Fresh from the inside, Syrian Army defectors say rebels have an edge

Former Syrian Army soldiers now fighting with the rebels say government troops are well armed but demoralized, and that soldiers are increasingly conflicted about fighting for the regime.

Muhammed Muheisen/AP
Syrian rebel fighters raise their weapons as they head to fight government forces in Suran, on the outskirts of Aleppo, Syria, Monday, Sept. 10.

In the months before Mohammad Qadri defected from the Syrian Army to the rebels, he got news from his family that a government jet had bombed his house.

None of his family members had been injured, but he says no one could understand why the Army would destroy the home of a family with a son fighting on the side of the government.

Now, Mr. Qadri is one of many newly turned government soldiers painting a picture of a well-supplied but demoralized military searching for a reason to continue fighting, 18 months into the Syrian uprising.

“Many soldiers in [President Bashar al-Assad’s] Army are very scared because they can’t escape. They know it is not right to stay, but snipers will shoot them if they try to leave,” says Qadri, who is now fighting with the rebels' Free Syrian Army (FSA) in Aleppo. “I am very sad to fight them because I know many are forced to fight, but I know they would shoot me if they had to so I will be the first to shoot.”

With memories of their internal struggle while fighting for Mr. Assad still vivid, the newly defected say that they’re confident the moral questions many soldiers on the government's side are inevitably asking themselves give the FSA a definitive edge.

“I was in the Assad Army. I know what it's like. They are tired and scared. There is no confidence inside the Assad Army,” says Capt. Abu Azam, who defected two months ago and now commands troops in Aleppo. “If the soldiers in Assad’s Army have a chance to leave, they will.”

The FSA remains largely outgunned and often struggles to find enough weapons and ammunition to arm its fighters. Additionally, it has nothing to effectively combat the government’s Air Force and struggles to rebuff government tanks.

But despite the military disadvantage, FSA officials say they are making slow but steady progress in the key battleground city of Aleppo. Although the outcome is far from clear, officials say that opposition forces now control anywhere from half to nearly three-quarters of the city.

Recent defectors say that for many government troops, it is often difficult to get a clear idea of how much progress their Army is or isn't making. They have limited access to information from outside state television and other official government reports, and the government still terms those who’ve joined the opposition as “terrorists” who are trying to destroy the country.

“Before I left the Army, I thought the FSA was like a criminal gang; but when my friends started to leave and called me and told me what was happening, I decided I should leave,” says Mustafa Bakah, who defected two weeks ago and is now fighting with the FSA in Aleppo.

Mr. Bakah says he also began questioning his involvement with the Syrian military after being tasked with violently ending peaceful demonstrations by unarmed protesters.

FSA fighters add that for foot soldiers in the Syrian Army, victory isn’t a necessity in the same sense it is for the FSA. Opposing the Syrian government is an all-or-nothing commitment for the rebels, and those who’ve turned their guns against the regime have few, if any, options between victory or death.

“All the people who are fighting don’t have a salary. They left their homes. They have no option but to keep fighting. We are confident we will win,” says Abu Mohammad, who commands FSA forces in Aleppo.

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