The Syrian military defectors in Turkey are kept in a special high security refugee camp near the border. Lt. Col. Hussein Harmoush, one of the highest ranking defectors to date, snuck away from a group of soldiers out shopping and sat in my car. He told me about getting pulled into the chaos in Syria. As the protests became more frequent, he said the military began an ideological campaign to condition soldiers to attack unarmed protestors.
“They told the soldiers that the demonstrators are Salafists, radical Islamists, that they have weapons and that they work with Israel and America against Syria,” Harmoush said.
Harmoush said in many instances special security forces formed a second line behind soldiers, to make sure they shot at protestors. If they dont, he said, they were shot themselves. He claimed 90 percent of soldiers killed in protests had gunshot wounds in their backs. Harmoush said that ideological control over the military has become complete. After fleeing to Turkey, Harmoush decided to lead a group of disaffected officers against the regime of President Bashar al-Assad. But since our interview, Harmoush disappeared.
And then he turned up in Damascus, where he mysteriously recanted all his criticisms of the regime on Syrian state television. Activists say he was a bargaining chip in a prisoner swap between Syria and Turkey. Turkish officials deny he was handed over and insist he returned voluntarily. The case highlights the murkiness of events in Syria. I talked to another officer in my car, Lieutenant Mazen Alzayn.
“I left after I saw two parts of the army starting to fight against each other,” Alzayn said. “After what I saw in my city of Jisr al-Shughour, I understood that we were no longer talking about the security of the country but about the security of my family.”
Alzayn says his family was threatened by security forces simply because their city was the site of a huge protest. He says the protest turned into a battle between Assad loyalists and soldiers who refused to shoot civilians. Alzayn explains that many soldiers are simply young draftees and not considered ideologically “dependable” by the regime. The government said the casualties were victims of “unknown groups” of criminals and terrorists. Despite the deepening chaos, he says the military is still supporting the security forces and the Shabiha, a militia loyal to Assad.
“Nothing has changed,” Alzayn said. “The army still has the same role: to pacify an area, to start shooting the big guns until the Shabiha and the security forces come and establish control. The security forces fight from behind the army lines and the army is shooting at the people.”
Other officers were harder to meet in person. I talked to Mohammad Suleyman Ajina, a sergeant in military intelligence, on a cell phone from inside the refugee camp. He told me about the first time he was ordered to shoot at unarmed protestors.
“I was in a demonstration which started in Dara,” Ajina said. “There were orders to fire at will. Some soldiers fired in the air, others shot directly at the demonstrations. After the protest, the soldiers were talking proudly about how many demonstrators they killed on this day and how many on that day. On that day I saw 13 people killed in front of me.”
Ajina handed the phone to a comrade from his unit. Emad Al-Sattouf says every Syrian soldier is clear-headed about what it means if he refuses orders to shoot unarmed demonstrators.
“They will kill him and tell the others that the ‘unknown groups’ killed him,” Al-Sattouf said.
For months, human rights groups and world leaders have been turning up the pressure on the Assad regime to refrain from violence. But it’s still unclear what effect the pressure is having, if any, on developments inside Syria.