Middle East News
INTERVIEW: Thousands of Syrian soldiers have defected, says deserter
By Weedah Hamzah Dec 22, 2011, 13:22 GMT
Beirut - An estimated 10,000 Syrian soldiers have defected to an insurgency against President Bashar al-Assad over the past two days, a former soldier from the deserter stronghold of Idlib told dpa in an interview.
'The regime is furious because in the past two days, some 10,000 Syrian soldiers defected to the opposition,' said Abu Omar, wearing a traditional Arab headdress and dark glasses in a dimly lit room in Beirut, where he has been hiding since fleeing Idlib last week.
The Syrian army has launched an offensive in Idlib to stamp out the insurgents, whose attacks are becoming more sophisticated. Activists in the city near the border with Turkey said more than 250 people, mainly army deserters, were killed over the past three days.
The offensive in Idlib was launched two days before the arrival in Syria on Thursday of an Arab League observer mission to monitor implementation of a peace plan to end the crisis. There is no sign that Syria is complying with the plan, which calls on it to pull soldiers from residential areas and start talks with the opposition.
'The regime's thugs are killing any civilian (in Idlib) they suspect of helping army defectors or anyone who sympathizes with the opposition,' said Abu Omar, who defected in October after his commander ordered him to fire at protesters in the city of Homs.
'It was too much for me. I managed to run away with 10 soldiers. And since my hometown is Idlib, I took refuge there,' said Abu Omar, who later joined the dissident Free Syrian Army (FSA), which is believed to number some 25,000 deserters.
'The group is divided into 22 battalions that are spread across the country,' Abu Omar said. The FSA has formed a military council to device a plan to overthrow al-Assad, protect civilians and prevent chaos after the regime falls.
Abu Omar was wounded in clashes with Syrian soldiers near Idlib, where residents treated him and helped him flee to neighbouring Lebanon.
'We clashed with an army patrol after they discovered our hideout,' said Abu Omar. 'They were around 20. We were nine. I was the only one who survived. All my comrades died in the shootout,' he said.
'I had to flee like a rabbit across valleys and mountains. They call the journey from Idlib to northern Lebanon the 'journey of death' because many people did not survive it,' he said.
It is difficult to independently verify reports from Syria, where most foreign journalists are barred.
Abu Omar remains cautious even in the relative safety of Lebanon. He makes sure visitors have no weapons, phones, tape recorders or cameras and spends most of his time at home, where the shutters are always down.
'The Syrian intelligence services are very powerful. They are capable of kidnapping me from Lebanon and taking me back to face certain death in Syria,' he said. 'It has happened to others.'
Despite its increasingly sophisticated attacks, including one last week in which 27 soldiers were reportedly killed, the FSA is not seen as a major threat to al-Assad, who remains in control after 10 months of protests.
Most soldiers in the 300,000-strong, Russian-trained and -equipped army remain loyal to his regime. Most high-ranking military and intelligence posts are held by members of his Alawite sect, which has ruled the majority Sunni Syria for four decades.
Western powers have ruled out military intervention in Syria, whose isolation was deepened after sanctions by the United States, European Union, the Arab League and even its former ally Turkey. The United Nations says more than 5,000 people have been killed.
'Once my wound heals, I will go back,' said Abu Omar.