A little more than a week ago, Ahmad Dahar was a member of the embattled Syrian government’s state security service in Damascus. Although he was officially a guard, he says he was not allowed to carry a weapon or go on any missions because he is a Sunni Muslim while the country's core leaders are from the minority Alawite sect of Islam.
“They’re afraid the Sunnis will try to kill the regime loyalists,” says Mr. Dahar. “They also worry that these people will defect.”
In the early days of the now 20-month conflict that has claimed more than 40,000 lives, the newly defected Dahar says non-Alawite soldiers like himself were taken on missions, but frequently defected to the opposition as soon as they escaped the gaze of their commanders. When officers caught on, they placed such soldiers under close supervision, even taking away their weapons.
After months of brutal fighting, the conflict appears stalemated in many areas, without any side making significant progress. There is mounting speculation that the Army of President Bashar al-Assad is struggling to advance because it lacks enough loyal ground troops to launch a major assault without suffering mass defections. While daily clashes continue, much of the violence now taking place in Aleppo is the result of long-range weapons, such as artillery, airplanes, tanks, and snipers that inflict damage while minimizing the risk of contact and defection.
Defectors say Army struggling
A number of those soldiers who have left the Assad Army in recent weeks and months paint a picture of a military struggling to maintain the loyalty of anyone who has not been a longtime beneficiary of patronage from the Assad regime.
“When the revolution started they didn’t have this idea that so many soldiers might defect,” says Abu Obaida, an Free Syrian Army (FSA) rebel fighter in Aleppo who defected about five months ago. “They sent many soldiers to their hometowns. They told them that they would fight terrorists, and when they arrived they saw their friends and family.”
Policemen who now often fight alongside the Army are among those who have had the easiest time defecting because they were not originally forced to live on military bases. Before the fighting started in Aleppo this summer, Abu Omar al-Homsi was among 70 police officers in the Bustan al-Basha neighborhood of Aleppo.
When he defected about four months ago, after months of trying unsuccessfully, he became one of only three others from his unit to join the opposition. Today he says there are only 11 left on the police force from his old unit. The rest have defected.
“The remaining police have been moved to a military base where they are on lockdown,” he says. He still speaks with some of them by phone and says that defection is not an option for his colleagues who remained unless the FSA liberates their base.
Intimate front lines
In many areas of Aleppo, the front lines are so close that FSA fighters and government forces can speak each other through walls or by shouting. In a few areas, FSA soldiers say that government troops have told them they want to defect but the ways out are guarded by snipers who are known to shoot anyone caught trying to escape.
“All of the soldiers in the Assad Army are really broken and their souls are crushed. Even when they’re fighting, they’re not fighting as good as they can. Some have families who are calling them and asking them to defect,” says Bassam Humidy, who defected to the FSA six months ago and is now recovering after being shot in the leg during battle.
Prior to defecting, Mr. Humidy served with a special forces unit in Homs. He says that those deemed most likely to defect were kept inside the city to man checkpoints in areas firmly under regime control where no fighting was taking place.
For the most part, however, those still fighting on the front lines of Aleppo for the Syrian government tend to be hardened loyalists more likely to trade insults than talk of defection, say most FSA fighters. Those most likely to defect remain far behind the front lines.
Despite the Assad regime's reported struggle to manage its defection concerns, opposition forces have struggled to capitalize on it, largely due to weapons shortages. The group lacks the equipment and supplies required to launch a major ground offensive and break the stalemate.
“There is not enough weapons and bullets. If we had enough weapons we could finish the war in just two weeks,” says Mahmoud Nadoum, who commands an FSA unit in Aleppo. With a bit of hyperbole to emphasize the problem, he adds, “There is not enough bullets for our AK-47s. We punish a soldier if he's not killing a soldier every time he shoots."