Syrian Military Splitting

Increasing number of soldiers turning on Bashar Assad.

At least 5,000 Syrians have fled to Turkey as the Assad regime is crushing Jisr al-Shughour after soldiers and police officers refused to fire on civilians. More and more stories are coming out of soldiers defecting and security personnel being executed for disobeying orders. These fissures in the military bring the threat to the Assad regime to a new height.

The U.S. is now defining the situation in Syria as a “humanitarian crisis” as the death toll approaches 1,500. The regime refuses to allow the International Committee for the Red Cross access, and Assad is ignoring phone calls from the U.N. Secretary-General. The Turkish government has turned on Assad, condemning the “atrocity,” and is preparing to host 10,000 refugees. The Turkish military is considering measures to “control and manage” the situation near Jisr al-Shughour, which is only 12 miles away from the border. Turkey may declare a buffer zone that could potentially extend into Syria.

President Bashar Assad has deployed the Republican Guards under the command of his brother, Baher, to Jisr al-Shughour. This is the regime’s most reliable force as it consists of recruits from the Allawite minority that Assad belongs to. The city became the focal point of the conflict recently after the regime claimed that “armed gangs” murdered 120 members of the security forces there. The opposition says that the truth is that they were executed by the regime for refusing to kill protesters.

The regime began a brutal offensive against Jisr al-Shughour, even using helicopters to attack its population. A "scorched earth" strategy is being employed. The city is blockaded, people are being shot in the streets, houses are being demolished, and crops are being burned up. Only about one-tenth of the 50,000 people who lived there remain. On Saturday, an army captain and 15 of his soldiers defected. An activist also reported that a lieutenant-colonel and 150 of his men about 10 kilometers west of the city have switched sides to unite with the residents of Jisr al-Shughour. About 60 soldiers that defected stayed in Jisr al-Shughour as the city was taken over this weekend. One resident who fled to Turkey said that four tanks switched sides and he saw fighting between military forces.

Videotaped testimonies of soldiers who have abandoned the army and fled to Turkey are streaming out of the country. One officer named Ali Hassan Satouf said, “They are killing my people, whether they are Christian, Allawite or Sunni. We are in the army to defend them against the Israeli enemy. It’s not the job of the army to kill our people, our families.” An officer from the 11th Battalion, Hussein Harmoush, said that the last straw for him was the “massacre” in Jisr al-Shughour.

“I announce my split from the Syrian army and I am joining the Syrian youth alongside a number of the free Arab Syrian army. Our current aim is the protection of the protesters who are asking for freedom and democracy,” Harmoush said on tape. He called on members of the security services to protect civilians and property from destruction.

“You did not join the army to protect the Assad clan. If you are an honorable officer, remain honorable, and if you are not honorable, stand by the Assad clan,” said First Lieutenant Abd Al-Razzaq Muhammad Tlas from the 5th Division.

There are even defections from the Republican Guard. Waleem Qashami told Amnesty International that he decided to quit after he saw three children, a young man, and a young woman killed in Harasta near Damascus in April. He and five others then abandoned the military. “We in the Republican Guard took an oath to protect the country, its citizens and leader, not to betray the country…We saw no armed gang. We didn’t even see anyone carrying a knife,” he said.

The questionable loyalty of the military is why the Assad regime is importing members of the Iranian Revolutionary Guards and Hezbollah. Refugees in Turkey say that bearded soldiers that do not speak Arabic are involved in the attacks on Jisr al-Shughour. One farmer said that the combatants admitted they were Iranians. A soldier who escaped to Turkey confirmed that the Iranians and Hezbollah are helping the regime, and are executing those who don’t follow orders.

There have been reports of defections since the uprising began in Daraa. The chief of police of that city and some of his officers were fired by the regime, and video emerged of soldiers leading protesters. There were also clashes in Daraa between defected members of the 5th Division and Maher Assad’s 4th Division. Between 60 and 70 soldiers exchanged fire with Assad loyalists in Homs earlier this month, with one witness reporting a clash between two tanks after 200 soldiers and 14 officers defected in Arrasta.

In May, the regime claimed that 10 soldiers were murdered in Homs, but the opposition says they were killed for defecting. A group of soldiers fought for two hours in Homs to defend the residents from attack. “Stiff resistance” from civilians armed with automatic rifles and RPGs in Tabliseh and Rastan in Homs Province has also been reported. In another incident, three soldiers who defended refugees from the Shabbiha militia tried to flee to Lebanon. One died from a gunshot before making the escape. The two survivors were then arrested and handed over to the Assad regime.

The fractures in the military are a positive development, but there defections are still not of a large scale like in Libya. There is no central location that has been freed of government control like Benghazi. Ammar Abdulhamid, a Syrian democratic activist, says that this will not happen until the international community demands Assad’s resignation.

“Syrian army generals are the most paranoid in the world…until the West makes it clear that they view Bashar as illegitimate and they want him out, they will not make the leap themselves,” Abdulhamid told FrontPage.

He also said that the structure of the military prevents mid-level officers from rebelling. “[They must] try to refrain from engaging in too much bloodshed, or simply run. They are not in a position to arrange for a mutiny,” he said.

The regime’s violence is only causing more protests and more defections. The Assad regime may not face a major challenge from within its military yet, but the number of soldiers who have switched sides or want to quit is growing. Don’t count out the possibility of a civil war in Syria.