ISTANBUL — Eighty-five Syrian soldiers, including one general and at least 14 lower-ranking officers, fled into southern Turkey’s Hatay Province on Monday, Turkish news agencies reported. It was one of the largest mass military defections since the Syrian conflict began 16 months ago.
A Turkish broadcaster, TRT Haber, said the defectors entered the town of Reyhanli as part of a group of 293 Syrian refugees ‘‘fleeing atrocities in Syria.’’
It said the defectors were placed in the Apaydin refugee camp, where about 2,000 other former members of the Syrian military who have abandoned allegiance to President Bashar Assad reside. The civilians in the group were sent to another camp along the shared border with Syria.
Turkey’s Anatolia News Agency said the 14 lower-ranking officers included a colonel and a lieutenant colonel.
The once-close relationship between Turkey and Syria has badly frayed because of Assad’s harsh repression of an uprising that began in March 2011 as a peaceful political protest and has since evolved into an armed insurgency.
Unity is ‘a necessity if the opposition wants to bolster its popular support.’
Turkey’s government is allowing the insurgent Free Syrian Army to operate from bases inside the Turkish border and is housing more than 35,000 Syrian civilians caught in the conflict.
The Turks also have sent antiaircraft batteries to the border in response to the June 22 downing of a Turkish military plane by Syrian gunners, and on Monday, Turkey’s Defense Ministry said it scrambled warplanes from its Incirlik air base in southern Turkey when three Syrian military helicopters were seen approaching the border.
The number of ranking officers in the Syrian military who are defecting and seeking sanctuary in neighboring countries, mostly Turkey, appears to have increased in the past few weeks. On June 24 a Syrian general, two colonels, a major, and a lieutenant were among 33 soldiers who fled Syria.
A few days earlier a Syrian air force pilot, who was both a colonel and squadron commander, defected in a commandeered MiG jet to Jordan, and Syrian rebels reported that eight additional Syrian pilots had fled to Jordan overland.
The latest batch of defectors was reported as members of Syria’s fractious opposition movement convened a meeting in Cairo, attempting to devise a unified strategy for pressuring Assad to abdicate as part of any solution to the conflict.
Besides taking part in the conference, opposition members also plan to meet Russian officials later this month, according to Russian news reports. Russia is Syria’s most important ally and arms supplier.
A weekend meeting in Geneva of major world powers hosted by Kofi Annan, the special envoy from the United Nations and Arab League, failed to reach a consensus on the removal of Assad, agreeing instead to a transition plan that seemed unlikely to succeed.
At the United Nations on Monday, its top human rights official, Navi Pillay, told the Security Council it should strengthen the 300-member observer mission in Syria, which suspended operations last month because conditions were too dangerous. Pillay, the high commissioner for human rights, also said the flow of weapons to Assad’s military and to the insurgency was increasing.
The observer mission, deployed in Syria since April, is under review by Secretary General Ban Ki-moon and the Security Council, which will decide in coming days whether to renew its mandate, which expires July 20.
Members of rebel opposition groups who attended the two-day Cairo meeting were urged to end the infighting on policies and military tactics that has prevented them from presenting a credible alternative to Assad.
‘‘There is an opportunity before the conference of Syrian opposition today that must be seized, and I say and repeat that this opportunity must not be wasted under any circumstance,’’ Arab League chief Nabil Elaraby told nearly 250 opposition members.
‘‘The sacrifices of the Syrian people are bigger than us and more valuable than any narrow differences or factional disputes,’’ he said.
Nasser Al-Kidwa, deputy to Annan, said that unity of purpose and vision was ‘‘not an option, but a necessity if the opposition wants to bolster its popular support and trust and increase international support.’’
Among the divisions is whether the rebel leaders should seek a dialogue with the Assad regime and form a transitional government to draw up a new constitution and schedule elections.
Unlike Libya’s National Transitional Council, which unified most of the rebels fighting Moammar Khadafy’s regime, Syria’s opposition has no leadership on the ground. Rebel groups inside and outside reflect their ideological and sectarian differences.
Various opposition groups — including the Syrian National Council and the National Coordination Body for Democratic Change in Syria — attended the Cairo conference to try to agree on a united front to represent them, as well as to work out a transition plan for how to end the conflict.