More than 4,000 officers, junior officers, and tens of thousands of soldiers have defected from Assad’s forces. They belonged to all parts of the military, security, and police forces, from the very lowest to the highest ranks. They include all Syria’s ethnicities and sects, but with a Sunni majority.
But, this large amount of well-qualified professionals has never been a part of any solution or political equation concerning Syria, despite the fact that militarism has become the most pronounced dimension of the conflict. The overwhelming majority of this group is languishing today in refugee camps in Turkey and Jordan in miserable living conditions. Their movement is restricted, and the possibility of working in the military sector is almost non-existent. Nevertheless, this group has not completely lost its capabilities. On the contrary, different actors’ ignorance toward defected soldiers has increased the possibility that they would be in an excellent position at some point in the Syrian conflict.
Military dissidents, especially officers, were not in line with the vanguard of the rebel fighting groups, which is organized along the lines of militias. In the beginning, many of the dissidents joined the armed factions, accepting the leadership of civilians who had won revolutionary legitimacy for their early involvement in the revolution or for their capability to finance their factions. But the defectors couldn’t cope with the [rebels’] improvisation and lack of discipline, poor organization, and were forced into isolation, and had to be satisfied with oversight and planning only from afar. In many cases, they confronted civilian rebels working with them for no reason. Apparently, it was because young people who joined the revolutionary battalions had the worst memories of their compulsory service in the Syrian army, where officers were models of rotten, corrupt, and authoritarian people who inflicted all kinds of humiliation and insult upon them. These young people are now dreaming of getting revenge on the officers. This feeling is reflected in their conscious or unconscious dealing with defectors, despite the defectors’ alignment with the revolution. On the other hand, religious ideological sentiment on the rise among civilian rebels created a kind of barrier between them and the military elements, who were far from religious practice and culture due to their previous work, which prevented any kind of religiosity or interest in religious thought.
These patriotic trends conflicted with sectarian feelings and doctrines resulting from the practices of the blatantly sectarian regime. For example, the phrase “Breeding of Hafez al-Assad” or “Graduate of the Baath [party]” is considered a lethal charge, easily affixed to any officer publicly opposing these [nationalist] movements. One of these phrases is, at the very least, enough to keep the officer away from the action—he might move to one of the camps to live an isolated life. There are rumors that some senior officers who openly expressed their nationalist feelings, such as Colonel Abu al-Furat, were mysteriously killed. These rumors are still circulating among the military elements. Many of the dissident officers use these rumors as a pretext whenever they are asked about their non-participation in the fight alongside the rebels.
Moreover, the rebel leaders, who have recently turned into what look like warlords, are not in favor of having these officers in their units, fearing a rivalry for leadership or legitimacy. For example, Zahran Alloush, the leader of the so-called “Jaysh al-Islam,” (Army of Islam), declared that the dissident officers lack efficiency because they are Sunni, and that the regime consistently failed to train them well during their service. This is not true at all, because the officers in the military colleges and schools receive the same training. The regime’s sectarian policy against the Sunni officers was demonstrated in two specific ways: first, the small number of Sunnis admitted as students, which did not exceed 10 percent, and second, in relation to the policy around appointments to sensitive positions in the army and security forces, especially at the level of leadership.
It also seems that the international powers that intervened and sponsored the armed rebels did not like dealing with military, because most of them are awkward, and have a military and nationalist agenda inconsistent with the these powers’ priorities, which seek loyalty more than capabilities.
The dissident officers acknowledge that quite a number of their colleagues have nothing to provide the armed rebels, because lack of competence or peer-to-competence among the rebels, who lack pilots and marine officers. There are also those who doubt some officers’ loyalty to the revolution. Some rebels believe that some dissident officers left the army because pressure was put on their relatives, or because of rebel sieges against their units. Some dissident officers have been accused of carrying out intelligence operations to penetrate the ranks of the rebels.
But most dissidents, despite being ill-treated by all the civil, military, and political revolutionary groups, have not lost hope or ambition. They believe that they have made an important contribution to the revolution by depriving the regime of special skills, such as those of pilots. And they claim to have sacrificed their privileges and advantages provided by the regime, as in the case of intelligence officers. Defected officers are also deprived of their salaries and other compensation. The houses of some of them have been burned by the regime, who also abused their relatives as a kind of revenge against them, some say.
It is believed, as some have said, that those who did not contaminate their hands with outside support represent the side that kept its purity and patriotism, and thus possesses the qualifications and competence to lead the re-building of the most important national institution, the new army.
At the moment, when regional and international powers are looking to the Syrian opposition’s armed groups, the groups are just a bunch of hard-to-control militias. It is reasonable to think about rebuilding the opposition’s military forces by drawing on the defectors, and using [their] scientific methodology for building armies and military forces.
It will be easy to assemble the defected soldiers and deal with them as an organized entity—where everyone knows his mission in advance, and his position, according to his specialty and previous military rank. They are moderates, politically and ideologically, they are familiar with laws and regulations, and they possess basic military knowledge and experience. They can be developed, and given leadership abilities in a very short timespan. They come from various areas [of Syria], including minority areas, so they can attract new fighters who are efficient on the field and politically correct. They also know the best way to fight the regime, because they know it very well. At the same time, they are better able to cope with extremist organizations, which consider them enemies, threaten them, and capture their areas. Among the defectors are high ranking and much respected figures, such as Major General Mohamed Fares, the only Syrian astronaut. Moreover, as they are a regular military, and have revolutionary legitimacy because they left the army and sacrificed all their privileges to live in very miserable conditions over the past years, Syrian society is more respectful of them and their authority.
The establishment of such an army needs good coordination among many countries, and also requires a safe area for training, leading, and bringing together new elements. In other words, [it requires] the consensus of the Arab countries that have the most influence on the opposition, and the strongest links with it—namely the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia and Turkey, which has the longest border with Syria, and provides logistics inside of Syria. Even fully understanding the sensitivity of differences between the two countries, they are not as dangerous as the serious challenges posed by Iran’s aims. Perhaps because of their disagreement, the absence of a military ally to Turkey and Saudi Arabia on Syrian land provides a rare opportunity for pro-regime militias, Hezbollah, Abu al-Fadl al-Abbas [the leader of a Shiite militant group in Syria], and others to draw the political map of the region as they want, following the Vilayat-e Faqih in Iran. This scenario will certainly not certainly either Saudi Arabia or Turkey.