This article originally appeared in the Huffington Post on Sept. 3, 2013.
By Wendy Pearlman
The war in Syria has left more than 100,000 dead, one-fifth of the population forcibly displaced, and untold numbers tortured in prison. As a part of a larger project interviewing Syrian refugees in Jordan and Turkey, I carried out the following interview with an army colonel who defected to the Free Syrian Army fighting President Bashar al-Assad. I spoke with him on August 11, 2013, ten days before the chemical weapons attack that killed nearly 1,500 men, women, and children in the suburbs of Damascus. This officer's words have now been superseded by the debate on a possible U.S. strike on Syria. Nonetheless, they remind us that the past two and a half years have never lacked opportunities for meaningful international intervention to stop the Assad regime and end the suffering and destruction in Syria. We should not allow yet another opportunity to be missed. The longer the conflict continues, the more innocents who will die and the graver the threat to the stable, tolerant, and free Syria for which the uprising was launched.
Why did you defect from the Syrian army?
I was pushed to defect when I saw the Syrian army become involved in the repression of peaceful protests. From the first days, they tried to crush them using heavy artillery and helicopters. The army laid siege to cities and cut off electricity, flour, and bread. They blew up water tanks on the roofs of people's homes. They would have blocked people from breathing air, if they could.
I spent more than two months trying to convince fellow army officers not to participate in this repression. I tried to tell them that the Syrian media was lying to us. I would talk to soldiers at the checkpoints. They would tell me, "I am from Assad's Syria." I would tell him, "Syria does not belong to Assad. It belongs to the people. Syria is for us."
I was arrested for saying these things. I was kept in prison for 7 months and 8 days. For the first 35 days, my family didn't know whether I was alive or dead. In prison, I witnessed all kinds of torture. They used electric rods to beat prisoners on every part of their body. They hung prisoners by their hands until they lost movement in their fingers. I remember one man who was beat in the head until the nerves in his eye collapsed and his eye became frozen in place.
Meanwhile, the government kept saying that terrorists were trying to destroy Syria. When I was in prison, I asked the head of the security section if I could send advice to Bashar al-Assad. I told him that he should withdraw all military forces from the cities. He asked me, "What about the terrorists?" I told him, "Leave them to the people. If the government is legitimate, the people will stand with it and hand any terrorists over the to government." All he did was laugh.
How did you come to participate in the Free Syrian Army?
From prison, I heard news that the rebellion had started take up arms to defend the people against the government's siege. People didn't have any weapons, so they began to sell whatever they could to buy them. The regime responded with even more force.
When I was released from prison, I immediately joined one of the battalions of the Free Syrian Army (FSA). I helped form one of the FSA's first military councils in Syria. That was the Free Army's best period. Our declarations were unified, as a single person was responsible for all of them. Organizationally, we formed military councils to oversee operations in each city. Strategically, we wrote out the Free Army's basic principles. We said that the Free Army operates with high values and responsibility, that it upholds proper treatment of prisoners, etc. We said no to sectarianism and no to division of the country. We said that our goal was for Syria to be democratic, civil state. We declared that the only purpose of the army was to protect the borders and the people.
We are a national army. We are not "the opposition's army," as we are sometimes called. When we took on the name "Free Syrian Army," we used the word "free" just so we wouldn't be confused with the regime's army. We are fighting in a revolution against injustice. We are not seeking power. We do not want to bring down Assad simply in order to take his place. We want to stop the oppression.
What role did you want the international community to play?
We asked the Security Council and the United States for a no-fly zone. That didn't happen and it still hasn't until this day. We also asked America for surgical strikes on targets that we would determine. We believed that, with this strategy, the regime would fall in a very short period.
We asked for these things repeated times. We expressed our point of view more than once to United Nations envoys and others. But no one listened to us.
America had an opportunity. We had a plan that could have caused the downfall of the regime in just a matter of months in fall 2012. It was really possible, if we'd had American logistical and intelligence support, Arab financing, and Jordanian management. But that didn't happen.
In the beginning, there were no Islamist groups in the Syrian revolution. But the situation dragged on and on. There was not enough support for the Free Syrian Army. We got weaker and external parties entered the scene. Jabhat al-Nusra started organizing, and so did the Islamic State of Iraq and Bilad as-Sham. Now these groups are stronger than we are. If we had received aid, we could have taken control in this country. Now it will be very difficult.
Sometimes America promises to give us arms. Sometimes it says that there are terrorists among us and we have to eliminate them first. America is complicating problems for us more than solving them. It is as if wants to give Russia the freedom to send Assad all the weapons that it wants.
Then people started to talk about the Geneva Conference. But we know the Syrian regime will enter dialogue only with the aim of wasting time. On the ground nothing will change. And how are we supposed to negotiate with a murderer? The people cannot accept a government that uses arms against them.
America and Europe will regret its policies. One day they will realize that they lost by not supporting the Syrian people.
What would you like from the United States?
First, America should help monitor Syria's borders to prevent the foreign forces that are entering to bolster the Assad regime. Hezbollah is coming from Lebanon and Iranian and Iraqi forces entering from Iraq. These forces are carrying out the most horrific killing and crimes.
Second, we don't want just any arms. We in the FSA have studied the situation and know exactly what kind of support we need. We want anti-aircraft missiles. We want equipment to block and interfere with the regime's operations. We want means to expose regime positions and to protect ourselves from night raids. We want weapons with longer ranges, so we can hit rocket launchers at a further distance.
Third, we want pressure on the governments of the states surrounding Syria that our impeding our work. They prohibit us from getting arms into Syria. And we have some 1000-2000 officers living here in Jordan who are forbidden from getting back to Syria. Why are we treated like prisoners in this country? If they are allowed to go inside Syria, they could organize a great army.
How do you see the future?
What we're seeing today is a war of destruction. We're witnessing the complete destruction of Syria's military strength, economic, and human capabilities. Why has the world sat back and allowed this to happen? There are hardly any young men left. They've all been killed or imprisoned. If this is allowed to go on, only children, women, and elderly people will be left.
Unless America's goal is the destruction of Syria, it must help us. It seems to me that Obama is very weak politically. Look at how Putin takes a stand quickly. He's not afraid. His stand is wrong, but it's quick. You are uncertain, Obama. You are hesitant. Red Line, green line, yellow line ... With each day that passes, we lose years from the future of Syria. There is no time for hesitation. There is no time left.
- Wendy Pearlman is an assistant professor of political science at Northwestern University.