Syrian army defectors tell of regime ruthlessness
When the Syrian army raided his village in the central province of Homs and began shooting at unarmed civilians, Amin knew it was time to join the growing ranks of soldiers defecting to the opposition.
“I was off duty that day in June and I couldn’t bear what I saw,” the 25-year-old lieutenant told AFP, asking that his real name not be used.
“I decided then to send my parents and siblings to a safe area and I slipped across the border into Lebanon.”
Several soldiers who have defected in recent months and fled to Lebanon gave similar harrowing tales, describing a “scorched earth” campaign by the regime of Bashar al-Assad and its much feared “shabiha,” or pro-government thugs, to crush the seven-month popular revolt.
The soldiers showed AFP their army ID cards as proof of their identity.
Amin said that on one occasion, soldiers burst into the house of a suspected activist in his village and shot the man’s wife and daughter in the legs to force them to reveal his whereabouts.
“When the army carries out such operations, the shabiha are then given a free hand to loot and destroy,” he said.
According to reports that cannot be confirmed -- as the Syrian government has restricted access to foreign journalists -- more and more soldiers are defecting, with some forming an underground group called the Free Syrian Army.
Apart from Lebanon, Turkey has also become a refuge for defectors.
Experts and diplomats say that while the phenomenon is not widespread, it indicates growing frustration over the regime’s fierce crackdown against a mostly peaceful uprising that has left nearly 3,000 people dead.
The cities of Homs and nearby Rastan have become hubs for defectors who have joined the opposition.
“I defected before being faced with the dilemma of having to kill someone or being killed myself for not obeying orders,” said Rami, who was with army intelligence and fled to Lebanon in June.
He described an army in which many soldiers are disillusioned with the regime and hesitate to shoot at demonstrators, but fear reprisals from their commanders.
The army top brass usually hail from the ruling Alawite community, while the rank and file are mostly from the majority Sunni Muslim community.
“Soldiers are kept under close watch by their superiors and once they come under suspicion they become the target themselves,” said Rami, who, like others interviewed for this article, did not use his real name.
“When that happens, it’s time to quickly pack the family and get out.”
He said soldiers whose loyalty is questioned are placed on the front lines when the army raids a town.
“If you fail to shoot, then they kill you and tell your family that it was the work of an armed terrorist gang,” said Rami, in his 40s.
Yussef, a frail-looking 20-year-old who fled to Lebanon in August, said his unit in Homs province would often be ordered to shoot at people even not taking part in a demonstration, just to sow terror.
“I saw with my own eyes an unarmed older farmer in a village in Homs province go by on a bicycle and we were ordered to shoot him in the back,” he said emotionally. “He was left there to bleed all day.
“I have no idea why he was killed. He didn’t represent a threat.”
Yussef said members of his unit, known for not using up their ammunition, were sent on a mission once and told to fire all their bullets or else.
He also said security services often shoot at army units to uphold the regime’s “tale” that armed terrorist groups are behind the uprising.
Maher, an activist who is among some 5,000 Syrians who have sought refuge in Lebanon, said the opposition in Homs has organised to assist defecting soldiers and offer them safe houses.
“If the international community really wants to protect the Syrian people without getting involved militarily, then it needs to supply these soldiers with ammunition,” he said.
“And this needs to be done quickly before the regime carries out new massacres.”
Amin, Rami and Yussef said they believe that as the Assad regime intensifies its brutal campaign, more and more soldiers will defect.
But they also fear being tracked down in Lebanon by Assad’s men or by his supporters in Lebanon, where the government is dominated by the powerful militant group Hezbollah and its allies.
“I got out because I need to live with a clear conscience,” said Amin. “I joined the army to protect my people and my land, to free the Golan, not Homs and Daraa.”