Feb 22, 2013

A Botched Mass Defection

Mohammed Sergie 

Aleppo—First Lieutenant Adnan Barazi, 27, was stationed with Special Forces at Jabal al Sheikh along the Israeli border before the Syrian revolution, defending the frontlines against Syria’s main enemy. A Kurd who grew up in Homs, he was transferred to Jabal al Zawya in Idlib in October 2011 to aid in the crackdown on opponents of the Assad regime.

His sympathies with the uprising helped him build rapport with rebels there, but that didn’t save him from harm when a military convoy was ambushed and his left lung was punctured by shrapnel. After four months of recuperation in Damascus, where he saw the result of the Assad regime’s military solution in Syria on TV, he returned to duty, this time at a checkpoint in Maaret Alnuman in Idlib.

Barazi wasn’t planning to serve his superiors for long. He tells Syria Deeply that he wanted to defect.

I arrived to Maaret Alnuman in April 2012. It was a tense time for the Syrian military. We were completely surrounded. We would stop civilian cars, take away the driver’s papers and tell him to get us food. We couldn’t use military vehicles to move around town.

There were 80 soldiers at our checkpoint. We had three armored personnel carriers, equipped with cannons, as well as over 120 AK-47’s, 100,000 bullets and rocket launchers. I thought it would be better for the revolution if I could organize a mass defection and deliver these weapons and materiel to the rebels, rather than defect alone, with just one rifle.

Our platoon was headed by a colonel who wasn’t opposed to revolution, but I couldn’t convince him to defect because he feared for his family. He was later killed in an ambush. There were 23 officers in our unit, and 20 of them were Alawites. The Alawites didn’t consult the colonel, a Sunni, on security matters. They didn’t trust us.

Many soldiers, who were almost exclusively Sunni, trusted me because I’m Kurdish and from Homs. I always tried to get the views but didn’t disclose my own.

In late May 2012, security officers learned that five soldiers from Houla near Homs [the scene of a brutal massacre where over 50 children were killed], planned to kill the officers and defect. They were rounded up and a civilian pickup truck was arranged to hand them over to Brigadier General Nofal Hussein, the head of Military Intelligence in Idlib. I knew they would be executed.

I argued that the soldiers shouldn’t be handcuffed and was able to warn them that they were in danger. As the truck went through the town, the soldiers shouted to civilians that they were defectors, and people rushed the car, beat up the driver and helped the soldiers flee.

These soldiers told the local rebels that I helped them, and I started communicating with the revolutionaries in Maaret Alnuman.

The Syrian military has informants in most towns. Our checkpoint worked with a woman who gathered intelligence for us, and I started relaying the information to the rebels. When I got out the rebels told me that I saved them many times.

I started working on my plan to organize a group of soldiers to defect with me. I was in charge of patrol, because I was the second highest ranking officer in the platoon after Captain Saleh al Ali, an armored unit commander who killed many civilians, was kidnapped by rebels. He later appeared in a defection video which was probably forced and I think he was executed afterwards.

The best time to defect was late at night, so I scheduled my group of soldiers on night duty. I told the rebels to bring tank drivers and we decided to move in a few days.

On the day before the planned defection, one of the soldiers in on the scheme asked me to talk to his relatives on the phone. He introduced me as a first lieutenant (there were two others in the unit) and his family said they wanted to get him out and didn’t want to wait any longer.

That soldier had already spoken to his family from that line four or five times before and told them about the plan. An hour after I spoke on the phone the colonel receives a message from military intelligence that a first lieutenant with a Homsi accent is planning a mass defection. I was exposed.

The colonel didn’t suspect that I was the officer. The intelligence hadn’t pinpointed which unit was planning the defection and only included a general area and the soldier’s phone number. There are lots of SIM cards floating around, and the military intelligence couldn’t match a name to the number.

It only took a few hours for the officers at my checkpoint to find the soldier, after going around the unit and typing the number into mobile phones until a name popped up from the memory.

Once he was discovered it was obvious that I was the officer planning the defection, but I was able to buy time by telling the intelligence officer that I was trying to expose the defection plan, rather than being the leader of the scheme. This revelation had to be reported, so I didn’t have much time.

I told the colonel to let me flee with the soldier, but he wouldn’t allow it and said he would defend me against any disciplinary action, given that I was an officer who shed blood for the country. I said that wouldn’t sway military intelligence and that I had to go.

The soldier was taken away that night. I couldn’t do anything for him. At that moment I wished that the earth opened up and swallowed me. That was his fate.

I couldn’t sleep. All the checkpoints in our region were on high alert, night patrols were shuffled, ruining my scheme, and I felt my life was in danger. I asked the colonel to at least assign me to a new checkpoint, providing me with some distance from the bad apples in this platoon, and it was pure luck that a nearby unit needed a lieutenant after an officer, Basel Saqr, was killed.

The colonel asked Abu Saleem, one of our civilian drivers who was a double agent, to take me out of the checkpoint. The first rebel checkpoint we encountered was manned by the soldiers who recently defected from my platoon. Warm greetings were exchanged, and then I asked them to shoot some rounds to make it seem like I was kidnapped. It would allow me to tell my family to flee. So they fired, and it was reported that I was captured.

In the end I defected alone, with just one rifle.

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