Alawite defections from Syrian army may be on rise

Unverified intel leaks, video clips indicate members of Assad’s sect, Shi’ites pledging loyalty to opposition.

March 8, 2012 03:18
3 minute read.
SALAH HABIB SALAH defects to join Free Syria Army

Syria army defector 370. (photo credit: YouTube screenshot)


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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 become unsalvageable.

“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 said.

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 positions.

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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.

Analysts keep 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 from Washington.

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 worldwide).

Along with Syria’s other religious minorities, the country’s Ismailis and Twelvers have traditionally supported the Assad regime.

It 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 Israeli-controlled Golan.

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.”

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