A group of military defectors called the Free Syrian Army has claimed responsibility for Wednesday’s attack on an air intelligence base in Harasta, an eastern suburb of Syria’s capital.
It says it has declared war on the regime of President Bashar al-Assad and “is capable of striking them in any place and at any time we want.”
The group emerged amid an eight-month-long crackdown on protesters by the Syrian government, a grinding civil conflict that the United Nations says has left more than 3,500 people dead.
The Free Syrian Army has reported recent operations in other cities, including Hama, Homs and Daraa, but the sophistication of Wednesday’s attack signals “a new era of the conflict,” said Andrew Tabler, a Syria expert from the Washington Institute for Near East Policy.
“Until now,” Tabler added, “most of the protests have been peaceful.”
The Free Syrian Army surfaced in July, when seven Syrian military officers – believed to be the group's original members – appeared on a YouTube video announcing their defection. They promised to wage guerrilla war against al-Assad.
Tabler said the Free Syrian Army is made up of soldiers who've left their posts instead of obeying orders to fire on protesters. CNN recently spoke to one of them in Lebanon; he said there was "too much killing."
"We were always in the streets,” the soldier said.
One of the defectors in the YouTube video, Col. Riad Al-Assad, said he leads a force of about 10,000 defectors hidden in Syrian cities. The number is impossible to verify. But even if it’s accurate, it would pale in comparison with the Syrian military, which has hundreds of thousands of soldiers.
The group’s leaders are among the Syrian opposition members calling on the United Nations to declare a no-fly zone to protect protesters. They say a no-fly zone could help them establish a base of operations and overthrow al-Assad, similar to what happened in Libya this year.