The brigade also serves as a defense force in neighborhoods opposed to the government, guarding streets while protests take place and attacking the militias, known as shabiha, that are an integral part of the government’s efforts to suppress dissent.
“We only kill them in self-defense,” said a captain in the brigade, interviewed via Skype, who requested that his name not be used, to protect his family from retribution.
He and other defected soldiers say they have Kalashnikovs, rocket-propelled grenades and antiaircraft guns and can count on a steady supply of ammunition secured from sympathetic soldiers within the military. News reports of arms seizures on both the Lebanese and Iraqi borders suggest weapons are also being smuggled from neighboring countries.
Though several activists and defected soldiers offered similar accounts of the Free Syrian Army’s activities, verifying them is impossible, because the Syrian government refuses to allow foreign journalists access to the country.
The Free Syrian Army has an interest in amplifying its activities to encourage defections. Activists committed to preserving the revolt’s pacifism have a stake in playing down its relevance.
The only admission by the government that defections are taking place has come in the form of a televised “confession” by one of the most prominent defectors, Lt. Col. Hussein Harmoush, who disappeared under mysterious circumstances in Turkey in late August then surfaced two weeks later on Syrian state television denouncing the opposition.
Defections are not new, but until now most have consisted of small groups of disgruntled soldiers fleeing orders to shoot civilians, then taking refuge in local homes, where they are hunted down and captured or killed, often along with those who sheltered them.
The phenomenon was causing so many civilian casualties that protest organizers this summer appealed to soldiers to not defect until they could count on sufficient numbers to make a difference, said Wissam Tarif, an activist with the human rights group Avaaz.
Soldiers with the Free Syrian Army say they are hoping that point has now been reached. Large-scale or high-ranking defections are still unlikely, because the overwhelming majority of the officer corps belongs to Assad’s minority Alawite sect, said a defected first lieutenant who has taken refuge in the Lebanese border town of Wadi Khaled and makes frequent clandestine visits to Homs to support the Free Syrian Army’s activities.
But among ordinary Sunni conscripts, frustration is building after six months of battling protesters. Many thousands of soldiers are deserting their units and going home simply because they want to see their families, said the officer, who uses the pseudonym Ahmad al-Araby to protect his family.
Asaad, the dissident general, predicted that the sectarian imbalance within the army will ultimately tilt the battle in the defectors’ favor.
“Ninety percent of the soldiers are Sunni, and their morale is bad,” he said. “Every day they are defecting, and the regime is in a panic because they know they are being destroyed from within.”