Latest Syrian Defectors Are From Higher Ranks


BEIRUT, Lebanon — Syria’s armed forces have been slowly bleeding defectors and deserters since the uprising against President Bashar al-Assad began 16 months ago. But now the military arrivals reaching Syria’s neighbors are more likely than ever to have stars on their epaulets.

In just the past five days, a Syrian general, two colonels, a major and a lieutenant defected with 33 other soldiers and arrived in Turkey on Sunday night; two brigadier generals and two colonels from Aleppo announced their defection in an opposition video on Thursday; and on the same day a Syrian Air Force pilot, who was both a colonel and a squadron commander, flew his MIG-21 to Jordan to seek asylum.

Then over the past few days, an official of the Free Syrian Army, the main rebel force, said that eight more Syrian pilots had fled across Syria’s land border with Jordan, amid reports that fear of defections had essentially grounded the air force since Friday.

There has been some speculation that the air force defections may even have led Syrian antiaircraft gunners to shoot down a Turkish warplane on Friday, and shoot at a Turkish search-and-rescue plane sent to look for it, as a way of sending a message to the neighbors. Turkey, a NATO member, has called for an emergency meeting of NATO on Tuesday to discuss the attack on the first plane, in which two pilots were lost. It also sent a letter on Sunday to the United Nations Security Council calling the Syrian action “a serious threat to peace and security in the region.”

A glimpse of the drain on Syria from defections can be seen at the Apaydin camp in Turkey’s southern Hatay Province, where 2,000 people who left the Syrian military now reside. Although that number may include family members, it does not include many who have left the camp to join the opposition inside Syria.

“The entry last night is nothing unusual, since we receive 20 to 30 defectors every day through our borders,” said a Turkish government official, who declined to be identified in keeping with government policy.

What is unusual, however, is a recent increase in the ranks and importance of those switching sides. Thirteen Syrian generals are now staying in the Apaydin camp, officials said.

“We are witnessing higher defections from higher-ranking officers because we have reached the stage of the absence of solutions,” said the leader of the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights, a group based in London that tracks violence in Syria though its network of contacts.

“In addition, morale is getting weaker and weaker among the military,” said the group’s leader, who goes by the pseudonym Rami Abdel-Rahman for reasons of personal safety.

There are no accurate figures on the extent of defections from Syria’s military, one of the largest in the Arab world, with 220,000 regulars and 280,000 reservists. But for a government that increasingly appears to be pinning hopes of survival on military force, the loss of top commanders is more than just an embarrassment.

There are few reports of defections among officers from the Alawite sect, the minority religious grouping of Mr. Assad and his top officials. But the loss of growing numbers of Sunni Muslims in the upper ranks could make the conflict appear to be ever more sectarian in nature, underscoring the domination of the country by a small minority. Alawites are about 12 percent of the Syrian population, while Sunnis are 74 percent.

“With the defection of the airplane and these people, regardless of whether they are important themselves — you can lose a plane or two — what must be a concern is the establishment of a pattern and a precedent,” said Paul Salem, director of the Carnegie Mideast Center in Beirut.

“So far none of this is significant; there are hundreds of generals in the Syrian Army, but when the dam begins to crack, it starts with a trickle,” he said.

The most embarrassing defection so far has been that of Col. Hassan al-Mirei Hamadeh, a squadron commander who took off Thursday from a Syrian air base near the border and made a surprise, 90-second flight to Jordan, where he landed, left his plane, discarded his uniform and began praying.

Like most Syrian Air Force pilots, Colonel Hamadeh was a Sunni, although the force’s top commanders are Alawites.

The 500-plane air force was once commanded by Mr. Assad’s father, Hafez. It is almost entirely equipped by Russia, which recently has engaged in a heated dispute with the Americans and British over the supply of Mi-25 helicopters to Syria.

Last week, a Curaçao-flagged cargo vessel carrying Syria-bound Russian helicopters was forced to scrub the voyage when its British insurer canceled coverage. The vessel, the Alaed, is now en route to Syria again, reflagged as a Russian vessel, the Interfax news agency said Monday. The change presumably bypassed the insurance problem.

Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton had criticized the Russians over the weapons deal, although Russian authorities have contended that their weapons shipments to Syria are for defensive purposes only and do not violate any United Nations sanctions.

After Colonel Hamadeh’s defection, some authorities said the Syrian Air Force was essentially grounded, although there were reports on Sunday and Monday of reconnaissance aircraft used in an eastern city, Deir el-Zour, where heavy government shelling has taken more than 70 lives in the past four days, according to both the Syrian Observatory and local activists reached by telephone.

Saiid, a soldier who defected in Deir el-Zour, said he was among 38 soldiers and one high-ranking officer who switched to the opposition side recently. He speculated that may be why the Syrian military was cracking down on that community so ferociously.

Among the officers who fled on Sunday to Turkey, one colonel brought along his two sons, both officers. A retired Syrian brigadier general, Adnan Salu, fled after being notified that he was being recalled to active duty, according to Col. Malik Kurdi, a spokesman for the Free Syrian Army in the officers’ camp in Turkey. Colonel Kurdi also said eight Syrian pilots fled to Jordan recently, although in Jordan, officials insisted that there had been no new defections of pilots.

Among the two brigadier generals and two colonels who fled from Aleppo on Thursday, two were brothers. Two were officials of the military hospital there, another the head of the military investigations department there, and the fourth, one of the generals, had been with the air force. All were natives of Idlib.

In the video, apparently taken inside the country and then posted on YouTube, they announced that they were joining the Free Syrian Army, as one of them, Col. Ismail Omar Zacharia put it, “in homage to those who paid with their lives to free Syria — the wounded, the widows, the children.”

NY Times