|Snipers have been deployed to cities across Syria in an effort to silence protest [REUTERS]|
In the dead of night in southern Syria, on a road near the town of Izra’, a truck driver is flagged down by a group of men.
It’s May 25 and the men, clearly agitated, explain why they need a lift urgently: The group of 21 are soldiers defecting from the army’s Division 47 after a month deployed in Deraa, the cradle of the Syrian uprising.
This is the story of how one of those men, a sniper, took the decision to flee the bloodshed and the orders to kill protesters he said came to him directly from President Bashar al-Assad’s brother Maher.
“Being told by officers to kill peaceful and unarmed civilians is the most brutal thing that ever happened to me,” said the defected former sniper, a member of the special forces of the army’s Division 47, which he said was deployed from Damascus to Izra’, 30km north-east of Deraa, on April 25.
Al Jazeera spoke twice to the soldier by phone from his exile in neighbouring Turkey and has corroborated his testimony with that gathered by Insan, a leading Syrian human rights organisation and Avaaz, the global rights organisation.
At the request of the soldier, Al Jazeera agreed not to reveal his name, military ID, hometown and other personal details, though the organisation has seen them, as it has the names of the sniper’s commanding officers.
“The decision to desert the army was a life and death decision for me,” he said. “It was impossible for me to continue watching people dropping dead in front of my eyes every day – even if they were not killed by me.”
The sniper told Al Jazeera that he and fellow soldiers were told by their commanding officers that they were being deployed to Deraa in order to protect civilians there from “terrorist” gangs.
“We were told that there were demonstrations in Deraa and we had to protect the demonstrators from terrorists and foreign elements who were threatening them,” he said.
“The week before we arrived in Deraa our officers gave us strict orders to spend every evening from 8pm to 10pm watching Al Dunya TV. They said we would hear about the conspiracy against Syria,” he said.
Al Dunya TV is Syria’s only private satellite channel and is owned by President’s Assad’s first cousin and the country’s wealthiest businessman, Rami Makhlouf. On June 5 the station hosted the pro-regime analyst Dr Taleb Ibrahim, who called on Syrians to kill protesters.
“We all believed what we saw on Dunya TV and we were eager to go and kill those people, especially after watching the reports from Deraa,” said the sniper.
“It was propaganda showing gangsters and Salafi opening fire on the army, the secret police and civilians and we were told that they were being paid by foreign forces to kill civilians.”
The sniper said his barracks in Izra’ were in a remote location and the soldiers were kept isolated from the outside world.
“We had orders not to talk to civilians. We had no access to TV, newspapers, radio or the internet. Our only source of news was our officers. During the morning meetings they would repeat the conspiracies against Syria, such as people being planted by foreign forces among protesters to kill civilians and soldiers. They would tell us about Bashar’s achievements and the good things he has done for country.
“They would say: ‘Of course we will not accept protesters calling for the toppling of our beloved President Bashar al-Assad. Those people chanting like this are hired by foreign forces and we should get rid of them.'”
Rare testimonies from Syrian soldiers explaining why they defected from the army over the killing of unarmed protesters [SkyeBoat Films]
Shoot to kill
Four times each week the men would drive from their base in Izra’, south into Deraa, with orders to crack down on the protesters. The 47th Division was composed of around 100 men, he said, including six snipers who were told to take to rooftops of tall buildings around key protest areas of the city.
Other divisions joined the 47th, he said, including the Fourth Division – under the command of Maher al-Assad, who the sniper said was in overall command of the military assault in Deraa.
“All the divisions in Izra’ and Deraa were under the direct leadership of Maher al-Assad. All officers took orders directly from him. I know this because I often overheard officers asking each other if they had received this or that order from Maher and asking each other what he said about this or that.”
The sniper said that, during the early days of the deployment, while the regular soldiers were told to shoot in the air to break up protests, the snipers were given orders to shoot to kill.
“We were ordered to aim for the head or heart from the beginning. We were not given specific numbers but told to kill as many as possible as long as there were protests,” he said.
However, what met the sniper on his first mission to Deraa was in stark contrast to what he had been told to expect.
“It took us a couple of days to understand that the people we had been told were terrorists were just normal citizens protesting peacefully – and we discovered that it was our officers that were the criminals,” he said. “When I got there I didn’t see anything except peaceful protesters. So I decided I would not shoot at them.”
However, the sniper was being closely monitored by officers who deployed with the soldiers to make sure they followed orders.
“I managed to shoot randomly, not targeting people. It looked like I was doing my job and the officers could, of course, not know what I was aiming at, so I just wouldn’t find the target. But we were continuously given orders to shoot to kill.”
The sniper said the officer never suspected anything as other soldiers would be hitting the protesters.
“It wasn’t only me. There were a number of other soldiers who secretly refused to open fire on people.”
The sniper said the only armed civilians he had seen were those armed by the military itself.
“I never witnessed or heard about civilians having guns, using them or hiding them in Deraa,” he said. “But I saw armed civilian men in the army, armed by the army officers. We used to call them ‘thugs’ and I saw them taking orders before they opened fire on protesters.”
From his vantage point on the rooftops of Deraa, the sniper was shocked to see the thugs not only shooting and killing civilians, but also turning their guns on the regular soldiers.
“I saw some of the thugs open fire on soldiers. It seemed it was in order to confirm the story told to us by officers and what was shown on Dunya TV: That armed gangs were fighting the army. In fact, Dunya TV would report on these incidences.”
The consequences of not following orders were dire. The sniper described how a soldier he knew as Wael had refused to shoot at unarmed protesters, disobeying a direct order.
“He had an argument with his officer saying that he would not point his gun at unarmed people,” the sniper said.
“During the night something happened. The next morning we were told that Wael had been killed by terrorists who had snuck inside the barracks. It was strange because the barracks are closely guarded and we had never heard about a terrorist attack on barracks before. We all knew he had been killed by our commanders.”
By mid May, the sniper has seen enough. He began to discuss the possibility of defecting with a group of soldiers he discovered were also from his home region of north-east Syria.
“In the military the soldiers given orders to kill are never from the region the orders are given in,” he said.
“We discovered we all came from roughly the same area and since they used to send us together on missions in Deraa we started to trust each other and to talk to each other about the situation. And then we began to discuss defecting.”
But the soldiers’ barracks at Izra’ was under the close scrutiny of the secret police.
“Whenever they (secret police) would come and join our group, when we sat around talking after the missions in Deraa, we would always change the subject or answer them with what they wanted to hear,” he said.
There had already been defections from the Deraa deployment, said the sniper, even before he began discussing it with others.
“I heard about many soldiers who defected from Deraa. Maybe around 100 to 150. Usually soldiers would defect during their missions in Deraa city. They would just drop their weapons and run towards the protesters. Some also fled the barracks at night.”
The defected soldiers were all privates, not officers, he said.
Officers slept in separate barracks and got the best food. By contrast, the sniper said, the regular soldiers would receive only bread and water – and sometimes not even that. One time the water had worms in it, he said.
With no end in sight to the killing, the sniper agreed with 20 other soldiers that the time had come to flee.
At 10pm on the night of May 25 the men handed in their weapons as usual and retired to their beds. But after lights out the men gathered at an agreed location and sneaked out of the barracks onto the road.
A small group, including the sniper, went ahead to flag down a vehicle. The first to pass was a truck, driven by an old man. At first reluctant to pick up his dangerous cargo, the old man relented after half an hour of tense negotiations, driving the men the 100km north to Damascus, where the group split up.
A few days later the defected sniper was in Turkey, where several other defected soldiers, including from the assault on Jisr al-Shughour, have sought refuge.
“I feel better now with my friends in exile, but not as good as I would if I was with my own family,” he said.
“I call them every day to see if they are ok. No one has asked for me yet but I am so afraid for my family because of what I did. But it was the only decision I could take.”
With reporters in Syria