But there is a symmetry to their stories. Four months ago Mahmoud and Hussein Al-Awan defected together: Hussein from the Syrian Army, and Mahmoud from the Air Force Intelligence Service. “I joined the army when I was eighteen,” says Hussein, “and I stayed there for thirty one years. But I never thought we would ever be ordered to attack our own people.”
Hussein, a Sunni Muslim, spent most of his career in the Syrian Army’s elite Special Forces unit. But when he rose to the rank of Colonel he was transferred to the Public Army. “They have no power,” he explains, “so that’s where the high ranking Sunni officers were sent. Only Alawite officers could take positions of real power.”
He says that as soon as the uprising started he began to think of defecting. But meanwhile his son Mahmoud, who had followed his father into the army, had been co-opted into the feared Air Force Intelligence Service. “They are the ones doing everything,” Mahmoud says. “They are burning houses and raping women, all over the Damascus countryside. These are things I have seen with my own eyes.”
In public the Syrian regime claims that it is not giving orders to massacre civilians and burn families out of their homes. It claims that it is unofficial militia who scrawl ‘Only Assad or we burn the country’ on the walls of Sunni villages. But Mahmoud says that he knows this is not the truth. “They send papers to the Air Force Intelligence Service saying ‘Don’t do anything’,” he says. “But that is just for the media. Really, there are telling them that they can do whatever they want.”
Together yet apart, Mahmoud and his father spent months planning exactly how and when they would defect. “We were late defectors,” Hussein admits. “But Mahmoud was useful for the opposition while he was still in the Air Force Intelligence Service. He could pass on information about what they were doing.”
For all of the nineteen months that he was working with the Air Force Intelligence Service, Mahmoud was in contact with rebels in Damascus and with his father, still serving with the regime army. But he knew that, as a Sunni in an overwhelmingly Alawite unit, he would be under immediate suspicion if it was discovered that information had been leaking out. “I was so scared because I know how they torture prisoners,” he says. Finally, on 17th January this year, Mahmoud and his father both left their positions for good. They fled first to the mountains of Jebel Al-Zawiya with their families, then to Darkoush where they joined Idlib Province’s FSA Brigade, the Military Revolution Council.
Neither has had any contact with their former colleagues since they defected, but Mahmoud fears that the violence he witnessed while he worked with the Air Force Intelligence Service is intensifying. “They’re doing these things more now, and all the Sunnis who can leave the regime areas have done,” he says. “And they lie to the media. I know that they forced people in Daraya’a to do interviews for Dunya Television (a state run channel) claiming that everything was OK there. After the interviews, they put the people on the ground and shot them.”
Hussein says that most of his Sunni colleagues have also defected from the army—only a core of Alawite officers surrounded by a dwindling group of Sunni soldiers remains. Meanwhile, the regime is now starting to bring in foreign fighters from Iran and Lebanon to join the fight against the opposition. A rebel sitting next to Hussein says that he heard Iranian voices on radio intercepts last week, and Mahmoud confirms that the Air Forces Intelligence Service were sending Shabiha to Iran to train militia there.
“The whole time I was in the army I believed that our enemy was Israel,” Hussein says. “That’s what we all believed. But now I can see that it was just a huge lie.”