Between marginalization and a desire to walk away, the Syrian revolution lost its defected officers  

Between marginalization and a desire to walk away, the Syrian revolution lost its defected officers  

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Hussam al-Mahmoud | Khaled al-Jeratli | Hassan Ibrahim

The announcement by Syrian army defector Lieutenant Colonel Hussein Harmoush in June 2011 of what was then called the Free Officers Movement marked the beginning of the breakup of Syrian regime forces, a few months after the outbreak of the Syrian revolution in March 2011.

In July of the same year, Colonel Riad al-Asaad announced the establishment of the Free Syrian Army (FSA) and called on elements and officers of the regime forces to defect and join the new opposing military structure. Such calls caused a rift among the regime’s army and drained its human resources, as many military personnel defected from it. 

From that moment on, several armed opposition factions appeared on the Syrian scene, not necessarily under the wing of the Free Officers Movement or the FSA, to confront the regime’s brutal crackdown on peaceful demonstrations throughout Syria. 

The emergence of many military factions of different allegiances, intellectual affiliations, and ideological and funding references over the course of the Syrian conflict has produced leaderships of varying military experiences on the ground. Some of these factions’ commanders had a previous military background, while others acquired their experiences battling with the regime. 

Interestingly, experienced defected officers were excluded from opposition factions’ battles and decision rooms in favor of civilian leadership.

In this in-depth article, Enab Baladi asks several military experts, analysts, and researchers about the exclusion case of defected officers and its dimensions, their contributions during the revolution’s first years, and the impact of their absence on the course of military operations in Syria.

An international decision to marginalize defected officers of the regime forces

The international community’s relaxed approach towards the Syrian regime has contributed to the surface of some issues in opposition areas that caused popular criticism and dissatisfaction.

The most prominent of these issues is assigning incompetent individuals to sensitive military posts, leading to the formation of many factions and parties and causing internal disagreements and infighting responsible for killing and displacing many opposition fighters. 

Commenting on the factors that caused the exclusion of defected officers from the opposition military scene, the expert in strategic and military affairs, Major General Mahmoud Ali, told Enab Baladi that there was an international decision to marginalize dissident officers of the regime forces since the beginning of the armed and military conflict in Syria. 

Ali added that some factions are led today by “revolutionary leaders” who hold military ranks but have no experience issuing military orders or decisions. These unqualified commanders are put at the forefront while civilian leaders make the real decisions. 

According to information obtained and verified by Enab Baladi, FSA factions that used to receive support from the US-led and Amman based Military Operations Center (MOC), which included a group of countries, including the United States, the United Kingdom, and the Gulf States, were submitting papers with fictitious names for defected officers and elements to prove the effectiveness of these factions on the ground. Some of the names listed in the papers belonged to individuals outside Syria. 

A field commander in the Sham Revolutionary Brigades, which was resolved in 2017 by Hayat Tahrir al-Sham (HTS), said that the pursuit of financial support contributed to the ostracizing of veteran military commanders and specialists in favor of civilian-led military groups mainly interested in drawing the largest possible financial support, regardless of military or field utility.

The field commander, who spoke to Enab Baladi on the condition of anonymity for security reasons, added that some factions’ leaders are always searching for new sources of finance and participated in the Turkish battles of the Euphrates Shield and the Olive Branch instead of fighting on the battlefronts against the regime. 

A group of the Syrian National Army (SNA)’s elements paying tribute to the flag of the Syrian Revolution - 2020 (Anadolu Agency)

A group of the Syrian National Army (SNA)’s elements paying tribute to the flag of the Syrian Revolution – 2020 (Anadolu Agency)

The descent into military chaos 

One of the most famous battles led by defected officers before foreign support took over military action joints is the battle for the control of the Bab al-Hawa border crossing in May 2012, in which the opposition commander Colonel Mohammed Razzouk was killed. Another battle is the battle of the Infantry School, led by the commander of the Military Staff of the al-Tawhid Brigade, Colonel Youssef al-Jader, also known as Abu Furat, alongside a group of defected officers and non-commissioned officers and civilian leaders. 

The first years of the revolution witnessed the rise of some civilian or revolutionary commanders who achieved important military advances on the ground and caused some areas to get out of the regime’s control. 

Most notable of these civilian leaders is the commander of the al-Tawhid Brigade, Abdul Qadir al-Saleh, who was killed on 18 November 2013 due to grave injuries sustained by the regime’s aerial bombardment of a meeting for the brigade’s commanders inside the Infantry School. 

The Infantry Army School fell under the control of the al-Tawhid Brigade in December 2012, after a three-week siege, before the regime took control of it again in October 2015.

Today, Syrians in opposition areas grapple with military action chaos responsible for many deaths as a result of armed clashes and infighting between different opposition factions. 

This chaos raised questions about the turning of armed action into uncontrolled fighting in the absence of rules governing the activities of factions and their elements.  

Military analyst Colonel Fayez al-Asmar told Enab Baladi that the military action chaos in opposition areas is planned to oust competent military commanders and make the scene chaotic to reinforce the powers of civilian leaders and continue the “serious deviations from the objectives of the revolution.”

Al-Asmar pointed out that the exclusion of experienced officers from the military scene and the handing over of leadership to civilian leaders inexperienced in military work and tactics and plans setting had increased the loss of military personnel and equipment on both the military and field levels and strengthened the regime’s side.  

Defected Brigadier General Ahmed Rahal told Enab Baladi that extremist factions and their Salafist supporters and the al-Qaeda, besides other parties, executed major ousting operations against military commanders for they viewed them as a stumbling block on their road. 

Rahal added that jihadist factions, including the al-Nusra Front, which became known later as Hayat Tahrir al-Sham (HTS), have accused strategic and military figures and officers of apostasy and heresy. At the same time, civilian commanders not deserving of taking up military posts came up with new ways to remove competent officers out of the picture by accusing them of being Baathists. 

According to Rahal, non-military superiors knew they were unworthy of their military posts; that is why they were keen on following orders stating the complete exclusion of experienced military commanders in the interest of civilian leaders.    

Who runs the military scene in northwestern Syria?

The northwestern region is home to many factions and military groups led by military and civilian officers, chiefly the Syrian National Army (SNA) and its affiliated factions and military blocs in Aleppo countryside and Hayat Tahrir al-Sham (HTS) in Idlib. The HTS was formed after the merger of a group of factions with al-Nusra Front as their cornerstone. 

The military expert Colonel al-Asmar stressed that the mere presence on the ground is never enough to win battles. Factors such as the ability to make decisions and plans and the possession of military wisdom to know when to start or end battles to achieve the revolution goals are decisive factors on the ground.    

Al-Asmar noted that politicians and civil and military leaders in the northwestern region are unable to make any right political or military decisions serving the revolution. 

On the other side, Rahal said that some factions, such as the SNA, gave military ranks to civilians and presented them to their donors as military experts or graduates of military colleges.

According to Rahal, the majority of decision-making elites in the military landscape of northwestern Syria are civilians impersonating military status.

He added that military ranks are worthless if not accompanied by prior experience and strategic skills that officers are supposed to have. This, in Rahal’s opinion, is one of the main causes of insecurity in the region. 

The Turkey-backed SNA took control of Afrin city in Aleppo governorate following battles against the Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF), which ended in March 2018.

The military operation back then led to the displacement of more than 137,000 people, according to United Nations (UN) estimates, while the Human Rights Watch (HRW) documented the pillaging and looting of civilian property in Afrin by the dominant factions.

The Afrin battles were preceded by the Euphrates Shield operation launched in August 2016 by Turkey and supporting FSA factions against the Islamic State (IS) in northern Syria. The military operation ended in March 2017 after taking control of new areas in Aleppo countryside extending from Jarablus to Azaz and al-Bab city. 

On 9 October 2019, Turkey launched another military operation under the name of “Peace Spring” in cooperation with the SNA factions. 

Operation Peace Spring targeted posts of the Kurdish People’s Protection Units (YPG) to the east of the Euphrates River. During the operation, the Turkish armed forces and the SNA elements managed to control the city of Tal Abyad in the countryside of Raqqa governorate and the city of Ras al-Ain in al-Hasakah countryside, in addition to the areas located between these two cities.

As for Idlib governorate and some parts of Aleppo’s western countryside, they are under the control of HTS, a jihadist faction listed on the United States’ terrorism lists. 

The HTS spread its control over this region after clashing with other factions affiliated with the FSA.

Defected soldiers of the Syrian regime’s army in al-Zabadani city in Damascus countryside - 2011 (AP)

Defected soldiers of the Syrian regime’s army in al-Zabadani city in Damascus countryside – 2011 (AP)

Syrian army defectors in Turkish camps under difficult conditions

Defected officers and soldiers of the regime’s army resorted to Turkey, which placed them in temporary camps and separated them from civilians since the beginning of the Syrian refugee waves to Turkey. The Turkish government then transferred the defectors to Apaydin camp in Hatay governorate on the Turkish-Syrian borders.

Defectors in Apaydin camp are being pressured in recent months to drive them to leave the camp voluntarily, a defected officer staying in the same camp told Enab Baladi on the condition of anonymity for security reasons.   

The camp hosts no activities, events, or military training and is not receiving new dissident officers. Moreover, officers leaving the camp are not allowed to return to it, the source told Enab Baladi.

Residents of the camp are subject to strict rules determining their entry and exit hours after obtaining permission. Sometimes, the camp management issues decisions prohibiting entry and exit to and from the camp, which could last up to weeks at times, the source added.

The same source mentioned that some defected officers living in the Apaydin camp had acquired Turkish citizenship, which requires them to leave the camp because it is designed to host Syrians only. 

Defected Syrian officers who took refuge in the Apaydin camp are not being offered any support. Instead, they are neglected, and the only help given to them is a purchasing card to buy groceries from the Turkish BIM market, which they find expensive. 

Together with defected soldiers and officers and their families, the Apaydin camp hosts a significant number of civilians, after some officers brought families they know from their villages or towns to live in the camp. 

The future of Syrian army defectors in the political process

The head of the Rasd Center for Strategic Studies, Brigadier General Dr. Abdullah al-Asaad, told Enab Baladi that amid the absence of any effective role on the ground, expectations are kept low for defected officers’ roles in the political process. 

Al-Asaad referred to the absence of dissident officers from any political initiative, body, or institution that brings them together, adding that some of them were drawn to certain political agendas in the absence of an influential military council or any entity to unite them.

Last June, Harmoon Center for Contemporary Studies published a study by researcher and former security officer Abdullah al-Najjar, who criticized what he described as the inability of the political opposition in all its spectrum to embrace or promote defected officers. 

Al-Najjar noted that no military school or academy had been established to graduate new batches of officers.

According to Dr. al-Asaad, the politicians who spearheaded the scene contributed to the absence and marginalization of some dissident officers, owing to differing views between the political wing and the defectors.  

Al-Asaad attributed the disharmony between the two sides to the work of military figures according to specific rules and regulations amid civilian leaders’ wish to come to the foreground without sufficient knowledge of military regulations.

This mismatch has caused some military relapses, according to al-Asaad.

Al-Asaad stressed the need for every person, whether civilian or military, to keep to his area of competence, pointing out that there is no competition between the military and civilian authority, which is evident through civilians’ representation of military components in international forums and conferences, such as Sochi, Geneva, or Astana talks. 

According to the Harmoon center’s study, defectors of the regime’s army had to leave Syria after lacking work experience and suffering from dire living conditions. This situation made accessibility to them extremely difficult.  

When asked about the possibility of the return of dissident officers to military service and the formation of a unified Syrian military body under a government of national unity with the regime, that the Syrian Opposition Coalition (SOC) denied, al-Asaad said that this project is unlikely to happen because these defected military leaders were marginalized in the regime’s military institution.  

In 2014, the former US President, Barack Obama, pointed out the state of chaos among the Syrian opposition ranks and questioned the ability of civilians to embrace and advance with armed action.

During an interview with the CBS News network, Obama said, “The notion of sending a few arms to farmers, dentists, and folks, who have never fought before, to fight the ruthless Assad and highly trained jihadists was a fantasy.”

The impact of defected officers’ absence on the military landscape

The last few years have witnessed some changes in the opposition’s military leadership for several reasons, including the targeting of some military commanders and the presentation of new leaders willing to succumb to the supporting countries’ vision and desire of escalation or truce. Moreover, some countries refused to deal with Syrian army defectors for several considerations. 

Military analyst Colonel Ahmed Hamadah said that the role of officers in the opposition’s military leadership had affected the fighting quality on the ground, as the leadership was divided between military officers and civilians who joined military operations against the regime at the beginning of the revolution.  

According to Hamadah, some supporting countries preferred to deal with civilian commanders for reasons associated with their interests; however, this did not annihilate the presence of experienced military officers in the battles against the regime since the early days of the revolution.

Hamadah said that defected military officers were denied the right to set plans or lead fighting units, and they did not receive sufficient support to present their academic experiences despite their enthusiasm to serve the revolution and correct its course through various projects.

Most notable of these projects was the formation of a Chief of Staff to the Free Syrian Army (FSA), led by Major General Salim Idris from December 2012 to March 2014, following his defection of regime forces on 20 August 2012. 

In March 2014, the Ministry of Defence of the Syrian Interim Government (SIG) announced the restructuring of the Chief of Staff of the FSA, following the appointment of Brigadier General Abdel Ilah al-Bashir as a successor to Major General Salim Idris.

The military instability continued in opposition areas, and in July 2017, the Supreme Military Council of the Free Syrian Army was formed by 30 officers of the FSA after a meeting in Hatay province, southern Turkey. 

According to Hamadah, the way donor and supporting states dealt with military factions and how they armed them while sidelining defected military officers caused the degradation of the Syrian revolution and the absence of progress on the ground, which helped the regime to advance into areas outside of its control. 

In response to a question about the ability of defected officers to make a difference in battles against the regime had they headed military combat units, Hamadah asserted that had dissident officers were engaged in the revolution through a unified military operating room, based on planning and reliance on military science, the situation would have been much better than handing over command of units to civilian leaders.

He explained that the exclusion of military commanders has adversely affected the military performance in operations where all kinds of weapons, plans, and military tactics were used.

Hamadah added that the level of military experience affects the course of military operations. According to him, the comparison is invalid between a graduate officer of a military academy and a zealous revolutionary who might unintentionally lead a military group with courage and passion into mass death. An experienced military officer can assess situations better to reach the designated objective.  

Even though field or military commanders with civilian backgrounds have gained considerable experience on the ground as a result of the battles and military situations they had to deal with, defected officers, according to Hamadah, are more experienced in military command and fall under different specialties, including planning and reconnaissance.

He added, some military situations are complex and require deliberate planning to win battles and counter-attacks or ensure successful withdrawals. 

A true commander reaches his goal with minimal losses in lives or equipment, and defectors are closer to this description than civilian leaders, Hamadah said.

Some actors in the Syrian file chose to support and deal with revolutionary leaders (civilians of no military experience), considering them more able to respond to their views. Hamadah professed this point when he talked about deliberate marginalization against defected officers to prevent disobedience attitudes on the ground. 

Would defectors have a role in the coming phase, and how effective would it be?

The fighting in Syria has attracted many militant elements and commanders. This became evident when the Syrian regime brought in militias from Iraq, Lebanon, and other countries to fight alongside its forces, in addition to Russian forces aiding the regime since 2015. 

As for the opposition, some old military commands were replaced with new ones in line with the conflict’s course of events and influential actors’ need for military representatives on the ground. This raised questions on the feasibility of having dissident officers on battlefields and the contributions they can make there.

Nawar Shaaban, a researcher and chief information officer at Omran Center for Strategic Studies, told Enab Baladi that the Syrian revolution had lost some of its most outstanding commanders in its first years. These commanders, such as Abdul Qadir al-Saleh and Abdul Baset al-Sarout, did not all have a military background, but they had a revolutionary spirit, besides the “charisma of a leader,” which enabled them to unite fighters in military operations against the regime.

Shaaban said that defected officers had received military training and education on tactics, maneuvers, and weapons, each according to their specialty, which helped distinguish them from civilian leaders who gained military experience from battles with the regime.

Military analyst Colonel Fayez al-Asmar stressed the effective role of defected officers on the military landscape, adding that planning, leading military operations, and fighting battles in all armies worldwide fall within the competence of military officers and chiefs of staff trained in military academies and colleges. These institutions provide adequate training and prepare elements physically and tactically for battles in accordance with modern war strategies such as adapting to urgent changes in combat and how to make the right decisions.    

According to al-Asmar, the absence of such qualifications leads to undisciplined fighting, causing tremendous losses in terms of human lives, equipment, and geographical spaces.

Al-Asmar added that military actions require the existence of experienced and competent officers, for not all military officers are qualified for leadership. Moreover, these officers need to be equipped with adequate military assets to carry out their duties without interference from outer sides.

Besides the military support from Russia, Iran, Hezbollah, and other militias, the regime’s military superiority, according to al-Asmar, also came from its ability to control its military institution under a united command that plans, oversees, and leads battles on the ground, unlike some opposition factions that have excluded defected officers or tightened the noose on them in the interest of civilian leaders, who are not all qualified to take leadership.  

Al-Asmar excluded the possibility of having a united military structure within the opposition, especially within the displacement of officers and non-commissioned officers and the absence of an umbrella military institution that can gather them and provide them the requirements and means of decent living and ensure them the respect they deserve for leaving the regime’s army, regardless of the motives of their defection and whether they had a genuine desire to defect from the regime or have left under fear and threats from the opposition. 

Al-Asmar added that different circumstances and factors prevented the formation of a unified military structure to bring together opposition forces and factions, allowing factionalism, military chaos, and infighting to continue between these factions.  

The most prominent officers who defected from the Syrian regime’s army

 

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