Pro-democracy revolutions often start rolling only when individual soldiers refuse orders to shoot unarmed civilians. Those moments of conscience, in which a soldier’s reverence for life eclipses his duty to a regime, tipped the balance in Tunisia and Egypt. Their militaries defected en masse.
The uprising in Syria, which began in March, saw a turning point June 4 in the northwest town of Jisr al-Shughur. According to reports, the funeral of a man killed by a plainclothes officer turned into a protest near the headquarters of the military secret police. When some police started shooting, others refused to do so. The two camps ended up battling each other, killing dozens.
Alarmed by this mutiny, the government of President Bashar al-Assad sent troops last weekend to wipe out the town, forcing more than 7,000 refugees to flee to nearby Turkey.
Such a brutal response was meant to send a message of fear to would-be defectors and prevent that region from being controlled by opponents. But by killing even more civilians – in such a wholesale way – the regime may only drive more soldiers to defy their superiors.
In a prominent defection posted on YouTube by a Syrian dissident group, a soldier named Sgt. Ali Hassan Satouf from the town of Sahl al-Ghab explains his reasons for leaving the Army: “What is taking place right now is haram [forbidden]. They are killing my people, our brothers, whether they are Christian, Alawite, or Sunni.”
Syria’s top security leadership will be difficult to crack. It is dominated by the minority Alawi sect, which fears retribution if the majority Sunnis take power. Its intelligence units are trained to spy on military personnel and look for disloyalty.
Yet reports of soldiers refusing to shoot have become more common in Syria as the pro-democracy protests continue – despite a crackdown that has left an estimated 1,600 dead. The rank-and-file soldiers are largely Sunni. Their tolerance for mass casualties has lowered as they see demonstrators march for freedom. Many of the defecting soldiers are being hidden in the homes of protesters.
Under the United Nations’ Basic Principles, governments cannot use abusive or arbitrary force, and security personnel have a right to ignore such unlawful commands. In dictatorial countries like Syria, honoring such principles isn’t easy, given a soldier’s oath to obey a command structure. But when faced with the possibility of killing innocents, a higher morality often kicks in.
And as is often the case, that mental revolution is the catalyst for a political one.