08.01.11

Why I Fled Syria’s Army

After fleeing with his family from Syria in fear of his life, a former officer in Bashar al-Assad’s military tells of manipulation and brutality in the ongoing crackdown.

Abu Hamid takes a long drag from a hand-rolled cigarette and exhales. “The Syrian Army doesn't defend the country or the nation,” he says, wagging a thick index finger. “This is the [Bashar] Assad Army. They are allowed to do everything to protect the regime.” Abu Hamid, a stocky 42-year-old with a salt-and-pepper beard, should know. Until recently, he served as a first lieutenant in the Syrian Army, based in the city of Homs. Disgusted by the Army crackdown, Abu Hamid, a 23-year veteran of the military, ditched his uniform and escaped from Syria to Lebanon with his family one month ago.

Since then, the military crackdown against opposition protesters has only ramped up and gotten bloodier. The Syrian military stormed the town of Hama with tanks and troops Sunday, killing at least 100 people, according to opposition activists. A number of smaller towns around the country were also assaulted, leaving at least two dozen dead. The attacks were the most widespread crackdown against protesters in weeks and appeared to be an attempt to squash the opposition before the holy month of Ramadan started Monday. The opposition has laid out detailed plans to ramp up its anti-regime protests during Ramadan. The deadly attacks, which continued Monday with shelling and tank fire in Hama, led to a strong rebuke from President Barack Obama. “The reports out of Hama are horrifying and demonstrate the true character of the Syrian regime,” he said.

In recent months there have been regular reports of military defections, but it’s nearly impossible to gauge the accuracy of these reports because the government has severely restricted access for journalists. Opposition activists say some soldiers in Sunday’s crackdown even left their units when ordered to fire on unarmed demonstrators. For his part, Abu Hamid agreed to discuss the details of his escape from Syria on condition that his full name not be used, and his exact location in Lebanon, which is in a town near the Syrian border, not be revealed for the protection of himself and his family. Despite the recent show of force by the military, Abu Hamid is optimistic that defections will continue. “We will see defections of officers one by one,” he says with a smile. “The longer the violence continues, the more difficult it will be for them.”

'I knew this would be the end of me,' Abu Hamid says.

At the time the opposition protests broke out in March, Abu Hamid was producing a news program for the military radio service. The protests were peaceful and the opposition activists were calling only for reform, not the overthrow of the regime. But Abu Hamid's superiors wanted a specific message sent out about the protesters. “I was ordered to change the reality,” he says. “To say that the protesters are armed and dangerous. This created a dilemma for me.”

As an officer, Abu Hamid was allowed to leave his military base in Homs and spend nights with his family, unlike the grunts who were kept at their barracks around the clock. As a result, he could see the protests and the crackdown by security forces across the city. On one occasion, troops opened fire on a demonstration, wounding a young man from his neighborhood. The protester was taken into custody, and his body was returned to the family days later. On another occasion, Abu Hamid saw an enraged fellow officer on the verge of shooting a protester at his base and managed to talk him out of killing the young man.

As the weeks passed, the crackdown stepped up. Some of the most egregious abuses were carried out by the shabiha, armed plainclothes militiamen who were used as the regime’s shock troops. Members of the shabiha were linked up with Army units and given black armbands to make them recognizable when they carried out joint operations. While the regular soldiers received poor-quality equipment and had to account for all of their bullets, Abu Hamid says, the shabiha militiamen received good equipment and a nearly endless supply of bullets. Many of the militia members were Alawite residents of Homs, and they had rallied behind the regime, which is predominantly Alawite, to protect their own sect. “We know the shabiha. They come from our own neighborhoods,” says Abu Hamid. “If one person sneezes in our town, a person on the other side of town knows about it.” In April, Abu Hamid's neighbor, a 25-year-old woman, was raped by a group of shabiha. They accused her of working with the opposition. “They took out their revenge on her,” he says, shaking his head.

After that attack, Abu Hamid couldn’t stomach his job anymore. He regularly faked illness to get out of producing the doctored-up radio broadcasts. It wasn’t long before the intelligence officers in his unit got suspicious. Abu Hamid was among only a handful of Sunni officers in his unit—the rest of the officers were predominantly Alawite—and he was already being scrutinized for any sympathetic leanings toward the protesters. His irregular performance on the radio show led to a backlash from fellow officers. “I had to take orders from Alawite subordinates,” he says. “There was a lot of discrimination from the Alawites toward the Sunnis.”

The final straw came on June 10: Abu Hamid received an order to go to the office of the dreaded mukhabarat, or intelligence service, in Damascus. “I knew this would be the end of me,” he says. He decided the same day that he had to get out. But planning an escape with nine children and his wife wasn’t an easy task. Abu Hamid figured the best way to get out was to head to the Lebanese border, some 20 miles away, on foot. He pocketed a topographic map of the border region from the base and prepared his family for the trip ahead. One week after he received the mukhabarat summons, Abu Hamid disappeared. “I took my family into the wilderness,” he says.

They stuck to small mountain paths to avoid Army patrols and kept on the move constantly. At night they would take refuge with sympathetic families, who often gave them extra food supplies, too. After 17 days, they reached the Lebanese border, which was the trickiest part of their trip. It took 24 hours to find a safe crossing point, but they finally made it across without any run-ins with the Syrian military. “It was a very difficult journey,” he says.

Abu Hamid and his family now live in pretty rough conditions, but he doesn’t regret leaving. In fact, he’s confident that he will be back in Homs soon without the current regime in power. To explain his optimism, he lights up another of his hand-rolled cigarettes and cites an Arabic proverb. “Over time, the sea can erode mountains,” he says with a broad smile.