Syrian army ‘cracking’ amid crackdown

Testimonies from defected soldiers give a dramatic insight into the split apparently emerging in the security forces.

Syrian military
Satouf, a non-conscripted officer,  says he defected after being ordered to fire at civilians outside Baniyas [Avaaz]

The escalating military offensive in northwest Syria began after what corroborating accounts said was a shoot-out between members of the military secret police in Jisr al-Shughur, some of whom refused to open fire on unarmed protesters.

A growing number of first-hand testimonies from defected soldiers give a rare but dramatic insight into the cracks apparently emerging in Syria’s security forces as the unrelenting assault on unarmed protesters continues.

Speaking to Al Jazeera from Turkey, having crossed the border on Friday night, an activist based in Jisr al-Shughur and trusted by experienced local reporters described how a funeral on June 4 for a man shot dead by plain-clothes security a day earlier grew into a large anti-government protest.

“As the demonstration passed the headquarters of the military secret police they opened fire right away and killed eight people,” the activist, who was among the crowd, said. “But some of the secret police refused to open fire and there were clashes between them. It was complete chaos.”  

The following day the activist and others went back to the military police building having heard explosions coming from the area the evening before. They found dozens of bodies, including that of the military police chief, identified by his ID card.

All foreign media is banned from reporting in Syria so it is impossible to verify the account firsthand, though it tallies with other testimonies from residents of the area that clashes between security forces had taken place.

Since then, President Bashar al-Assad has poured dozens of tanks and thousands of troops into northwest Syria, with the military, thought to be led by Assad’s brother Maher, vowing to “restore security” after it said 120 security men were killed in Jisr al-Shughur by “armed gangs.”

However, state-run Syria TV admitted that gunmen “in military uniform” were responsible for the killing of the 120 security personnel, with SANA, the official news agency, claiming the assailants had stolen the uniforms and that residents were now pleading for the army to intervene.  

“It’s the regime using violence”

Eyewitness accounts painted a very different picture.

“It’s tragic. They have burned down all the crops and the villagers are fleeing,” said a resident of Jisr al-Shughur who fled on Friday with four people injured by the military assault, heading to the Turkish border. He said he had witnessed the army opening fire on fleeing villagers with machine guns.

Turkish officials said more than 4,000 Syrians have now crossed into Turkey, whose prime minister, Recep Tayyip Erdogan, said President Assad, whom he once described as a “brother,” had acted with “savagery” against his own people. 

“All the accusations of residents sheltering gangs are false,” a Jisr al-Shughur resident said. “And we never asked the army for help or to enter our town. It is them firing on us.”

There were no confirmed casualty figures among Jisr al-Shaghur’s 50,000 residents, the majority of whom fled before the assault.

Residents also reported attacks on Al Serminiyye, a village 5km south of Jisr al-Shughur and on Ariha, 30km to the east. In Binnish, following a large anti-government demonstration, state TV said the town was harbouring 100 armed men.

“We haven’t witnessed anything like this,” an activist in Binnish said. “We fear they will use this as an excuse to attack Binnish like they did Jisr al-Shughur.”

In the early 1980s, former President Hafez al-Assad, Bashar’s father, ordered a military assault on Jisr al-Shughur in order to crush a revolt in northwest Syria by the Muslim Brotherhood. In Hama, 50km south, Syrian troops massacred between 10,000 and 30,000 people.

‘Mission to protect, not kill’

The ongoing military offensive in Jisr al-Shughur, following assaults on Deraa, Latakia, Baniyas, Homs and Tal Khalakh, appeared to be exacerbating tensions in the army, made up of mostly Sunni conscripts commanded by an officer corps drawn mainly from the minority Alawite sect, to which President Assad and most ruling elites belong.

On Saturday, news broke that a lieutenant colonel had defected with a number of his troops and joined residents of Jisr al-Shughur, according to an activist who spoke to Al Jazeera, an account corroborate by reporting from the Local Coordination Committees of Syria (LCC).

The activist said the lieutenant colonel defected during an operation in Bdama village, 10km west of Jisr al-Shughur, taking 150 armed troops with him to support the besieged town.

In a video published on June 10, a man claiming to be officer in the 11th Battalion announced his defection from the army, saying he and other soldiers had joined the uprising after being unable to continue killing unarmed protesters, particularly what he called the “massacre” in Jisr al-Shughur on June 4.

“Our current aim is the protection of the protesters who are asking for freedom and democracy,” said the man, giving his name as officer Hussein Harmoush. He is believed to have crossed the border into Turkey.

Harmoush called on soldiers to “protect civilians and property as well as the government buildings from the criminal elements led by Bashar al-Assad and his regime.”

‘Only peaceful demonstrations’

 For defector Ali Hassan Satouf, the breaking point came during last month’s military assault on the port city of Baniyas.  

Unlike most Syrian soldiers, Satouf joined the army voluntarily. As a non-conscripted sergeant major Satouf’s loyalty to the defence of his country ran deep, a belief that he was protecting Syria from its enemies abroad, primarily Israel.

“In response to the stone throwing, we were ordered to open fire. […] And we had a massacre. Four women were killed.”

Ali Hassan Satouf,
defected officer

So when the young man from the northwest received orders to deploy to Baniyas to battle “terrorist armed groups coming from outside Syria, terrifying people” he did not hesitate to do his duty.

Until he realised he had been lied to.

“When we went to Baniyas we didn’t find any terrorist groups. We found only peaceful demonstrations,” he said in a video recorded on June 6. “Some of the young men had bare chests. And all the chants were for freedom and reform.”

Before giving his account, Satouf shows the camera his military ID and number, looking every bit the professional soldier: Well built, confident, steely eyed.

The video was shot by Syrian activists sheltering Satouf and passed to international rights group Avaaz, which vouches for its veracity.

Satouf describes how, after finding only peaceful protesters in Baniyas, he and his men were ordered to attack a nearby village, Qalaat al-Marqab, where he was told some 6,000 “armed fighters with sophisticated weapons” had gathered.

“But we didn’t find any fighters, nor armed people, nor any weapons at all. We only found employees of the Public Institution for Antiquities, and the soldiers beat the employees.”

‘Killing our people’

In neighbouring Marqab, Satouf describes how soldiers broke into homes and stole private property before arresting dozens of men, prompting women from the village to pelt the military convoy with stones.

“In response to the stone throwing, we were ordered to open fire. […] And we had a massacre. Four women were killed.”

The troops were ordered back into Baniyas to face more “armed gangs”, but by then Satouf’s mind was made up. 

“I have defected the army,” Satouf said in the video. “What is taking place right now is haram [forbidden] They are killing my people, our brothers, whether they are Christian, Alawite or Sunni. We are in the army to defend them against the Israeli enemy. It’s not the job of the army to kill our people, our families.”

His words were echoed in testimony from Waleed Qashami, whose military ID shows him to be a member of Syria’s Republican Guard, an elite division assigned to the protection of the capital and under the command of Maher al-Assad, the president’s brother, who also commands the Fourth Division.

Speaking to Amnesty International by phone from the country where he is now taking refuge, the 21-year-old said he was among 250 soldiers sent to quell a protest in Harasta, a suburb of Damascus, on April 23.

Qashami’s officer told him he was there to confront a “violent gang” but what he found were around 2,000 unarmed protesters, including children and women. Again, the men went bare-chested to show that they carried no weapons.

“We were surprised that the secret police and security opened fire with live ammunition on the demonstrators without any reason, on women and children,” Qashami said in video testimony.

“We in the Republican Guard took an oath to protect the country, its citizens and leader, not to betray the country […] We saw no armed gang. We didn’t even see anyone carrying a knife.”

On Saturday the military broadened its offensive in the northwest, using attack helicopters and tanks to pound Jisr al-Shughur and nearby Maarat al-Numan, where activists said at least 23 people were killed by tank shells. An activist in Maarat al-Numan said he witnessed helicopters attack the local state security branch.

I think this is going to be used to accuse protesters of burning down state security. But they are peaceful protesters not using violence. It’s the regime using violence against the protesters.”

Source: Al Jazeera