Interviews with Syrian Army Defectors


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The Syria Issue

Interviews with Syrian Army Defectors

How two of Assad's soldiers came to join the FSA.

VICE reached out to photographer and videographer Robert King in an attempt to arrive at the twisted core of the matter in Syria. The journalist with balls of pure lonsdaleite (an ultra-rare mineral 58 percent harder than diamond) returned from Aleppo with 20 pages of reportage for our Syria Issue, which we’ll be dolling out to you over the next few days. On Tuesday, we featured an oral history of his experiences in the thick of the conflict between the Assad regime and the FSA. Today, we're serving up two interviews he conducted in the field with Abu Ahmad, a civil engineer and defector from the Syrian Army, and Akhi Muhammad, a defected Free Syrian Army officer from Damascus.


VICE: Where did you grow up?
Abu Ahmad: Salaheddin, Aleppo.

What did your parents do for work?
My mother does not work, and my father is a real estate agent.

What did you do before the war?
I was a civil engineer and a lieutenant in the military.

Where were you in July 2000, when Bashar al-Assad became president of Syria?
I was still doing my studies at university.

What experience did you have with Assad’s soldiers or police before 2011?
Personally, none, but I was not happy with their behaviour.

Where were you in March 2011, when the 13 boys were arrested in Daraa for spraying anti-Assad graffiti?
I was doing my military service in the countryside of Damascus.

Was there one specific moment when you decided that you needed to fight against Assad?
Many things made me join the Free Syrian Army. I saw the security forces dragging a woman after stripping her naked. She was being cursed and accused of calling Al Jazeera.

Before you defected from the Syrian Army, did you participate in any actions against protesters?
I did not participate in the killing, but I witnessed the killing of protesters in Daraa, Saqba, Zamalka and Kafr Batna.

Did you see civilians killed in these battles? If so, what happened exactly?
I saw many young men and elderly getting killed when they left the mosque after Friday prayers.

Have you killed anyone? 

How is the FSA organised?
The organisation of it is nonhierarchal.


What has been the single worst personal moment for you since the civil war began?
When a boy was sniped in Daraa, smashing his lower jaw, in the beginning of the revolution.

Are you going to fight again soon?

What will you do after the conflict?
After Assad has fallen, I will go back to my job.

September 30, 2012: An FSA fighter in Aleppo’s al-Arkoub neighbourhood aims at Syrian Army troops.

VICE: What did your parents do for work?
Akhi Muhammad: My father was a retired office worker, and my mother was a housewife.

What was your occupation before the war?
I was a volunteer officer in the Syrian Army, but I had a diploma in geography, which I obtained while serving in the army.

Where were you when Bashar al-Assad came to power?
I was in Damascus.

What experience did you have with Assad’s soldiers or police before 2011?
I had a lot of experience. The least of this oppression and humiliation that I experienced during my military service was that I felt a clear distinction between the ranks of the Muslims and Alawites. Another small part of it was bribery. The traffic cops would stop anyone and ask them for a bribe openly, trying to find any pretext to get some money, like 25 Syrian pounds [about 36 cents].

What did you think of the news about the fall of leaders like Ben Ali, Mubarak and Gaddafi since last year?
I was happy to see tyrants falling down anywhere in this world. I wished that Gaddafi were tried so that we could see all the secrets that he had. It is easy for me to say that, but I understand that the Libyan people, whose families and kids were killed because of Gaddafi’s stupidity over a few decades, had a different opinion from mine. Maybe if we get Bashar we will do the same to him, or maybe more.


Where were you in March 2011, when the 13 boys were arrested in Daraa for graffiti? 
I was at my military base in Damascus.

Were you involved in protests? 
No, we were on alert when the revolution started. We were hardly allowed to go and see our families.

Was there a specific moment when you decided to fight Assad with weapons?
My brother was arrested. He told me that when you are arrested, you feel that the world is collapsing, and when you are under torture in jail you do not feel that you are a human being anymore. Physical torture is not as bad as when everything you believe in is humiliated. You feel that you are an insect that is being smashed. They stepped on his head and made him say that my sisters and mother are whores, and said that they would have sex with them. They cursed God and made him say that Bashar al-Assad is the real God. My brother could only get out of jail after we gave 300,000 Syrian pounds [about $4,300] to an Alawite officer. He was completely collapsed. When my brother told me what happens to those who go to jail, I knew that peaceful protests cannot stand against this regime.

When did you first hear about the Free Syrian Army? And from whom?
The first time I heard about the FSA was through the state radio and the state television. The state media was talking about the great achievements of Assad’s army against “terrorist gangs”.

How did you transition from the Syrian Army and into the FSA? 
As time passed, I realised that my colleagues in the army were starting to feel less anxious about speaking about what was going on in the country. Gradually, the wall of fear fell. One of my colleagues suggested that we should defect, and three others liked the idea as well as myself. We started planning for defection for a few weeks. We were able to communicate with one of the FSA battalions in the Damascus countryside. While we were on one of the checkpoints, we managed to escape to a nearby town and there the residents helped us reach the battalion that we were communicating with.


As a soldier in the Syrian Army, did you participate in any actions against protesters?
I did not kill anyone, I was mostly working in the military base, but after that, when the Syrian regime needed more soldiers to fight, we were deployed to the checkpoints.

Where were you and what were you doing in April 2012 while the UN “ceasefire” was being discussed?
I was in my battalion; we wished that the ceasefire would be observed, but the regime continued to attack civilians, and that made all our hopes disappear.

What qualifications does one need to fight as part of the FSA?
He must believe in what he is doing. And he must know that death is coming whether he will be killed or he dies naturally.

Can you describe the battles you’ve fought in? 
How can I describe that? There is a different goal for each, but the ultimate goal is to prevent these criminals from reaching the civilian areas. When we go, we say a pledge of death, meaning we will fight to the death if necessary, and we pray. I feel that my pulse is increasing and cold sweat is going down my back. When we reach the battlefield, I receive the start signal from our leader, and then I only hear the sounds of the bullets and I forget everything else. All feelings freeze, and everything else disappears.

Who have you fought against? What kind of weapons did they have, and what was the outcome? 
We fight everyone who targets civilians, namely the army and the shabiha, but particularly the shabiha because they do not have any moral or religious constraints – no limits for what they do. They are gangs that are only interested in stealing and killing. I cannot say that we always win. Sometimes we withdraw because of the intensity of the enemy’s gunfire or their medium and heavy arms, or when the enemy is much more numerous than what we were expecting. During these battles we attack and withdraw.


Have you seen anyone killed? If so, what was the situation?
I saw some civilians being killed at the hands of shabiha. My task was to use the binoculars to assess the situation during one of the battles in the countryside of Damascus. Three soldiers forced a lady out of her house. They talked to her, then killed her. They had tanks and were accompanied by an armoured personnel carrier. I do not know what they said to her.

Have you killed anyone? If so, what was the situation?
Do you think that I was shooting for pleasure?

What has been the single worst personal moment for you since the civil war began?
The most difficult moment I went through was when I decided to defect. It was a mixed feeling of happiness because I was freeing myself from the slavery of the Assad regime, and a feeling of fear for my family and what the regime could do to them, especially because I was in the army and will be treated as a traitor if I return. Only execution will be there for me.

What do you plan on doing after the war?  
I feel that I am unclear about the future. Now I am doing something for myself and for my people. I might go back to my work in the army or I might look for another job. I do not know. This is not the type of life that I was hoping to live. But my friends and I were forced into it. I will never give up. We will continue to the end.

For an overview of the issues that have fuelled the conflict in Syria, we recommend reading "Road to Ruin," our condensed timeline of Syrian history, and "The VICE Guide to Syria," a crash course on the country's geopolitical, cultural, and religious complexities.