x Abu Dhabi, UAEWednesday 26 July 2017

Thousands of troops desert from Syrian army

Army units refuse to fire on protesters as activist groups say opposition must remain peaceful; but lieutenant who defected fears unarmed groups 'will be killed like sheep.'

WADI KHALED, LEBANON // A new front has opened in the six-month revolt against the regime of President Bashar Al Assad: within the Syrian military itself.

Scores of officers and thousands of soldiers have defected in recent weeks, according to one former lieutenant, amid a mounting death toll and reports of brutality against protesters by government forces.

The rebel brigades do not yet appear to pose a substantive threat to the regime, but army defectors have been reported fighting with security forces this week in the town of Rastan, 180km north of Damascus.

Defectors managed to hold off a tank-backed assault using RPGs, booby traps and rifles, and activists say 40 people have been killed.

Reports say some soldiers who escaped from their units have gone into hiding, and others have joined nascent groups such as the Free Syrian Army, believed to comprise former military officers and soldiers attempting to mount an armed challenge to Mr Al Assad's rule.

Video footage posted online appears to show defecting soldiers dressed in military fatigues, some carrying weapons. In one piece of footage, a man who identifies himself as a former captain in the Syrian military holds up his army ID and announces his defection, pledging to "shake Assad's rule".

It is not clear how many soldiers have fled their posts. Some with sympathies for the uprising are believed to have deserted their units to protect civilians, others simply want to go home.

One former officer abandoned his unit after refusing to obey orders to shoot at protesters. The man left his post as an army lieutenant several weeks ago and has been on the run since, fearing for his safety and that of his family.

"At first I was preferring to stay in the army where I can save lives by preventing my soldiers from shooting people, rather than running away and hiding," he said.

His position changed when his commanders found out he had instructed soldiers under his command not to fire on civilians unless soldiers were attacked.

The former lieutenant knows of more than 100 officers who have deserted in recent weeks. He believes lower ranked soldiers have left in the thousands, some joining battalions connected to groups such as the Free Syrian Army.

While there have been numerous reports of organised ex-military forces being formed, the former officer said they were not yet a cohesive force, but separate brigades scattered around Syria.

"This revolution can't continue without armed groups," he said, "because people will be killed like sheep."

Nevertheless, the former officer believed the armed groups formed by former soldiers were separate from the broader opposition movement, which has remained largely peaceful.

Elias Hanna, a Lebanese analyst and retired general, said that so far the actions of brigades comprising former soldiers had not yet brought about a turning point in the crisis.

The forces appeared to lack central command and control, or a safe haven from which to operate, as well as foreign support, he said.

"They also aren't enough in number or important members of the army," Mr Hanna said. "It is not critical or dangerous enough yet to force the Syrian security apparatus to collapse, and the regime by default."

Anti-government activist groups such as the Local Coordination Committees have stressed the need for the opposition to remain peaceful and unarmed.

More than 2,700 Syrians, including 100 children, have been killed by military or security forces since the uprising began in March, according to the United Nations.

Some civilians who have managed to escape across the border into northern Lebanon say they were forced from their towns amid the escalating violence by the various branches of Syria's security apparatus, including the army, as well as pro-Assad militia, known as shabiha.

 

zconstantine@thenational.ae

* With additional reporting by Reuters