ALTINOZU, Turkey — When helicopter pilot Ahmad Trad decided he wanted to defect from the Syrian air force earlier this year, he realized it wasn’t going to be easy. His Damascus air base was closely monitored, he was sure his phone was tapped and he suspected that one in every three of his colleagues was spying for the government.
He also confronted the dilemma that he and other defectors say is the biggest deterrent to those who would like to abandon the Syrian regime but have not yet dared: the safety of his family. Slipping away from his base was one thing, but it was just as important for Trad, 30, to make sure his relatives would not be targeted for revenge attacks once he was gone.
“I had to get everyone out,” he said as he sat surrounded by many of the 15 family members who fled with him last month to the picturesque town of Altinozu in southern Turkey, including his pregnant wife.
“If you want to defect, you have to plan it really well,” he said. “It is so difficult.”
The family’s escape culminated a five-month odyssey of intrigue, deception and ultimately courage that illuminates both the challenges that faced the tens of thousands of soldiers who have already defected from President Bashar al-Assad’s military — and perhaps some of the reasons why more have not done so.
None of the defections has yet been significant enough to shift the balance of power in Syria’s steadily escalating armed conflict. But they are accelerating, contributing to a gradual erosion of the security forces that could eventually undermine Assad’s hold on power.
They are also starting to touch on the heart of the establishment, with Syria’s ambassador to Iraq abandoning his post last week and a former member of Assad’s inner circle, Brig. Gen. Manaf Tlas, fleeing the week before — a public signal of disaffection within the ranks of the elite Sunnis who have thus far remained loyal to Assad’s minority Alawite regime.
As the regime increasingly relies on combat helicopters to assert control over territories lost to rebel forces, questions too are growing over the loyalty of the air force, whose pilots are mostly Sunni. Trad said he learned of the defections of eight other helicopter pilots from his base within a week of his own, which was followed by the highly publicized flight of a fighter pilot to Jordan in his Russian jet.
“There’s a huge number of pilots I know who want to defect,” said Trad, who is Sunni. “The air force in the beginning was sidelined, but after it started getting involved, a lot of people started thinking about defecting.”
Trad’s account cannot be independently verified because of reporting restrictions in Syria, but he showed cards identifying himself as a member of the military and made one of the videos used by the Free Syrian Army to announce defections on YouTube after he arrived in Turkey.
He said he began his journey many months ago, with a deepening sense of unease about the harsh tactics being used by the government in its efforts to quell the revolt.
As an assistant helicopter pilot based in the East Ghouta suburb of Damascus, he said he was not directly involved in combat but rather spent his time delivering munitions and ferrying wounded or dead soldiers from battlefields around the country.
The bloodshed he witnessed — on one occasion he flew the bodies of 17 soldiers from the city of Homs to Damascus — concerned him less than the reports he saw on television about the children who were dying. “I felt paralyzed, because I couldn’t do anything to help,” he recalled.
His misgivings hardened into resolve in February, when his deputy commander was suddenly and publicly detained on base. Like Trad, the deputy commander was a Sunni, and the officers who detained him were Alawites.
“They humiliated him in front of everybody. They beat him and threw a hood on his head. They accused him of spying for Israel and al-Qaeda,” Trad said. “It was then that I realized that all Sunnis in the military have this accusation hanging over their heads and that this will happen to all of us at some point.”
Trad began actively plotting his escape. His sister in Aleppo reached out to Free Syrian Army rebels operating along the Turkish border to ask if they would help ferry the whole family across. The rebels agreed, but first they wanted proof that Trad was genuine and not a regime infiltrator.
So Trad became a spy for the Free Syrian Army. He continued showing up for work and flying his missions, but every few weeks, a woman would call him and pretend to be his lover.
They would murmur sweet words for the benefit of anyone who might be listening, then arrange a rendezvous in a Damascus cafe. There, he would meet with two of the rebels and pass on information about details of military operations from his base, and the names of helicopter pilots involved in flying the combat missions that are claiming a growing number of casualties.
“The phone calls caused many arguments with my wife,” he recalled.
“To this day, I’m not sure I believe this story,” said his wife, Faten, punching him on the arm.
The final push to defect came when the two rebels with whom he had been liaising were captured and shot in a Damascus suburb. He feared the security forces had learned of his activities, and he pressed the rebels to get him out. He sent his wife, mother and sisters ahead of him. When he learned that the women were safe in Turkey, he left Damascus, setting out at 4 a.m. with his father and a paper he faked on his computer granting him leave, to catch a bus to Aleppo.
There, a trusted taxi driver was waiting with his three brothers and an escort car driven by friends that went ahead to alert them to possible checkpoints. By nightfall, they were picking their way across a minefield toward the Turkish border, guided by rebels. As they reached the border fence, his brother’s cellphone rang. It was his commander, warning him that his absence had been noted and that a hunt had been launched. Moments later, he was in Turkey.
His name is now on a list waiting to be assigned to a Free Syrian Army battalion. His wife, who is due to give birth to twins, their first children, in February, said she is envious. “I only wish I could join the Free Syrian Army, too,” she said, leaning her head on his shoulder.