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Asked To Spy On Rebels, Syrian Soldier Becomes One

A Syrian soldier casts a shadow as he stands in the northwest city of Idlib in May. Growing numbers of Syrian soldiers are defecting and joining the rebels.
Khaled al-Hariri
A Syrian soldier casts a shadow as he stands in the northwest city of Idlib in May. Growing numbers of Syrian soldiers are defecting and joining the rebels.

The regime of Syrian President Bashar Assad has been stung by a string of prominent defections, from the prime minister to a leading general to a military aviator who was Syria's first man in space.

Ra'ed, a soldier from Syria's most prestigious military unit, the Republican Guard, is among the defectors.

The guard's chief duty is to protect the Syrian leadership. But Ra'ed says he never felt proud to serve after he was drafted in June 2010 at age 19.

Ra'ed, who is now living in Lebanon, asked that NPR use only his first name out of concern for his safety.

Ra'ed, a Sunni Muslim, says his commanding officers were mostly minority Alawites, whose first loyalty is to Assad, the Alawite president. He says the officers did not trust Sunni conscripts like him, who were suspected of sympathizing with the rebels.

"Some conscripts that are not trusted are issued rifles, with no ammunition," he says. "I was one of them. I was given a Kalashnikov rifle, but no bullets. Some conscripts who are considered troublemakers are just issued sticks."

Among the prominent defections is that of Brig. Gen. Manaf Tlass, another Sunni and commander of a Republican Guard brigade. He defected to Turkey, along with several family members.

Tlass is a former confidant of Assad's who objected to the regime's decision to use military force against protesters last year.

"For that, he was actually sidelined," says Riad Kahwaji, chief executive of the Dubai-based Institute for Near East and Gulf Military Analysis. "He was mostly at home, and he feared for his life, and that's actually what eventually drove him to defect."

Disillusionment And The Road To Defection

As for Republican Guard conscripts, they are the best paid in the Syrian army. Ra'ed says he was paid about $10 a month. His chief duty was to chauffeur his commanding officer around Damascus, the Syrian capital.

Kahwaji says this kind of pay is not enough to operate a professional military.

"The conscripts are cheap labor," Kahwaji says. "These guys are paid peanuts, if anything, for their military service. So they are dying for nothing."

Often, the conscripts merely serve as a "front line, just to act as sandbags for the shabiha [the pro-regime militia] and the Alawite troops."

The prospect of being used as cannon fodder in a war on one's own people is enough to make many conscripts defect, Kahwaji says.

As for Ra'ed, he says he just wanted to serve his mandatory 18 months and get out, which he did.

But, while he was waiting for his military discharge papers, he says, military intelligence contacted him.

They asked him to pose as a defector in order to get information on the rebels' troop strength and weapons. He pretended to comply.

"I would give them outdated information, or just tell them obvious things," Ra'ed says. "Or, I gave them information that would help the rebels. For example, if the rebels planned to liberate a certain checkpoint, I would tell my handlers that the rebels would hit a different checkpoint."

Ra'ed was sure one side or the other would find out he was a traitor and kill him. So he got rid of his cellphone, moved his family to a safe place, and defected to the Free Syrian Army.

A Wound, An Exit And An Uncertain Future

Earlier this year, Ra'ed fought with the rebels in the battle of Baba Amr, a neighborhood in the central city of Homs. The rebels held out for nearly a month against better equipped government troops.

On the day government troops finally broke through rebel lines, Ra'ed was firing down on Syrian army troops from a rooftop when he was hit by a government sniper.

"The wound felt like an electric shock to my head," he says. "I held the wound and walked to a field hospital. At the hospital, the doctor asked my name and blood type. I handed him a piece of paper that I was given when I gave blood a week before. Then I lost consciousness."

Ra'ed was carried out of Baba Amr through underground drainpipes. He says two of his comrades were shot and killed by government troops in the process. He was then smuggled out of Syria and taken to a hospital in Lebanon for treatment.

Ra'ed says that for him, defection was the right choice, and the only choice. Syrian authorities warned him about joining the opposition, but it went against what he knew.

"They used to tell us that the opposition was just armed gangs," he says. "But that's not true. I know the people who were taking to the streets in protest. This revolution should have happened a long time ago."

Ra'ed is now 21. The large, bandaged wound on his head is slowly healing. He's seeking asylum in Europe, but he hasn't had any luck so far.

The Syrian regime has many allies in Lebanon, and Ra'ed fears that, if detained, he could be handed over to Syrian authorities, and summarily executed.

Copyright 2020 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

Anthony Kuhn is NPR's correspondent based in Seoul, South Korea, reporting on the Korean Peninsula, Japan, and the great diversity of Asia's countries and cultures. Before moving to Seoul in 2018, he traveled to the region to cover major stories including the North Korean nuclear crisis and the Fukushima earthquake and nuclear disaster.
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