* Leadership to be based in Idlib or Aleppo
* Rebel-controlled Syria still under aerial attack
* Colonel says FSA will fight with other rebel groups
* Syria internal opposition to hold Damascus conference
By Oliver Holmes
BEIRUT, Sept 22 The rebel Free Syrian Army (FSA)
has moved its leadership for the first time from Turkey to parts
of Syria that are now controlled by rebels, the group's
commander-in-chief said on Saturday.
The FSA has been based in Turkey for more than a year as
fighters have struggled to battle forces loyal to President
Bashar al-Assad. Although rebels now control large swathes of
Syria, they face air and artillery attack from Assad's forces.
"The leadership of the FSA has entered the liberated areas
(of Syria) after the success of the plan that the FSA has worked
on with other battalions and units in order to safeguard the
free areas," Colonel Riad al-Asaad said in a video statement.
A rebel source close to Asaad said that the colonel arrived
in Syria two days ago. "The plan is that all the leadership of
the FSA will be based in Syria soon, either in Idlib province or
Aleppo province," the source told Reuters, adding that the move
would be completed within two weeks.
The rebels made their announcement on the eve of a
conference of several government-sanctioned Syrian opposition
groups in the capital Damascus aiming to provide a political
solution to the civil war - a meeting which the FSA dismissed as
a ploy by Assad to fool the international community.
The FSA is the most prominent of several armed groups
fighting to overthrow Assad. In the video, posted on the web,
the rebel colonel said his men would "fight side-by-side" with
all groups and planned to take Damascus soon.
Despite calling for Assad to step down, the West is wary of
arming disparate rebel groups. Western diplomats say they are
looking for signs that the rebels have a clear chain of command
Turkey, which is housing more than 80,000 refugees from
Syria, is facing internal pressure to distance itself from the
conflict, and rebels are not always welcomed by residents.
Rebels shot down a fighter jet as it flew over the northern
Syrian town of Atarib in Idlib province on Saturday, a witness
The witness, an independent journalist who asked to remain
anonymous, said rebel fighters were attacking a military base
near the town when the jet flew over and rebels shot it down
with anti-aircraft guns.
Rebels have previously brought down several government
planes using outdated anti-aircraft machine guns welded to
Activists say more than 27,000 people, mostly civilians,
have been killed in the 18-month-old revolt in Syria.
In Damascus, the army has been conducting raids of southern
suburbs over the past few days after driving out most rebel
fighters. Black smoke rose from the suburb of Hajar al-Aswad on
Saturday and residents said their houses had been set ablaze by
The opposition conference in Damascus on Sunday is organised
by the internal opposition's main umbrella group, the National
Last July, a similar conference was cancelled after the
owner of the venue was threatened by Assad's forces who fired on
a pro-democracy protest outside, killing 14.
Opposition groups say Russia and China, which have blocked
Western attempts to secure U.N. sanctions against Assad, have
promised to exert influence to protect Sunday's meeting.
Assad says he accepts some opposition figures who call for a
peaceful transition from a one-party state to democratic
governance and his allies have pointed to the internal
opposition as a sign the president is serious about reform.
The internal opposition, which includes many outspoken
critics of Assad who have spent years in jail, has been accused
of being too passive by rebel fighters and members of the
largely foreign-based Syrian National Council, a political group
calling for the international community to arm rebel factions.
A spokesman for the Free Syrian Army in Turkey dismissed the
conference, saying Assad's government "tries always to negotiate
"This is not a real opposition in Syria. This opposition is
just the other face of the same coin. The FSA would never have
any relation with these groups," he told Reuters by telephone.
"It is just a silly plot to mislead the international
community to think there is a negotiation in place. They cannot
be successful in finding an end to the civil war."