With months behind them in the public uprising in Syria, a small but growing movement of defectors within the army has arisen. Organized under the banner of The Free Officers of Syria, they are not content with just refusing to shoot at unarmed demonstrators; they take action to defend them.
On Saturday, the movement announced that dozens of Syrian officers had defected in the Damascus suburb of Harasta.
In a videotaped statement posted on YouTube on Aug. 3, Capt. Qais Qatana of the southern section, outlined the movement’s purpose, which is to support the peaceful revolution, the unity of the army, to help other officers and soldiers defect, and to protect the Syrian people.
In other YouTube videos, many soldiers and officers show their IDs while declaring their defections. Some give testimonies, like Walid al-Qashami, who earlier this year detailed his experience of being ordered to shoot at unarmed demonstrators in Harasta.
Al-Qashami was later interviewed by Amnesty International saying how shocked he was to see security forces firing on unarmed people who were chanting ”Silmieh, Silmieh” (”Peaceful, Peaceful”) and “Nafdiki Ya Dera’a” (Our lives in return for you, Dera’a).
“When I heard those slogans, I just could not shoot at them, especially as I am from Dera’a and they were risking their lives for my city,” al-Qashami said.
He and some other soldiers defected on the spot and were helped by demonstrators to escape.
Soldiers for peace
Syria is a country with universal conscription for males, and desertion is punishable by life imprisonment or even death.
The Free Officers movement has emphasized their defensive role and its commitment to the peaceful uprising. However, in defending demonstrators, they have also been directly fighting the al-Assad paramilitaries, called Shabiha, and the security forces.
In a video from Aug. 5, a representative of the movement states that they engaged ”security elements and Shabiha” who attacked unarmed demonstrators in Idlib on Aug. 4, killing 30 paramilitaries and injuring 15.
Although the Free Officers movement talks about “massive defections,” experts are not convinced that it will ultimately play a decisive role in bringing down the al-Assad regime.
Writing on his blog, Elliott Abrams of the Council on Foreign Relations said Tuesday that it is difficult to assess if the defections have indeed reached a significant size.
Gary C. Gambill, general editor of the Philadelphia-based Middle East Forum, said in a phone interview on Aug. 15 that although much of the rank and file in the army is Sunni, almost all of the higher officers are Alawites.
The Alawites are the minority group to which the current regime belongs. The al-Assad family has made sure to place loyal people in important posts within the country’s armed forces.”The Alawites will stick with the regime,” Gambill said.