Former Syrian Soldier Describes Life in the Army at the Start of War
In the coming days the United States and other countries will make a decision on the use of military force against Syria. The consequences of this decision will affect not only the Assad regime loyalists but also the foot soldiers manning bunkers, barracks, and installations across the country. For the vast majority of Syria’s conscripted soldiers, military service amounts to a brutal prison sentence of unknown length now that the war has extended service periods indefinitely. Though the Syrian army does contain true believers who believe that it’s their duty to defeat the rebels and any means justifies this end, many are draftees with no ideological sympathy for the regime and are merely following orders to survive.
Faced with certain death for desertion, and possible retaliation against their families, many conscripts have been put in the nightmarish situation of choosing between committing war crimes or being killed for trying to flee from a war effort they don’t support.
The excuse of “following orders” has its moral limits but to ignore the position forced on Syrian conscripts is its own form of blindness. Pretending that all Syrian soldiers are the same and equally culpable may be of some comfort if the decision to attack is made but it obscures the truth of the situation.
Most deserters living in refugee camps are now scarred by the brutality they witnessed and participated in, all for a cause they despised. There is no one to sympathize for their war trauma and most would like nothing more than to forget. You won’t hear from the unsuccessful deserters and dissenters of the Syrian ranks who have been executed anonymously, often casually by a loyal inner corps of junior officers and paramilitary, in untold thousands.
What follows is the first-person account of a former Syrian Army sergeant who was imprisoned for protesting orders to shoot civilians. I interviewed the man, whose name and identifying details I have altered to protect his identity, in late 2012 at a refugee camp in Northern Iraq. The interview, which has been edited for length and to preserve the voice of “Heen,” is a testimony to the evolution of events in Syria. In this first part, Heen describes his unit’s role in Dara’a, where the protests started and the war began and concludes with the events that led to his own arrest. Click here to read the second installment, in which Heen describes being imprisoned and fleeing Syria for a refugee camp in Iraq.
No one thought anything like this could ever happen in Syria. When I reported for my conscription in 2010 I thought I would do my two years of service without anything happening. Everyone said it would be bad, that they would insult you and hit you, but you could put up with it. I didn’t think I would ever see a war. Before the war I was a short-order cook in Zabadani, which is a beautiful tourist valley in Reef Damashq, near Lebanon. All kinds of foreigners came there for vacation, Khaleejis [Gulf country citizens], Lebanese, even Europeans. The mountains are very beautiful there.
After six months’ basic training in Khan Ash Shaykh, I was made a sergeant in charge of a BMP [a Russian-made armored personnel carrier] section. I was in charge of 14 privates in my unit, almost all young Sunni Arab guys. Kurds like me usually don’t get made sergeant. There were 16 sections like mine in my company with a captain in charge. There were no lieutenants in our unit, just musa’ada, or warrant officers, to help the captain.
Our captain had a very strong voice and a strong personality; he was an Alawi like most officers. He never sounded unsure of himself or conflicted about what we had to do in Dara’a. While he got his orders from the ameed, the colonel, mostly he had freedom to do anything he wanted in our assigned area: arrests, raids, shootings, destroying buildings.
Our unit was sent to Dara’a after the protests started in March of 2011 and our area was at the center of the problems because it contained the Umari mosque. There was no base for us in Dara’a so we took over an elementary school and turned it into our base. At the beginning we never worried about being attacked, we just had to deal with protests. We thought we would be there for a few weeks and then things would settle down.
When we arrived in Dara’a we were given strict orders to never speak with civilians there. Not during arrests, not breaking up protests, not on patrols. You would be beaten and sent to jail if you were seen speaking at length with civilians. We were told repeatedly that the protests were instigated by infiltrating foreigners, mostly supported by the U.S. and Western powers to undermine Syria, and that most of the protesters weren’t even Syrian. We were told they were Iranians, Afghanis, Americans, and Pakistanis forming these groups. As time went by it was obvious this wasn’t true and much of it didn’t make sense, but you couldn’t speak openly about it. At first, most of us just accepted that foreigners were behind it all.
In the beginning we were strictly prohibited from shooting at the protesters and the officers were very careful to avoid confrontation. At first we would just show up and surround the protests and hope that the show of force would convince them to disperse. Almost all of the protests started after Friday prayer at the mosques, because that is when all the men in the area gather together. We came to expect that every Friday we would have to break up a protest, but they grew larger and larger. When they became too large for us to arrest and disperse we began firing over the crowd or at unoccupied buildings nearby. When this didn’t work, my captain ordered me to fire a tank shell into a building near the protesters, but we didn’t kill anyone until later in April.
We heard that protesters had been tearing up posters of Assad, I don’t know where, and the colonel flew into a rage. I remember the protest that Friday outside the Umari mosque and at first we fired over the heads of the protesters. Then the colonel arrived at our position and told the captain to have us shoot into the crowd. The captain gave the order and he was the first one to shoot at them with his rifle. It wasn’t a free for all, but my soldiers all shot a burst or two into the crowd and everyone ran. Some shot more than others.
I remember it was a warm and mild day, sunny and clear. Within 10 minutes of the shooting starting, the streets were empty. After a while, people carefully came up to drag the bodies out of the street. I remember seeing the bodies lying in the street. Our chain of command told us that the eight we had killed in the protest had all been foreigners. None of us had hesitated to shoot, because we all believed it. We only realized over time.
Within my section I had a difficult time with my pro-Assad soldiers, my dirty guys. They were Sunni Arab but they came from tribes in Raqqah that were favored by the regime and they were ignorant. Some of them had clips of Assad’s speeches and pro-Assad songs on their phones they would listen to all the time. When we were waiting for protests to emerge, my worst soldier would lean on his machine gun and say, “Hurry up and come out so I can start shooting you.”
Most of my guys were not like this, but you had to act like you supported the government. As we shot at more and more protests and killed more and more civilians, I started to notice there were five other soldiers in my unit who realized that killing the protesters was wrong. Some of them would ask why we were shooting at people, even though in the end they had to do it like everyone else. Maybe there were more, but I knew that these five felt like I did. I told them discreetly that when the order came from the captain to shoot, to shoot near people but don’t hit them, so you seem like you are following orders.
One of my soldiers would shout curse words while he shot into the crowds and seemed to enjoy killing people. I had to be very careful around soldiers like this. We divided our time between living out of our BMP vehicle at an intersection which we were charged with guarding and at the school. All we had was a bed roll and a blanket, but it was very hot during the summer and impossible to sleep during the day. There were sinks and toilets in the school and tents in the courtyard, but we were still miserable.
I rarely got to speak with my parents on the phone, but the conversations were difficult. Everyone knows that the government could be listening, so you have to be very careful about how you talk. They were very worried about me. My father would speak in a coded way that let me know they were worried that I was doing bad things and that I was involved in the horrible things the Army was doing. I tried to reassure them, but after a while I got very angry. I couldn’t tell them about how impossible things were for me here. They didn’t understand what life was like for me and I couldn’t really explain it on the phone.
Officially school ended in July, but students stopped showing up in April, once the siege started. We had set up very strict curfew rules, and since we could not speak with the locals, communications were made by loudspeakers. Only women and children were allowed to leave the home between 5 and 7 in the evening to obtain essential things. To enforce this, people in the street were shot on sight, and Dara’a became a ghost city.
Only one of my soldiers was hurt in the fighting while I was there. One night, we were at a security position outside our BMP vehicle when someone threw a grenade at us from a nearby building. One of my soldiers was hit by fragments, but he lived. Much of the fighting was at night when the resistance could move around without being seen. There was a lot of mortar and RPG fire at us, but it was mostly inaccurate. Because units didn’t talk to each other there were lots of friendly fire incidents at night, 20 soldiers were killed that way while I was there.
When you are a soldier in Syria you must never let anyone think you are religious. You will immediately be suspected of sympathizing with the protesters. No one prays. No one fasts at Ramadan. No one has a Quran or suras from it. No one has tasbeeh prayer beads. You don’t even dare say 'Ya Allah' if you feel emotional about something. Later, when they were beating me in prison and I tried to swear to them, and I said ‘wallah’, they cut me off and said ‘Swear to us. We are your gods here.’
We were encouraged to abuse the people, even when it seemed pointless. We collected 2,000 motorcycles off the street and destroyed them. I ran over many with my BMP. The motorcycles are how poor people get around and live. We stole whatever we wanted from stores as we passed them. My soldiers’ favorite thing to steal was Marlboro cigarettes. One time we were ordered to drive our BMP into the front windows of a supermarket, it was very new and updated, and it collapsed the whole front of the roof. I don’t know why we did it. We were ordered once to shoot the water tanks on top of an apartment building, if you destroy the tank the building gets no water, and my gunner began shooting them all the time after that.
As the situation got worse during the summer, people were too afraid to collect the bodies out of the street. They began to smell very quickly. There was a special unit in charge of collecting bodies who wore black uniforms and drove Toyota trucks belonging to the Amin Al Askari [military security]. We were not supposed to talk to them, but the bodies went to the stadium which had become a makeshift morgue full of freezers.
By August we were rounding up any young man we found, whether we were looking for him or not. At night we would raid houses with the mukhabarat [Syrian intelligence agents], with a big Toyota bus with covered windows to put the prisoners in. The houses were filled with daughters and wives who would scream and cry when we entered. If there were any men, they would either try to run or hide, but we shot runners on sight. The most common hiding places where we found men and boys were under beds, under stairs, and in closets. Almost no one let himself be arrested, because they knew what would happen. They were blind-folded and bound and gathered on our bus to send back to the stadium.
These scenes began to make me crazy. On the buses full of prisoners men were crying and screaming. We had to beat them. I thought about what it would be like if someone raided my parents’ home and dragged me out in front of them. You could not talk about what we were doing ever, but it was clear some believed in what we were doing and others did not.
They arrested me in November. It was a Friday and we saw a group of 30 men come out of a mosque and some of them had pistols. When the order to fire came, I told my five guys I trusted to shoot over them. The captain was there at the time and saw that they were doing this. Later that day, my five soldiers were arrested and taken away. We were not told why. They were tortured in prison for three days and one of them eventually confessed that I had told them not to shoot people. Then they arrested me.
This interview was conducted with the assistance of a translator, Usama Al-Haddad. Usama is an Iraqi-American currently residing in Erbil, Iraq. He has conducted research at Harvard University, and holds a Masters from the School of Oriental & African Studies, University of London.