Syrian defector reveals how Assad is struggling to halt mass exodus
AS ONE of the Sunni Muslim soldiers who form the bulk of the Syrian army, Lieutenant Adnan Suleibi kept being pushed to the front of units fighting in the rebel stronghold of Homs.
Alawite personnel – members of the same minority Muslim sect as president Bashar al-Assad – remained in the rear. Alawites control the military through their domination of the officer corps and, crucially, direct the Soviet-style intelligence and secret police apparatus entrusted with preventing dissent.
“The Sunnis are cannon fodder and morale has been sapped. There are 75 men left in my brigade out of 250. The rest were killed, injured or deserted,” said Lt Suleibi, a slim 23-year-old in jeans and striped T-shirt.
“As soon as the chance came, I made a run for it,” he said after crossing to the safety of Turkey last week with a comrade.
They are among a new wave of Sunni defectors who have abandoned the military as the army, short of infantry, relies more on heavy artillery to batter Sunni towns.
The opposition says at least 17,000 people have been killed in a 16-month uprising against Mr Assad, who says he is defending his country against foreign-backed terrorists.
Regime loyalists in the military use classic Soviet techniques to keep the men on the front-line from running away, including death threats.
“In Homs I was afraid more of the military intelligence behind me that of the rebels in front,” Lt Suleibi said. “The military has become a murder and theft machine. The priority of the officers is for us to bring them big-screen televisions from the homes we enter. I would have defected earlier if not for concern for my parents’ safety.”
Lt Suleibi, who is from the coastal province of Latakia, served inland in Homs, part of a long-standing Syrian army policy of never using troops in their home regions.
After co-ordinating through Facebook using code with comrades who had defected, he flitted through the olive groves and vineyards of northern Idlib province and made a dash across barren land to Turkey.
Syrian military aircraft drop fliers near the border carrying barely veiled threats to defectors on the last stage of their escape, telling them that loved ones left behind will suffer.
“This is your last chance for you to save yourself. You are helpless in front of the Syrian Arab Army,” says one. “Go back to your folks and to the people you love, and do not become fuel for the hatred of others.”
Thousands of soldiers have been killed or imprisoned because they tried to flee and failed, or were suspected of planning to do so. Around 2,500 officers and lesser ranks are imprisoned in the notorious Seidnaya jail north of Damascus, which has reportedly been emptied of political prisoners to make way for “deserters”.
A Syrian army pullback in the last two weeks from parts of rural Idlib and Aleppo bordering Turkey’s Hatay province, following Turkish army reinforcement on part of the frontier, has given rebels room to operate.
Opposition campaigners say it is difficult to know exactly how many soldiers have defected or the total number of rebels fighting back against Mr Assad’s crackdown. They estimate tens of thousands out of the 300,000-strong army have deserted.
Syria’s military fell under Alawite sway in the early 1960s, when Alawite officers took control of the best armed divisions and of intelligence units.
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