10.29.11

Syrian Defector Plans Fightback

In an exclusive interview from an undisclosed location in Lebanon, a defector from the Syrian army maps out the strategy of the armed opposition to Syria’s dictator.

When Mohammed describes the blood-soaked days of this past summer, his voice begins to crack. Protesters were hitting the streets in Damascus and smaller nearby towns regularly and Mohammed’s unit in the Syrian army was ordered to break up the demonstrations almost every day. One of his superiors seemed to relish the violence. “He would take a sniper rifle to the roof of buildings and shoot directly on people in the street. He was always trying to get an accurate shot on the head or neck of the protesters,” says Mohammed, a former officer in the army of Syrian dictator, Bashar al-Assad. “He would say in front of all of us, ‘Let us go hunting birds.’” Mohammed watched as this officer shot two teenagers in the middle of a demonstration. On a separate occasion, another officer in his unit opened fire on two young men from an armored vehicle. “One was shot in his neck and the other his head,” says Mohammed. “They were not protesting. They were just in the wrong place.”

Watching these attacks was enough to push Mohammed, who’s in his twenties, over the edge. He took a harrowing 25-day journey to the Lebanese border, constantly dodging checkpoints and sleeping in different homes almost every night. Once he crossed the border into Lebanon, Mohammed knew there was no turning back: he joined the Free Syrian Army (FSA), an armed opposition group of military defectors who are fighting the Syrian regime in a bid to topple another dictator in the long and increasingly bloody Arab Spring. Mohammed agreed to talk exclusively to The Daily Beast over Skype as long as his real name was not used and some of his personal details were not revealed, including his location in Lebanon.

Even though he’s found refuge in Lebanon, Mohammed rarely lets his guard down. Syrian agents are tracking defectors in both Turkey and Lebanon and there is a high risk of kidnap or an assassination attempt. Mohammed explains the risk is particularly high in Lebanon because the country is home to groups like Hizbullah or the Syrian Social Nationalist Party (SSNP) that are strong supporters of the Assad regime. The case of Lt. Col. Hussein Harmoush weighs heavily on the mind of all defectors. Harmoush defected in June and fled to Turkey but he disappeared from one of the camps there in early September. He resurfaced in a televised “confession” in mid-September where he retracted much of his criticism of the government. It’s not clear whether Harmoush was kidnapped while he was in Turkey or if Syrian security forces nabbed him after he crossed back into the country.

“Every day we do attacks now. I am planning to go as soon as they tell me they have a gun for me to use.”

The formation of the Free Syrian Army was announced in a Web video released in late July. Since that time, the group has taken credit for a number of guerrilla attacks on regime forces through a Facebook page, though some of their claims about casualty numbers and damage inflicted on military facilities have been disputed. Still, the Assad regime saw them as enough of a threat to carry out a broad assault on the city of Rastan, thought to be an FSA stronghold, in late September. The group is currently led by former Col. Riad al-Asaad and the bulk of its members appear to be in Turkey, although there is a smaller number of defectors like Mohammed in Lebanon. If the group continues to expand its membership with more defectors, they could present a serious threat to the regime, possibly transforming the Syrian revolution into the sort of full-scale armed uprising that ultimately toppled Libyan dictator, Muammar Gaddafi.

For his part, Mohammed explains that joining the group wasn’t a simple decision. After months of watching protesters getting killed and injured, he reached the conclusion that armed struggle was the only way to confront the regime. “Eight months of protesting didn’t do anything,” he says. “This is the only way to cut down this regime.” Mohammed is now in touch with the FSA leadership in Turkey by phone and Skype every day.

Their current goal, he explains, is to create a safe area where military defectors and other regime opponents can gather inside Syria. And they would welcome any foreign help, like Libya’s rebels, to turn that area into a no-fly zone. “We are expecting to create a protected zone to drop ourselves inside it,” says Mohammed. “It should be a no-fly zone or protected in some way. Then we can gather soldiers and defectors to launch our fight against the regime.” A couple of locations that the group is considering are Jisr al-Shughour and Jebel Zawiya, mountainous, forested areas in the north of Syria, close to the border with Turkey. At the moment, the group is desperately short on cash and weapons. Soldiers who contact the group about defecting are told to bring their army-issued weapons with them. None of Syria’s neighboring countries, Mohammed claims, are supplying weapons to the FSA.

Many Syria watchers have warned that a shifting of the uprising from a peaceful protest movement to an armed struggle could spell big trouble. The biggest worry is that the country could get drawn into a vicious sectarian war like that of neighboring Iraq. The bulk of the protests in the country are led by Sunni Muslims, who make up some 65 percent of the population, while the regime’s strongest supporters are the minority Alawite sect, who make up some 10 percent of the population. Mohammed admits that his superior officer, the one who enjoyed shooting unarmed protesters, was an Alawite. He also says that there were other Alawite officers who joined in the killings, even though there was no overt pressure to take part in the violence. Still, Mohammed, a Sunni, says the chances of a sectarian war are remote. “It’s a fight between the security forces and the people,” Mohammed says. “There are Alawites with us among the opposition. It’s a revolution of all the people in Syria, not only the Sunni.”

In recent weeks, the FSA have stepped up their operations inside Syria, Mohammed claims. And he’s eagerly awaiting his turn to get on a mission. “Every day we do attacks now,” says Mohammed. “I am planning to go as soon as they tell me they have a gun for me to use.”