AKKAR, Lebanon — Under cover of darkness, in a shabby rented house in the northern Lebanese mountains, a dozen Syrian men huddle round a wood stove, candlelight flickering on their drawn faces.
All of them claim to be defected soldiers, who were forced to conduct operations against a widespread protest movement before fleeing the army. They said they escaped over the border into the relative safety of Lebanon, where they joined the Free Syrian Army.
This loose collection of defectors and armed civilians claims thousands of members and posts footage of attacks on military infrastructure on Facebook. But the men in north Lebanon, all of them Sunni Muslims, said that they lived in poverty and secrecy, numbering a few hundred at most, and had limited access to weapons, prompting questions about the capability of the organization to have a substantial impact on well-armed and organized Alawite-led Syrian security forces.
“The arms we have are what we defected with, or things that we steal from the other side,” said one, who added that he had been a private in the army. They receive no international help and had been visited by no military attaches, they said, although they would take arms, money or supplies from almost anyone if they offered it.
The defectors have won grudging support from the Syrian National Council, the most prominent political group calling for the fall of President Bashar al-Assad. The council recognized the FSA’s “honorable role in protecting the peaceful Revolution of our people” in a statement last month.
And they have garnered more enthusiastic approval from other Syrian dissidents — who carry banners with the group’s name at demonstrations and chant for them, calling on them to protect civilians from security forces, and hoping the group could one day present a challenge to the military.
One defector, who said he had been a second lieutenant and showed military identification, said that there were about 500 defected soldiers in north Lebanon, working with about 200 on the other side of the border. He said the men took turns to cross the border on foot, along old smuggling routes through newly-laid minefields into Syria.
They do not carry weapons across the border, he said, because to do so would risk execution if they were captured. But they do collect weapons from family and clan members over the border, he said, and spend a few days or weeks in the country, attending protests in the town of Tal Kalakh and surrounding villages to provide some protection from the heavy presence of security forces.
All of the soldiers who had gathered in the Lebanese mountains said they were from the town of Tal Kalakh. They had been deployed across the country, but all fled to their home town when they defected. Thus far, they said, relatively few soldiers had joined the group, simply because they were afraid of the consequences.
Under orders from their superiors, the men said, the defectors have suspended offensive operations over the past two weeks, during a visit to Syria by a monitoring team from the Arab League. They receive orders via a commanding officer from defected Col. Riad al-Asaad, who leads the group from southern Turkey.
The Arab League mission had been to oversee the implementation of an agreement by the government to end the use of deadly force against protests, withdraw soldiers from cities and free political prisoners. On Thursday, however, Col. Malik Kurdi, an assistant to Asaad, said the defectors would now escalate their operations because the Syrian authorities were continuing their military operations.
The soldiers in Lebanon expressed frustration with the work of the Arab League mission, pointing out that activists have reported hundreds of people have died in protests and clashes across the country, despite the presence of observers.
Sectarian divisions dominated the armed forces, they said. All of the men there were Sunni, and they had been closely watched in their work by soldiers and informal militias, known as shabiha, from the Alawite sect of the president’s family. It was these Alawites who ensured that soldiers followed orders, which included shooting on protesters with live bullets.
Their accounts matched more than 60 interviews with defectors in a recent report by the New York-based Human Rights Watch, which provided detailed evidence of high-level orders to fire on unarmed civilian protesters, said the group’s Middle East director, Sarah Leah Whitson.
“What we hear from soldiers is fear, fear of retribution,” she said, citing an incident in Jabal Zawiya in Idlib province on Dec. 20 in which more than 100 soldiers were reportedly killed after attempting to defect.
“I hear — not just from soldiers, but also from diplomats — that we’re not seeing defections because the Assad regime has made sure that their family members always remain in the country,” and people fear their families will be harmed if they desert their posts, Whitson said. Although they are relatively safe in Lebanon, the men fear being caught and deported by Lebanese security forces, so they move about only at night.
Unlike in an uprising in Libya that eventually swept Moammar Gaddafi from power, she added, where large parts of the armed forces defected en masse and fled to the opposition stronghold of Benghazi, there is no safe area for Syrian soldiers easily to escape to.
The Free Syrian Army and parts of the Syrian opposition have called for the swift creation of a safe zone, patrolled by an international military force along Syria’s northern border with Turkey. If soldiers had somewhere to go, large chunks of the army would defect, the men in north Lebanon said.
However, that remains a distant prospect, said Henri Barkey, a professor of international relations at Lehigh University in Pennsylvania, who said that Turkish authorities believe that Assad will fall, but are unwilling to intervene directly.
“The Turks see [the Free Syrian Army] as a useful tool,” Barkey said. “They assume that these guys are part of the ultimate picture that is going to emerge,” as shown by Turkish authorities allowing the group’s commander to remain in Turkey. “But they don’t want to get involved too deeply because it’s too risky for them at the moment.”
For now, the defectors continue on their missions. As some of them spoke animatedly, a few others excused themselves, saying that they were heading across the border later that night. At least two had been killed in minefields in the last week, they said, offering names and military identification numbers as proof.
“But when we have funerals for the martyrs,” said the second lieutenant, “we don’t grieve, but we congratulate each other on the honor. This is what makes the soldiers so determined.”