Out of Syria (Updates)
(additional update at bottom)
We can now put a name and a face to “Syria’s ambassador to Iraq” who recently defected and who is now in Qatar “seeking refuge.”
His name is Nawaf Fares and he is a former Syrian regime hardliner and security chief with 35 years of “loyal service” to the regime.
In that interview, Fares makes “a series of devastating claims against the Assad regime, which he said was determined to be ‘victorious’ whatever the cost.”
Among these, that Syria had sent jihadi volunteers to fight our troops in Iraq and that these very same units are being used by the Syrian government “in the nationwide wave of suicide bombings on government buildings, which have killed hundreds of people and maimed thousands more” in the hopes that those attacks could be blamed on the rebel movement.
“After the invasion of Iraq in 2003, the regime in Syria began to feel danger, and began planning to disrupt the US forces inside Iraq, so it formed an alliance with al-Qaeda,” [Fares] said. “All Arabs and other foreigners were encouraged to go to Iraq via Syria, and their movements were facilitated by the Syrian government… As a governor at the time, I was given verbal commandments that any civil servant that wanted to go would have his trip facilitated, and that his absence would not be noted. I believe the Syrian regime has blood on its hands, it should bear responsibility for many of the deaths in Iraq.”
It is obvious that Fares does not have clean hands himself. But he claims that the atrocities he observed made him “gradually question his own allegiance to the regime… I was seeing the massacres perpetrated – no man would be able to live with himself, seeing what I saw and knowing what I know, to stay in the position,” according to The Telegraph.
When I read and wrote about the defection of Syrian Air Force pilot Col. Hassan Hammadeh with his MiG-21 jet fighter to Jordan, several questions came to mind — questions which I am sure readers have also pondered.
In view of what the brutal al-Assad regime would surely do to his family, did the pilot arrange for his family to leave Syria beforehand?
Even if he had been able to arrange for safe haven for his immediate family, how about other relatives, close friends?
How about the dangers of being shot down on the way out, or of being viewed as an attacking aircraft by Jordanian air defenses and getting shot down upon entering Jordanian airspace?
Similar questions, except for the aircraft interception risks, can be raised in the case of those who defect by land, especially high ranking military officers and government officials. The most recent examples are Syrian Army Brig. Gen. Munaf Tlas and Syria’s ambassador to Iraq — albeit the latter defected while already abroad.
I am sure there are many more questions and issues.
The Washington Post this weekend presents the story of one such defector, Syrian helicopter pilot Ahmad Trad, who escaped from Syria last month; how some of those questions weighed heavily on his mind and of the dangers and difficulties of defecting.
To be clear, Trad did not take his helicopter with him but, rather, armed with fake military leave papers he escaped by bus and by taxi from Aleppo to Turkey, preceded by “an escort car driven by friends that went ahead to alert them to possible checkpoints. By nightfall, they were picking their way across a minefield toward the Turkish border, guided by rebels.”
His defection took months of careful planning, intrigue, deception and even the ruse of a fake romantic affair to throw off those who were surely observing him and monitoring his every move.
Probably the biggest concern was the safety of his family and those left behind.
He also confronted the dilemma that he and other defectors say is the biggest deterrent to those who would like to abandon the Syrian regime but have not yet dared: the safety of his family. Slipping away from his base was one thing, but it was just as important for Trad, 30, to make sure his relatives would not be targeted for revenge attacks once he was gone.
Part of the preparations for the escape included reaching out to Free Syrian Army rebels across the Turkish border to see if they would help ferry the whole family across. “The rebels agreed, but first they wanted proof that Trad was genuine and not a regime infiltrator.“
To prove this, Trad became a spy for the Free Syrian Army, passing information about military operations and names of helicopter pilots taking part in combat missions.
Finally the successful escape.
Today, living in an apartment in the Turkish town of Altinozu with his family — fifteen of them– Trad has put his name on a waiting list eager to be assigned to a Free Syrian Army battalion.
He says, according to the Post, “There’s a huge number of pilots I know who want to defect. The air force in the beginning was sidelined, but after it started getting involved, a lot of people started thinking about defecting.”
And his pregnant wife?
“I only wish I could join the Free Syrian Army, too,” she says, according to the Post.
This is one defection story that thus far has ended well.
However, we don’t know the fate of the families of the hundreds of other Syrian military personnel who have defected.
Thus, questions remain.
Read the rest of this inspiring story here.
Today’s New York Times provides additional details (and verification) on Syrian Mi-17 helicopter pilot Capt. Akhmed (or Ahmad) Trad’s recent defection to Turkey.
Additionally, it sheds light on the chasm developing between the Alawite Syrian government and its many Sunni military, like Capt. Trad, “whose alienation has been growing and whose defections risk increasing as Syria’s internal war takes on deepening sectarian tones.”
Specifically, in the case of the Syrian Air Force although in the minority, Alawites make up roughly two-thirds of the pilots, according to another pilot who defected. The Times says that according to Capt. Trad, Alawite officers have “higher social standing, greater professional latitude and more privileges than their Sunni colleagues: a climate that fueled resentment.”
The Times says that while defected Sunni army officers have played a large role in the armed opposition and while the skills of defected air force pilots are less useful to the rebels — who have no aircraft — “the pilots’ decisions to join the uprising amount to both a moral and public relations victory for the rebels, and undermine the Assad military’s strength.”
Read more about the internal split and distrust within the Syrian Air Force and what Captain Trad is doing these days here.