Defections of Syrian soldiers and officers from President Bashar Assad’s Alawite
sect may be on the rise, according to unconfirmed intelligence reports and video
clips that emerged this week.
An unverified document leaked from the
intelligence group Stratfor quoted a Hezbollah source as saying Alawite officers
have begun joining the Free Syrian Army in response to the mounting death toll
from the government’s year-long counterinsurgency.
“Alawite officers are
divided since many of them are unhappy about the use of excessive force against
Sunni protesters,” the source reportedly said. “Alawite officers are aware that
Assad is trying to find asylum for himself and his family should his regime
“This is upsetting many Alawites who are coming to
realize that Assad will abandon them. If so, they reason that it would be
suicidal to continue to win the wrath of the Sunnis,” he reportedly
The comments, dated to December, were leaked late last month by the
whistle-blowing website Wikileaks.
Alawites follow a syncretic creed with
origins in Shi’ite Islam. Members of the community make up just 12 percent of
Syria’s population, but since Assad’s father Hafez seized the presidency in
1971, they have held the majority of high-level government and military
A video clip posted to YouTube on Monday showed around a dozen
armed men, describing themselves as the “Free Alawites,” pledging loyalty to the
Free Syrian Army. The speaker, who appeared in a similar clip last week,
identifies himself as Captain Salih Habib Salih.
The video is labeled as
having been filmed in Idlib Province, an area in northwest Syria that is a
center of anti-Assad opposition.
“I’d say that there are anywhere from 50
to 200 defections per day,” said Michael Nahum, an Arabic media analyst who
studied at Damascus University prior to the outbreak of protests a year ago.
“The pace of defections is more than most people realize.
calling it a ‘trickle,’ but it’s not.”
“They’re losing hundreds of
soldiers every week. On bad weeks, maybe in excess of a thousand,” Nahum said
On Tuesday footage was posted to YouTube purporting to
show members of the Shi’ite minority forming the “Hassan and Hussein Brigades”
and pledging their loyalty to the opposition.
Hassan and Hussein,
grandchildren of Islam’s prophet Muhammad, are revered by Shi’ite Muslims as
imams, or spiritual leaders.
The gunmen may belong to Syria’s
200,000-strong community of Ismailis (the world’s second-largest stream of
Shi’ism) or its tiny community of Twelvers (the main Shi’ite branch
Along with Syria’s other religious minorities, the country’s
Ismailis and Twelvers have traditionally supported the Assad regime.
is impossible to verify whether the militiamen pictured are indeed Shi’ite, or
members of the mostly Sunni opposition aiming to defuse the regime’s claim that
is being targeted by Sunni Islamists.
Even if the clip is authentic, it
is difficult to identify where precisely it was filmed.
Quneitra is an
abandoned city just beyond the Israeli-annexed Golan Heights that was largely
destroyed in the 1973 Yom Kippur War. Syria never rebuilt the city, but instead
built a new town on its outskirts called New Quneitra. The abandoned city was
once capital of Quneitra Governorate, which today is taken up mostly by the
Nahum said the current pace of defections keeps
the uprising in a state of limbo.
“There are too many defectors for Assad
to win, but not enough for him to lose,” he said. “It’s a long, slow bleed.”