BEIRUT (AP) — Attacks by army defectors are transforming the Syrian uprising into an armed insurgency that threatens to spiral into civil war. The Free Syrian Army holds no territory, appears largely disorganized and is up against a fiercely loyal and cohesive military that will stop at nothing to protect the regime.
Still, without foreign military intervention or significant cracks in President Bashar Assad's iron rule, the rebel group has emerged as the best hope for a growing number of protesters who have all but given up on peaceful resistance.
"They are the real heroes of this revolution," said one anti-regime protester in the central city of Hama, the site of a massacre by Assad's father and predecessor in 1982 and a hotbed of resistance to the regime. "Everyone else has abandoned us."
Like most Assad opponents who spoke to The Associated Press, he asked that his name not be used for fear the regime will retaliate against him or his family.
There are concerns the presence of an organized armed rebel group has given authorities a pretext to crack down even harder on dissent, pushing the country toward civil war. The sectarian divide in Syria, where members of Assad's minority Alawite sect rule over a Sunni Muslim majority and others, means an insurgency could escalate quickly.
The leader of the Free Syrian Army, breakaway air force colonel Riad al-Asaad, acknowledges nearly all the defectors under his command — some 15,000 — are low-level Sunni conscripts. The men are armed with rocket-propelled grenades, rifles and guns they took with them when they deserted, as well as light weapons they acquired on the black market, he says.
The FSA holds no territory in Syria and al-Asaad himself is based in Turkey, where thousands of Syrian refugees have taken shelter since the uprising began. Communications with defectors on the ground is one of the biggest challenges to the group's growth.
Still, the FSA is a credible threat to the Assad regime, said Riad Kahwaji, CEO of the Institute for Near East and Gulf Military Analysis in Beirut.
"We're talking about troops who know the enemy very well, because they were members of these forces," Kahwaji told The Associated Press. "They know them by name, their culture, their habits. They know all the secrets. They are a serious threat to the regime."
The standing army in Syria is estimated to be about 250,000, but that figure is closer to 700,000 if one includes the reserves, Kahwaji said. The top brass and many members of the standing army belong to Assad's Alawite sect, but the reserves are mainly Sunni.
"If (the conflict) continues at this rate, you're going to have pure Alawite troops fighting Sunni troops," he said in a telephone interview.
FSA attacks have grown increasingly sophisticated in recent weeks, prompting worldwide alarm that the situation in Syria is spiraling out of control.
Russia's foreign minister compared an FSA attack last week on an air force intelligence compound outside Damascus to the beginning of a civil war, and U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton said the Syrian defectors could fuel a civil war.
Britain's Foreign Secretary William Hague, who met with opposition members Monday, stressed that the uprising should remain peaceful.
"I've ... emphasized to them the importance of non-violent protest and the importance of retaining international support in this situation through non-violent protest," he said.
Although it remains unclear exactly how powerful the FSA is, the attacks appear to have grown in the past few weeks as its members carried out ambushes that have killed dozens of soldiers and security personnel.
Syria severely restricts the work of journalists but amateur videos posted online showed damaged and burned security vehicles in several areas of Syria.
"Win or Die," proclaims the slogan on the group's Facebook page, through which it disseminates information and claims responsibility for attacks.
In an interview with the AP last month, al-Asaad, who defected in July, called on more Syrians to join his ranks.
"We encourage our Alawite and Christian brothers to defect so we can liberate Syria and build our future together," he said in a telephone interview from his base in Turkey.
In heavily anti-regime areas of Syria, many Syrians have been sheltering defectors, protecting them from raiding security forces.
"The situation is in serious danger of spiraling beyond the regime's control," said David Hartwell, senior Middle East and North Africa analyst at IHS Jane's in London. He cited attacks by the defectors coupled with more weapons reportedly being smuggled into Syria.
But in an example of disorganization that could prove damaging to the group, al-Asaad on Monday retracted earlier claims that his followers had launched an unprecedented attack on Assad's Baath party headquarters inside the capital, Damascus — an embarrassing turnaround for the movement.
Al-Asaad said in a video posted on the group's Facebook page Sunday evening that Assad's government was trying to tarnish the image of the revolution.
"We did not target the party building in Damascus and we will not target any civilian installation," said the FSA commander, who was wearing his military uniform.
Still, he did not address why his group had claimed responsibility for such an attack after Damascus residents reported hearing two loud blasts before dawn Sunday. In a Facebook posting — which had been removed by Monday morning — the FSA said it fired rocket-propelled grenades at the ruling party headquarters.
The group disseminates information through its Twitter and Facebook page, which includes a bank account number in Turkey for those wishing to support the revolution.
Al-Asaad, a soft spoken, mustachioed man, brands his group as "the voice of the Syrian people." But he acknowledges it is up against a major challenge.
Unlike the armies of Tunisia and Egypt, Syria's military has stood fiercely by the country's leader as Assad faces down an extraordinary protest movement.
Assad, and his father before him, stacked key military posts with members of their minority Alawite sect over the past 40 years, ensuring the loyalty of the armed forces by melding the fate of the army and the regime.
International intervention, such as the NATO action in Libya that helped topple Moammar Gadhafi, is all but out of the question in Syria. There also is real concern that Assad's ouster would spread chaos around the region.
Without external help, the group will find it extremely hard to claim a slice of Syrian territory like the anti-Gadhafi fighters in their de facto capital Benghazi.
In an interview with Al-Jazeera this week, Al-Asaad said his goal is to have the Syrian army crumble from within.
"They have tanks and airplanes, but they fear us with our small weapons," he said. "We have the Syrian people behind us. This is our strength."
Zeina Karam can be reached at http://twitter.com/zkaram