DAMASCUS, Syria — Arab satellite channels are airing regular, but still isolated, reports that soldiers from Syria’s 200,000-strong army are beginning to defect.
A doctor in a military hospital in Damascus told Reuters earlier this month that 17 soldiers with gunshot wounds were brought in from Deraa.
“They told me they were shot by shabbiha [an elite, Alawite brigade] because they refused to fire on protesters,” the doctor said.
Mass military defections will be the necessary turning point for the fall of the Bashar al-Assad-led Syrian government, Wayne White, a former senior official with the State Department’s intelligence agency and adjunct scholar at the Middle East Institute, told PBS.
“So far, the regime’s militaries remain surprisingly coherent,” White said.
Reports from activists, which are difficult to confirm and are rejected by the Syrian government, estimate that no more than a few hundred soldiers have so far defected.
An army conscript who is now based at the military airport in the restive northwestern province of Idleb confirmed for GlobalPost that military commanders there are working to prevent large-scale defections from taking hold.
“The general, every night, comes and asks each of us individually: ‘What do you love?’ And we answer: ‘Syria,’” the soldier said. The general then asks: “‘To whom will you give your blood?’ And we say, “‘Bashar.’”
Military officers are mostly from among the ruling Alawite sect. Because all Syrian males — those who are unable to pay enough in bribes to avoid it, at least — must serve in the army, most soldiers are from the country’s Sunni majority. President Assad, in one of the first reform measures aimed at placating the unrest that began on March 15, reduced obligatory military service from 21 months to 18 months on March 20.
Soldiers are prohibited from watching any news besides Syrian state television, the conscript added. Even the pro-government al-Dunia station is banned. The officers closely monitor all communications.
The soldier, who spoke to GlobalPost at great personal risk during a recent break, could not use his real name. He spoke from his home in Damascus. Soldiers are supposed to have a free weekend every three months. He had not returned home since before the uprising began and said he did not anticipate returning again for several more months.
“They listen to our phone conversations. If you are able to call your family, you can only tell them that you are well,” he added. “One guy started talking about the number of helicopters and where they were going and he was arrested.”
There are about 90 helicopters at the base, he said. They are deployed in order to monitor towns and also to courier supplies between areas of unrest and bases in Tadmor, Homs, Deir ez-Zor and Damascus, he said.
In order to ensure loyalty, officers work to foster a culture of fear and mistrust among the soldiers. With Kalashnikov rifles beside them at all times, soldiers at the base sleep three to a room, and each is placed with men with whom he is not friends. Often people from different sects are put together.
“Everyone tells on everyone else, I don’t know why — if I have a mobile phone hidden, they will tell,” the soldier said. “If I say anything about anything, they will tell.”
Although he does not know any soldiers personally who have defected, he said he has heard many stories about men who, “one day, just run for the border,” though he considers this tantamount to a “death sentence.”
“I understand why, but I can’t imagine doing that,” he said. “I’d never be able to see my family again.”
Plus, unlike reports that soldiers defected because they were expected to fire on unarmed protesters, Saadi said that “70 percent” of the civilians fighting Syrian security forces in Jisr al-Shaghour, the main site of conflict in Idleb, are armed “with better weapons than the soldiers.”
“I know it is true,” he said. “I have seen it with my own eyes.”
He said he is lucky that he does not have to go to the street and fight the “armed gangs.” Because he has a high school diploma, he was assigned to work as a helicopter mechanic. The better the education, the better the treatment in the army, he explained. Men with college degrees get their own rooms.
But what he has seen of the unrest has frightened him.
“When you see the children screaming you wonder what their father or grandfather has taught them — why are they so angry?” he asked, perplexed. “The people have for so long wanted better work, food, drink. So why now? What have they seen?”
He then offered an ominous prediction.
“People are very angry … It is only going to get worse.”
Written and reported by a GlobalPost correspondent in Damascus, whose name has been withheld for security reasons.