A defector’s tale: Assad’s reluctant army

January 9, 2013

In all of the reports of shelling and clashes in Syria, defections are a surprising reminder that many of Assad's forces don't back him.

 

About 80 percent of Syrian troops are conscripts from the country's Sunni Muslim minority. Many Sunnis support the rebels, so it's not uncommon for some Syrian soldiers to feel disdain for their own cause. (Many of the officers, however, are Alawite, the same sect as Assad and his family).

In an interview with a 20-year-old man who defected from the Syrian Army and joined the rebels earlier this week, the Syria Deeply news service reveals the dissonance that many of Assad's troops have experienced throughout the conflict. The soldier, who asked not to be named, said he and other troops were assigned minders from the shabiha, a loyalist government militia, to ensure they don't defect. He continued:

“I’ve been in the Syrian Army for one year. From the first time I joined, I wanted to defect—when I saw the [opposition Free Syrian Army] growing. Before I joined, I thought the revolution would end and Assad would win.”

“The soldiers, they’re scared of the FSA. A lot of them would like to defect, but the shabiha, they stay with us, they watch us like security so we don’t go.”

He never wanted to shoot to kill the rebels he secretly supported, and says some of the army’s soldiers came up with tactics to avoid causing serious harm. “I would never do it [shoot to kill]…I’d shoot into the air, shoot everything but the fighters. A lot of people do that—the guys watching don’t notice."

In addition to rank-and-file soldiers like this man, 54 senior military and security officials have also defected since the uprising began nearly two years ago, and the defections have picked up over time.

Other Syrians who abandoned Assad's regime have similar stories. Maj. Gen. Abdul-Aziz Jassem al-Shallal became one of the most senior members of Assad’s regime to join the opposition when he defected in December, saying he quit because Assad's army had become a "gang for killing and destruction." In a video released at the time, he accused the government of "destroying cities and villages and committing massacres against our innocent people who came out to demand freedom.”

Because their ranks are made up at least in part of half-hearted fighters, some Syria watchers have noticed that the government army often bombards cities from afar and then sends in only the most loyal militias to do the up-close fighting on the streets. Meanwhile, the conscripts merely serve as cheap labor or cannon fodder for the shabiha and the Alawite troops.

"You give the militias the weapons and the mobility, and you just make sure that the army units which are largely Sunni conscripts just stay together," Jeremy Binnie, Middle East and Africa editor of Jane's Defence Weekly, told CNN.

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Max Fisher · January 9, 2013