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Syria military defectors taking active role in revolt

The rebel commander arrives as night falls, his escorts a cadre of young men on motorbikes, Arab scarves concealing their faces.

He’s always on the move: Syrian spies are everywhere amid the rugged borderlands of remote northern Lebanon.

“We stand with the protesters,” declares Ahmed al-Arabi, nom de guerre of a self-described senior officer with the Free Syrian Army, a group of military defectors who say they have taken up arms against the government of Syrian President Bashar Assad.

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As the Syrian uprising evolves into an armed insurgency, the defectors group appears to be playing an ever-more robust role in a revolt that government opponents say began in March as peaceful protests against Assad’s autocratic rule. Government officials say the uprising has long generated “armed groups” and “terrorists.”

Eight months after the protests started, daily accounts out of Syria detail armed clashes and attacks, including reported Free Syrian Army strikes this week with rocket-propelled grenades on an Air Force intelligence facility outside Damascus, the capital.

Syria “already looks like a civil war,” Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov told reporters in Moscow on Thursday.

But in the view of Arabi and other defectors, the government’s bloody response to the protests has left them with no alternative. He says his fledgling forces, some of whom are based along the border, regularly infiltrate Syria to strike security units. They sidestep mines recently seeded along the rocky hills of the Lebanese frontier, carved with deep wadis, or valleys.

“The strategy changes every hour,” Arabi says, suggesting both a kinetic environment on the ground and a lack of organizational skills among the defectors.

Arabi says he participates in lightning raids, entering Homs with fellow defectors and later crossing back into Lebanon.

A meeting with the commander is arranged amid an aura of intrigue: Cellphone calls and directions are exchanged for several hours, until his entourage pulls up behind a designated house along a deep-rutted road.

Arabi, who appears to be in his early 50s, describes himself as a former Syrian army captain and 29-year army veteran who has done a stint in military intelligence. He switched sides in May, he says, disgusted with what he calls regime attacks on peaceful protesters. His entire family fled to Lebanon, he says.

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Under his command, he says, are 500 fighters — an assertion that, like others, is impossible to verify.

The Free Syrian Army contends its ranks consist of more than 10,000 defectors, many posted near the border areas of Lebanon, Turkey and Jordan, as well as inside Syria, including the tinderbox city of Homs, just 20 miles away. It says most of its weapons consist of what deserters can take with them, though Syria has said that arms are being smuggled in from Lebanon, Turkey and elsewhere.

Arabi says he coordinates with fellow commanders under the leadership of the overall defector chief, Col. Riad Assad, based just inside Turkey’s border with Syria.

When defector forces first appeared several months ago, opposition activists generally described their role as protecting unarmed protesters under assault from regime thugs. But the defectors now declare a more offensive role, more akin to that of a guerrilla army. The opposition reported four defectors killed Thursday in fighting near the western city of Hama, among a total of 26 people killed nationwide.

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Their target, the rebels say, are security forces and plainclothes, pro-regime militiamen known as shabiha, derived from the Arabic word for ghosts, who have developed a fearsome reputation as enforcers and assassins.

According to Arabi, the defectors refrain from attacking army soldiers, mostly young Sunni conscripts deployed against a rebellion that has taken root among Syria’s Sunni majority.

“The army are sons of the people,” says Arabi, who contends that morale among the troops has plummeted, creating fertile ground for defections. “The army is not holding together.... It’s better to keep communication with the soldiers in the regime’s army and have them leave and defect to us — even if that takes longer.”

But the government says many soldiers are among the more than 1,000 security personnel killed since March in ambushes, executions, bombings and other attacks. State media regularly carry coverage of the funerals of “martyrs,” mostly soldiers. On Thursday, the bodies of seven government loyalists were solemnly escorted from military hospitals in Damascus and Homs, the official news agency official SANA reported.

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The Syrian army is about 200,000 strong, its upper ranks staffed with members of Assad’s Alawite sect, who are fierce loyalists. Outside observers have generally called it a well-trained, disciplined force that can deploy an array of weapons, armored vehicles and aircraft. Opposition leaders generally acknowledge that defeating Assad’s forces militarily is unlikely.

The opposition, however, says army ranks are stretched thin because of the many demands as troops are hurriedly deployed to crush rebellions in many cities and towns. Still, the Syrian military has not suffered the kind of high-level defections that beset Moammar Kadafi’s forces in Libya before his fall.

At a safe house in northern Lebanon , Mohammed, a young recruit who, like Arabi, is a native of the besieged city of Homs, says he’s ready to “defend his homeland,” no matter the costs. He says he and a comrade accompanying him are both Syrian army defectors. They seethe with rage about what they call unprovoked attacks on civilians in Homs, which has reported more casualties than any other Syrian city.

“Even if they plant mines, we’re ready to go in between them,” says Mohammed, who declines to give his last name for security reasons. “When we get orders to attack you’ll see our numbers.”

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Although many fear a civil war in Syria, Arabi expresses hope that large-scale defections will hasten the regime’s collapse from within before it reaches that extreme. Like other Free Syrian Army commanders, he calls for international help — a no-fly zone, or a buffer zone along Syria’s borders that would provide a haven for defecting troops and refugees.

But even if such aid is not forthcoming, he insists, the stream of volunteers will continue, degrading the regime’s strength. Victory, he says, is near.

“If one soldier defects in a barracks of 100 it makes the whole barracks shake,” says Arabi. “It will make them schizophrenic. The regime is falling. It has lost its legitimacy. It’s just a matter of time. Its days are numbered.”

Sandels is a special correspondent. Times staff writer Patrick J. McDonnell in Beirut contributed to this report.


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