Syrian Military Defectors in Turkey: Should They Return Home and Join the Fighting?
As the fighting in Syria intensifies, especially the battle for the Syrian city of Aleppo and as Kofi Annan, the special envoy of the United Nations and Arab League, throws in the towel, tens of thousands of refugees continue to flee Syria, including thousands of Iraqis who were among the more than two million Iraqis who had sought safe haven abroad at the height of the Iraq war.
But there are thousands of others who are leaving Syria and who, more accurately, are called “defectors.”
Among these defectors are the high-ranking Syrian government officials and former Assad-regime loyalists who generally make the headlines.
Also among the defectors are thousands of Syrian military, from generals — “more than 25 of them” — and MIG fighter and helicopter pilots to lower ranking officers and conscripts.
Many of them have defected to Turkey where the Free Syrian Army (FSA) has its headquarters and from where the rebel attacks in Syria are planned and coordinated.
On the other hand, thousands of Syrian soldiers who also deserted the Syrian army stayed home, joined the rebels and the FSA and have been fighting the bloody battles to overthrow the Assad regime.
Those deserters, the FSA troops and rebels fighting inside Syria and many other Syrians are now criticizing the defectors, especially the high-ranking brass, who are staying in Turkey “even after fighters on the ground have gained territory across the border in northern Syria,” according to the on-line Atlanta Journal Constitution (AJC).
Now that the FSA has been able to secure some territory along the Turkish border with Syria, those fighting inside Syria say it is high time for the “elite defectors,” especially the high-ranking officers to join the fight, on the ground, in Syria.
Some of the criticism, according to the AJC:
“Why does an officer defect? He defects in order to protect the nation,” Baraa, a Syrian refugee in Turkey, told The Associated Press. He asked that only his first name be published, fearing for the safety of his family in Syria. “They should go into Syria and let the revolution benefit from their long years of experience.”
“If army defectors who are in Turkey today were real officers and deserved to be called officers they should enter now,” said one FSA operative, Ahmed Kassem, who moves between Syria, Jordan and Turkey to coordinate among the group’s factions. “They used to say there are no buffer zones. Now the field is open and there are liberated areas.”
The generals “are sitting outside the country waiting for others to prepare senior seats for them,” he said. “They should go in and fight, not stay in the camp. The real defectors are the ones who fight on the ground.”
But there are some, including within the FSA, who see no problem with some of these high-ranking defectors sitting it out in Turkey:
The head of the FSA, Riad al-Asaad, said there are plenty of officers on the ground inside Syria — including two colonels in Aleppo — and that those still in Turkey are “not just sitting around.”
“If the leaders are abroad, they do so in order to gather support for their country,” al-Asaad said by telephone. “In most revolutions of the world, the commanders were outside their countries.”
“Generals can work from behind putting plans and directing the situation through maps,” said Jamal, a Syrian rebel who asked that his full name not be published out of fear for his or his family’s personal safety.
Many also criticize the living conditions and accommodations the FSA defectors allegedly enjoy. The FSA defectors live in a camp “in the Turkish province of Hatay, on the border, separate from the eight refugee camps Turkey has set up in the region.” However, the AJC says, “In fact, the camps are largely the same, with the same food supplies and tents, though there is one key perk for generals: air conditioning.”
Commanders of the FSA in Turkey say that they are hardly sitting idle and have been directing the fight inside Syria — and that Turkey is a secure place to do it from, according to the AJC.
The AJC concludes:
Unfair or not, the criticism reflects a tension over who has real credibility to claim the revolt’s leadership among the Syrian opposition, which includes multiple militias on the ground, politicians who live in exile and now defectors from some of the upper levels of Assad’s military. If the revolt ever succeeds in ousting Assad, those tensions could fuel a divisive power struggle among the winners.
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