Foreign Affairs

Violence escalates in Syria, as army begins to defect.

by Al Jazeera:

The escalating military offensive in northwest Syria began after what corroborating accounts said was a shoot-out between members of the military secret police in Jisr al-Shughur, some of whom refused to open fire on unarmed protesters.

A growing number of first-hand testimonies from defected soldiers give a rare but dramatic insight into the cracks apparently emerging in Syria’s security forces as the unrelenting assault on unarmed protesters continues.

Speaking to Al Jazeera from Turkey, having crossed the border on Friday night, an activist based in Jisr al-Shughur and trusted by experienced local reporters described how a funeral on June 4 for a man shot dead by plain-clothes security a day earlier grew into a large anti-government protest.

The following day the activist and others went back to the military police building having heard explosions coming from the area the evening before. They found dozens of bodies, including that of the military police chief, identified by his ID card.

All foreign media is banned from reporting in Syria so it is impossible to verify the account firsthand, though it tallies with other testimonies from residents of the area that clashes between security forces had taken place.

Since then, President Bashar al-Assad has poured dozens of tanks and thousands of troops into northwest Syria, with the military, thought to be led by Assad’s brother Maher, vowing to “restore security” after it said 120 security men were killed in Jisr al-Shughur by “armed gangs.”

“It’s tragic. They have burned down all the crops and the villagers are fleeing,” said a resident of Jisr al-Shughur who fled on Friday with four people injured by the military assault, heading to the Turkish border. He said he had witnessed the army opening fire on fleeing villagers with machine guns.

There were no confirmed casualty figures among Jisr al-Shaghur’s 50,000 residents, the majority of whom fled before the assault.

Residents also reported attacks on Al Serminiyye, a village 5km south of Jisr al-Shughur and on Ariha, 30km to the east. In Binnish, following a large anti-government demonstration, state TV said the town was harbouring 100 armed men.

Syrian children carry pictures of 13-year-old Hamza al-Khatib and hold candles during a protest in front of the United Nations building in Beirut June 1, 2011.

In the early 1980s, former President Hafez al-Assad, Bashar’s father, ordered a military assault on Jisr al-Shughur in order to crush a revolt in northwest Syria by the Muslim Brotherhood. In Hama, 50km south, Syrian troops massacred between 10,000 and 30,000 people.

The ongoing military offensive in Jisr al-Shughur, following assaults on Deraa, Latakia, Baniyas, Homs and Tal Khalakh, appeared to be exacerbating tensions in the army, made up of mostly Sunni conscripts commanded by an officer corps drawn mainly from the minority Alawite sect, to which President Assad and most ruling elites belong.

On Saturday, news broke that a lieutenant colonel had defected with a number of his troops and joined residents of Jisr al-Shughur, according to an activist who spoke to Al Jazeera, an account corroborate by reporting from the Local Coordination Committees of Syria (LCC).

The activist said the lieutenant colonel defected during an operation in Bdama village, 10km west of Jisr al-Shughur, taking 150 armed troops with him to support the besieged town.

In a video published on June 10, a man claiming to be officer in the 11th Battalion announced his defection from the army, saying he and other soldiers had joined the uprising after being unable to continue killing unarmed protesters, particularly what he called the “massacre” in Jisr al-Shughur on June 4.

For defector Ali Hassan Satouf, the breaking point came during last month’s military assault on the port city of Baniyas.

Satouf describes how, after finding only peaceful protesters in Baniyas, he and his men were ordered to attack a nearby village, Qalaat al-Marqab, where he was told some 6,000 “armed fighters with sophisticated weapons” had gathered.

“But we didn’t find any fighters, nor armed people, nor any weapons at all. We only found employees of the Pubic Institution for Antiquities, and the soldiers beat the employees.”

In neighbouring Marqab, Satouf describes how soldiers broke into homes and stole private property before arresting dozens of men, prompting women from the village to pelt the military convoy with stones.

“In response to the stone throwing, we were ordered to open fire. […] And we had a massacre. Four women were killed.”

“I have defected the army,” Satouf said in the video. “What is taking place right now is haram [forbidden] They are killing my people, our brothers, whether they are Christian, Alawite 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.”

His words were echoed in testimony from Waleed Qashami, whose military ID shows him to be a member of Syria’s Republican Guard, an elite division assigned to the protection of the capital and under the command of Maher al-Assad, the president’s brother, who also commands the Fourth Division.

Speaking to Amnesty International by phone from the country where he is now taking refuge, the 21-year-old said he was among 250 soldiers sent to quell a protest in Harasta, a suburb of Damascus, on April 23.

Qashami’s officer told him he was there to confront a “violent gang” but what he found were around 2,000 unarmed protesters, including children and women. Again, the men went bare-chested to show that they carried no weapons.

On Saturday the military broadened its offensive in the northwest, using attack helicopters and tanks to pound Jisr al-Shughur and nearby Maarat al-Numan, where activists said at least 23 people were killed by tank shells. An activist in Maarat al-Numan said he witnessed helicopters attack the local state security branch.

“I think this is going to be used to accuse protesters of burning down state security. But they are peaceful protesters not using violence. It’s the regime using violence against the protesters.”

 Al Jazeera

It’s becoming a massacre in Syria but the UN cannot act if China or Russia are not on board (or abstain from voting). But NATO is already stretched thin with Libya. 

Will peace every reach Syria?