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Syrian soldiers warned daily of sectarian dangers, defectors say

MARAAT NUMAN, Syria — Each morning, after saluting the Syrian flag and before the warplanes take off, soldiers at army bases across Syria are given political orientation.

During the lectures, conscripts and career officers alike are repeatedly told that opposition forces are fueled by sectarian hatred and want to tear the country apart. The message — of a war waged by Sunni Muslims against Syria's Alawite and Shiite minorities — is well understood.

To Syrian soldiers, "It has essentially become sectarian; the Sunnis fight out of fear and the Alawites fight out of conviction," said Muhammad Zinedden, a Sunni conscript who defected in February from the 17th Engineering Regiment in Raqqa province.

Sectarian politics have long played a role in the Syrian government and military. The highest ranks in both are dominated by those among the Alawite sect, to which embattled President Bashar Assad belongs. Now sectarianism may guarantee that fighting will continue even if Assad falls, setting the stage for a civil war fought between militias, much like what happened in neighboring Lebanon.

As soldiers flee the army in droves, defectors say they are being replaced by Alawite and Shiite volunteer militiamen, and sometimes women, who are strongly convinced by the government's sectarian warnings.

"The current army can't last more than a few months, but there are shabiha [militiamen] who are volunteering," Zinedden said. "And they are fighting better than the army and they will extend the life of the army. For them this is a jihad."

The Syrian army fell from 220,000 troops to about half that strength last fall because of defections and battlefield losses, according to the International Institute for Strategic Studies' annual Military Balance assessment. Defections since then have further weakened the army.

The government can now depend on the loyalty of about 50,000 regular troops, including the mainly Alawite Special Forces, Republican Guard and elite 3rd and 4th divisions, according to the institute.

They are buttressed by the shabiha, who have violently cracked down on dissent since the beginning of the Syrian uprising in 2011 and have been accused of committing some of the most brutal acts of the war. Also growing in strength are "popular committees," made up of minorities who have taken up arms to protect their districts from opposition fighters, according to a recent report from the Institute for the Study of War, a Washington, D.C.-based think tank.

The pro-Assad militias and the popular committees coordinate with and receive direct support from the Assad government, as well as Shiite Iran and the Lebanese-based Shiite militia group Hezbollah, according to the report "The Assad regime: from counterinsurgency to civil war."

Motivated by a fear of retribution from a mostly Sunni opposition, soldiers and militiamen have formed an ultra-nationalist and mostly Alawite force with the common goal of survival.

"Whether or not the regime falls, the country will split into rival cantons governed by militias," Joseph Holliday, author of the report, wrote in an email. "The scale of population displacement ... means that the country may have been heterogeneous in the past, but everyone has clustered around co-religious/sectarian groups over the past year."

Even within the military, divisions are becoming more pronounced. Air force Col. Yousef Al-Assad, a MIG-23 pilot who defected in autumn from the Dumair military airport in the suburbs of Damascus, flew no missions during the current conflict. As a Sunni, he was banned from going near the planes. Only pilots from certain minority sects were allowed to fly, he said.

"They would tell us clearly, 'You Sunnis are not trusted.'" he said. "And we were not included in many of the operations meetings."

In the past, distinguishing between sects was subtle, he said. Now it has become overt in an effort to sow hostility and distrust between Syrians, he said.

But the situation is not entirely black and white. Defectors tell of Sunnis willing to fight for the government and Alawites who want to defect but fear what fate might await them among an opposition that increasingly looks at all Alawites and Shiites as loyalist supporters.

Ali Muhammad Dibo, a Sunni from Qamishli, tried to defect in early March from the Hamidia military base, but was caught and imprisoned for more than a week. He and his fellow deserters got a second chance when the three Alawite officers guarding them defected themselves.

"Some Alawites are afraid of defecting because they know that if they leave they will be imprisoned and tried," he said. "They feel stuck. They are afraid of what sects might be outside the base and that there might be foreign fighters who will kill them."

His friend Qadeeb Al-Ban said, "The Alawite knows he's dead either way; he knows if he defects the Free Syrian Army will kill him, so he stays and fights."

The opposition says that to counteract defections, the government is forcing young men of military service age to join the army. These men are grabbed at checkpoints that dot government-controlled areas. State media have denied such allegations and insist the military is at its "highest levels of readiness and capability."

Most conscripts who have finished their required service term have yet to be discharged. Keeping them within the army bases prevents some of them from joining opposition forces, according to defectors.

Despite personnel losses, the military has remained strong. Defectors report that depleted government arsenals, mostly of old Soviet-era weapons, are replenished by shipments from Iran and Hezbollah. These allies are also said to be sending fighters.

Last month, the head of Hezbollah said his group would not allow Assad's government to be overthrown and acknowledged that some of its fighters had been killed in Syria.

"The Free Syrian Army shoots one bullet and the regime army shoots a thousand bullets; they don't care, there is plenty," defector Zinedden said.

Even in bases besieged by rebel fighters, the arsenals remain robust.

"There is no shortage of ammunition or weapons; it is like a military warehouse," said Ahmad Qadeeb Alban, a Sunni of Kurdish heritage who defected in March from the Syrian army's Hamidia base, which overlooks a strategic highway in Idlib province. "They have enough for another two years."

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