A defector's tale: How a Syrian soldier turned rebel
A young defector's story highlights the weakness of the Assad regime, including military officers taking rebel bribes and sectarian divisions pitting Syrian against Syrian.
Wadi Khaled, Lebanon
Khaled, a young fighter with the rebel Free Syrian Army (FSA), keeps a tight grip on his cellphone these days. The serious-looking 20-something with slicked back dark hair and a thin trace of a beard is awaiting a call that will take him from the relative comfort of a safe house in north Lebanon across a border laced with land mines and patrolled by Syrian troops to the dangers and rigors of combat inside Syria.Skip to next paragraph
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“I am just waiting for the call and then I will leave immediately. I can’t wait to get back into action again,” he says.
Khaled is a sniper in the Tel Kalakh Martyrs’ Brigade, one of several units comprising the rebel Syrian Army. Tel Kalakh lies just north of the border with Lebanon and 26 miles west of Homs, the current focal point of the uprising against the regime of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad.
Khaled has been recuperating in a safe house in Lebanon for two months from injuries received last year when he was tortured in prison.
His experiences over the past year are typical of thousands of other young predominantly Sunni army conscripts who have balked at the regime’s harsh crackdown against opposition protesters and deserted to join the FSA. His story highlights the regime's weakness from within, including military officers taking rebel bribes and sectarian divisions turning Syrian against Syrian.
Khaled previously served with an air defense regiment and was deployed near Damascus. He was on leave in Tel Kalakh in March last year when anti-regime protests broke out in the south, then quickly spread to the west including Tel Kalakh, a mainly Sunni-populated town of some 20,000 residents.
From soldier to protester
Khaled participated in the initial street protests in Tel Kalakh before returning to his unit near Damascus. His reason for protesting: “Although I was a soldier, the killings [of protesters] were too much for me."
On his return, Khaled was arrested and accused of stealing weapons from an armory.
“It was an excuse. They had found out I had taken part in the demonstrations,” he says.
Khaled says he was held in solitary confinement and severely beaten and tortured with electrodes placed on either side of his neck. There was no way to independently confirm his story, though he showed signs of injury.
He spent four months in prison before being released and sent to a remote hardship post in northeast Syria. Food was scarce, living conditions miserable, and he was given no duties. “It was like another prison,” Khaled says.
A well-placed bribe
After three months, he was able to bribe two officers to grant him an eight-day leave. Once home, he joined the Free Syrian Army immediately.
At the time, Tel Kalakh was under the control of the Syrian Army and intelligence services, augmented by Shabiha militiamen drawn mainly from the Alawite community, an offshoot of Shiite Islam which forms the backbone of the Assad regime.
Khaled became a sniper and soon found himself in action against the Syrian Army.
“We fought many fierce battles with the army,” he says. “On one occasion we surrounded an army unit and called upon them to surrender. Some of them did and they came over to us. Then the army sent a BTR [armored personnel carrier] to rescue the remaining soldiers, but we hit it with an RPG [rocket-propelled grenade] and it exploded into flames.”
Hiding in homes
When the regular army was in control of the town, the FSA fighters disappeared into the countryside, either sleeping rough or being hosted by sympathizers.
“Wherever we go, people help us. They take us into their houses in twos or threes and in this way 200 fighters can disappear,” he says.
Today, the FSA has taken control of part of Tel Kalakh, but skirmishes are frequent.