border last week for three days of training.

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