Fearful of a U.S. Strike, Defectors Flee the Syrian Army

As the drum beats for possible U.S. strikes on Syria, the opposition says Assad has suffered a new wave of defections. Mike Giglio reports.

The Syrian Army corporal had entertained thoughts of defecting for a long time. He was just an office worker at his base in the southern province of Daraa, never firing his military-issued rifle or pistol. Like all rank-and-file soldiers, though, he was under close watch. Bolting the army—which could see him imprisoned or killed—didn’t seem worth the risk. But that changed when news came that America might attack. The corporal’s superiors tried to dismiss the threat as “just some kind of bullshit,” but they seemed rattled. He was too. “I was truly and frankly afraid from the American scenario approaching,” he says. “It was fear.”

So the 28-year-old corporal, who asked to use only his first name, Majid, because he has family in Syria, worked up his nerve. He bribed a superior to let him take a two-day leave, saying he needed to visit family in Damascus. Then he linked up with rebels who specialize in helping would-be defectors escape. Soon he was bumping along back roads in a busload of fellow fleeing soldiers, bound for Turkey, where he arrived this weekend. “This threatening [of a U.S. strike] is even more effective than the strike itself,” Majid says.

As the drum beats for possible U.S. strikes on Syria, the opposition has claimed a surge in defections like Majid’s. The threat alone of American involvement, some say, has been enough to jar the government and the beleaguered forces of President Bashar al-Assad—suggesting that he is facing a growing psychological as well as military threat.

Despite presenting a defiant front, Assad’s government has shown signs of concern. It recently ran full-page advertisements in state newspapers, as The Wall Street Journal noted, telling Syrians to ignore “rumors about the escape of important people from the country” and “videos of people impersonating Syrian officials”—a likely bid to head off news of high-profile defections. The Journal also reported that Syrian troops have positioned themselves in residential neighborhoods that house key military and government installations, as the government urges civilians to evacuate.

On Wednesday, a senior opposition figure claimed that the top Syrian official to date had defected and escaped into Turkey: Ali Habib, who served as defense minister until August 2011. Unlike the vast majority of defectors—such as Majid—Habib is a member of Assad’s Alawite sect, a minority that dominates the government and security forces in the predominately Sunni country. But Habib has yet to appear publicly, and Syrian state media denied the defection, insisting that Habib was still at home.

Analysts tracking the conflict say that an uptick in defections—which have helped to fuel the rebellion since it began—does seem to be under way. “The psychological impact of not actual strikes, but of suspected strikes, has been huge. And we’ve seen a large number of defections,” says Elizabeth O’Bagy, a senior Syria analyst for the Institute for the Study of War in Washington, D.C., and the political director for the Syrian Emergency Task Force, which lobbies the U.S. government on behalf of the Syrian opposition. “[News of the U.S. strikes] did to a certain degree change the calculations on the ground.”

Michael Weiss, a Syria analyst and columnist with NOW Lebanon, notes that the delay in America’s strike plans has both helped and hurt Assad. “It’s true that we’ve given the regime plenty of time to move its assets around and put political prisoners in military installations and all that,” he says. “But there’s definitely something to be said for gathering a storm. It seems to me that people in Syria are still preparing because they think it’s inevitable. And giving more time does create a space for allowing people to defect or desert or just flee the country.”

Many of the new defectors are common soldiers. Obeidah al-Mustafa, a former Syrian Army lieutenant who defected last year and now commands the rebel Liwa al-Fathin brigade in Damascus, says he has been helping to facilitate additional defections ever since his own. Most rely on personal connections, with soldiers who want to leave reaching out to friends or defected colleagues for help. Those soldiers still with the government, Mustafa adds, may be too afraid to leave, or simply unable due to tight security. Each also struggles with his own personal and moral concerns. “Every soldier has his own situation,” Mustafa says.

Rebels and activists have developed effective networks for getting new defectors into opposition hands and, if needed, safely out of the country. But the process also requires a leap of faith, with rebels worried that their new charges might betray them. “The safety of the [rebels] is more important than the safety of the defectors,” Mustafa says, adding that, “they should be someone who was not involved in killing people—or not involved in killing a lot of people, actually.”

As speculation over U.S. military action has intensified, Mustafa says, he and other rebels have seen a jump in new defectors coming their way. “[Word of] the American strike has made their morale very low. And if they had any doubt the regime is collapsing, now they know it 100 percent,” he says. “Even Bashar al-Assad might defect.”

Oubai Shahbandar, the vice president for Middle East operations at the Syrian Support Group, a nonprofit based in Washington, D.C., that channels assistance to the rebels, says the climate of unease in Syria could pave the way for the kind of high-level defections, including among senior Alawites, that would badly undermine Assad’s government. “This would be the window of opportunity for senior regime figures to save themselves,” he says.

But Mustafa al-Sheikh, a brigadier general who was an early defector and later headed the rebel Free Syrian Army, cautioned that such high-profile defections will be hard to come by, especially at this late stage in the war. Sheikh’s defection was difficult because the government still controlled much of the country at the time, he notes. Now, though it controls far less, it has tightened its grip drastically on what remains—and also on the senior officials in its ranks. “It’s almost impossible for someone with a high rank to defect,” Sheikh says. “People like that are being strictly watched. And they’re not going to win a lot of love [from the rebels] on the ground for being a senior Alawite who’s defecting at the last minute.”

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There are also family concerns. Sheikh defected with his wife, children, and grandchildren in tow, something that would be far tougher to coordinate today. “The truth is that anyone who wants to defect right now is in great danger,” Sheikh says. “You’re in a constant battle with yourself.”