A Syrian air force pilot explains why he bombed civilians

Since Syrian President Bashar al-Assad's forces began massacring civilians more than a year ago, a baffling question has hung over the conflict: How do they bring themselves to do it? There is probably no single answer. Some observers have suggested that members of Assad's Alawite minority sect fear a mass revenge if they lose, for example. But one possibility may be that some rank-and-file Syrians don't believe they're killing civilians at all.

Syrian Air Force Capt. Roni Ibrahim's MiG went down just outside the rebel-held northern Syrian town of al-Bab, where he'd released his bombs over the already-battered civilian neighborhoods as ordered. Rebels captured him and later brought him, black-eyed and terrified, to Al Jazeera's Anita McNaught, who asked the obvious question in the video embedded above: Why did you do it?

"They told us there were armed terrorists there, and al-Bab was empty of civilians," he answered nervously, explaining that he'd been told that these fighters were Libyan, Chechen and Afghan. "Our commanders told us this, and we can't see anything on the ground, and we don't go outside the airbase." His only sources of information, he claimed, were Syrian state TV and his field commanders.

"It's not like we'd been told, all the people here are Syrian," Ibrahim told Al Jazeera of al-Bab, where he is now imprisoned. "This is all new information for me."

There's no way to know if Ibrahim is telling the truth or just desperate to claim innocence as some rebels believe, and there's no way to know if he is representative of other Syrian government pilots, tank drivers and soldiers. But his story hints at yet another dilemma for the struggling Syrian regime, which must now confront fractures even within the Alawite elite, The Washington Post's Liz Sly reported Thursday. How can the government keep its front-line fighters motivated for often-cruel missions and for a war that has cost tens of thousands of Syrian lives? 

“There’s a huge number of pilots I know who want to defect,” a defected Syrian helicopter pilot told Sly last summer. He explained in the article that the air force is mostly part of the Sunni majority. According to the pilot, “The air force in the beginning was sidelined, but after it started getting involved, a lot of people started thinking about defecting.”

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Max Fisher · October 18, 2012