We met at a house used by the FSA deep in the mountains of Jebel Turkman, in Latakia Province. While bombs rattle the windows he shed light on the complicated mindset shared by many of Bashar al-Assad’s soldiers: young men, forced into mandatory military stints, desperately wanting to join the opposition.
“It’s my first time seeing a journalist or an American,” he says shyly. “I’ve been in the Syrian Army for one year. From the first time I joined, I wanted to defect—when I saw the FSA growing. Before I joined, I thought the revolution would end and Assad would win.”
He says one shabiha minder was assigned to each new soldier, to ensure that they don’t defect. It comes after a recent stream of defections that apparently rattled the army’s confidence. “The soldiers, they’re scared of the FSA. A lot of them would like to defect, but the shabiha, they stay with us, they watch us like security so we don’t go.”
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The young soldiers hardly spoke of it among themselves. “I would only talk about this with my family. I couldn’t speak of it with the others, though we all wanted to leave. My family is in Damascus, and they are all with the revolution. They are happy I left the army.”
He never wanted to shoot to kill the rebels he secretly supported, and says some of the army’s soldiers came up with tactics to avoid causing serious harm. “I would never do it [shoot to kill]…I’d shoot into the air, shoot everything but the fighters. A lot of people do that—the guys watching don’t notice.
“The officers have power and they keep saying, ‘we’ll be successful, we’ll go back to our houses [once we win]’. But the fighters, they know it’s coming close.”
He served most of his army time in Idlib, and was stationed in the mountains of Latakia for the final two months. In that time, he says, “I never had a vacation. I never went to town.”
Before he was brought in for our interview, I’d been concerned about my safety in speaking with him. How could the FSA battalion leader who introduced us guarantee that his new fighter wasn’t actually a double-agent, informing on us to the regime? “I have spoken with his father in Damascus,” the leader told me. Trying to assure me, he said that given the security at the regime bases, and based on the physical terrain, only the most faithful of men manage to escape. He said “it is very, very difficult to defect.”