As part of our continuing coverage of the pro-democracy uprising in Syria, Middle East Voices has been speaking with individuals who have joined the growing force of armed rebels known as the Free Syrian Army (FSA). Recently, we spoke with Captain Iyad Deek, who defected from the Syrian Armed Forces. You can read that interview in English and Arabic. Last week, in a Middle East Voices exclusive, VOA’s Cecily Hilleary interviewed Colonel Riad al-Asaad, the commander of the FSA. This past Friday, Cecily Hilleary interviewed Retired Brigadier General Akil Hishem, who today lives outside of Syria. She began by asking him about reports that Syrian soldiers are shooting at unarmed civilians.
Hilleary: How has the Syrian military changed since the beginning of the uprisings?
Hashem: Since Hafez al-Assad took power in 1970, the Syrian army has undergone a transformation, changing from an army of the people to an army of the regime. Over a period of thirty years, Hafez al-Assad focused almost entirely on controlling the major segments of the army, especially the security sector, making it secular.
Hilleary: Does military training include tactics for dealing with revolutions?
Hashem: Soldiers are prepared to be loyal and simply follow orders. They were tested earlier in Hama in 1982, although that was not a full-scale revolution such as the one we are seeing now. For a seven year period, the military undertook campaigns in different areas of Syria against the military arm of the Muslim Brotherhood. That was not a popular uprising. However, the pro-regime army did commit widespread massacres.
Military training was traditionally designed to secure the complete loyalty of the army to the regime, especially among the elitist segments of the Army, the Republican Guard, what is now called the 4th Armored Division – the Special Forces of the Green Beret and the military security apparatus. All of these elements are loyal to the regime because of the nature of their composition – the majority of them are Alawites. They make up about 70 to 80 percent of the military.
But when the popular Arab Spring uprisings began to spread across Syria, these elite forces were insufficient in number to handle them. That’s why the regime had to resort to using the regular divisions of the Army – enlisted men in compulsory military service numbering over 300,000. Seventy percent of these enlisted men are Sunni, and they are being ordered to massacre their own people. This explains why the majority of defections have taken place among the regular army divisions and not among elitist sectors.
There are orders now in the Syrian Army that any soldier can execute an officer if he sees any indication that this officer might defect. Without any trial and without any investigation.
Hilleary: You say that uniformed men that we have seen firing on protesters in Syria since March are Syrian military?
Hashem: Yes, they are the soldiers of the Syrian army and Shabiha. The Shabiha is an organized criminal group consisting of drug traffickers, arms dealers and extortionists, led by one of Hafez al-Assad’s nephews. The regime originally got rid of them, but when it needed them, the regime reorganized them, re-equipped them with arms, money and equipment and used their criminal nature to conduct the killing. Also, there are police forces in Syria, amounting to sixty percent of the volume of the army.
Hilleary: General, if you had been one of those soldiers back in Hama, 1982, or today in Homs, Hama, anywhere, and you were ordered to fire on your own people, what would you have done?
Hashem: Without any hesitation, not even a second’s hesitation, I would refuse, even if I were put before the firing squad and fired upon. Let me give you an example of something that happened with me. In 1976, before I became a professor in the military academy in 1976, I was serving in the Middle Sector of the Golan Heights with the 9th Armored Division. At that time, there was military tension between Syria and Iraq, actually between Hafez Al-Assad and Saddam Hussein.
So the High Command ordered our entire division to move to the eastern part of Syria – Deir Azzor and Hassakeh and Abu Kamal. At that time, I was the Head of Operations of the armed brigade, which means I was in charge of all the planning for the operation. So when we reached eastern Syria, I held a meeting with a few of my close friends in the brigade, all of them commanders of battalions, and I said to them, “Look, if the Syrian Command orders us to move into Iraqi territory, I will refuse. I know I will probably be killed for disobeying, but I will refuse.”
I was not going to fire on brother Iraqis, who three years before in 1973 were fighting with us in the Golan Heights. However, if the Iraqis had decided to invade our country, this would have been self-defense – I would have done my job.
There is no way to stop the crackdown without a buffer zone and international military intervention, something I’ve been urging for more than five months… Turkey would have to play a strong role because of the geopolitics.
Hilleary: These young soldiers in the Syrian army today – what pressures are they under? How is the Army able to force them to shoot fellow Syrians, as you say they are doing?
Hashem: Because they are under the threat of being killed immediately, on the spot and without any hesitation. There are orders now in the Syrian Army that any soldier can execute an officer if he sees any indication that this officer might defect. Without any trial and without any investigation.
The earliest defectors thought that by defecting, they might only be punished or put in jail for a certain time. When they left, they threw down their weapons, their Kalashnikovs, and went to join the demonstrators. And they were shot in the backs of their heads immediately and they died. This is a very, very critical situation.
Hilleary: So, given all of this, how to stop the crackdown on protesters which has claimed so many lives?
Hishem: There is no way to stop the crackdown without a buffer zone and international military intervention, something I’ve been urging for more than five months. The buffer zone would provide safe haven in certain regions of Syria – specifically, in the northwest, including Idlib, some areas of Aleppo and Hama. There, the Syrian Free Army could gather, organize and initiate their campaign.
Hilleary: How would you enforce this buffer zone. By air? Troops on the ground? NATO?
Hashem: Well, anyone but specifically NATO, some three or four European countries with backing, support and logistics provided by the United States.
But most importantly, Turkey would have to play a strong role because of the geopolitics. Turkey is the only country which borders Syria in the north where most of the uprising is occurring. Places like Idlib, Jabel Az Zawiyeh, Jisr as-Shughur, Ariha – these are the main hotspots of the revolution. This is where the buffer zone should be created, enforced entirely by air, without any ground troops, because from the air they can achieve exactly what the Americans achieved in northern Iraq in 1991, after the end of the Iraq War. You’ll recall this was Kurdish area, and for 12 years, Saddam Hussein,with all his of troops, that is seven armed divisions and the Republican Guard, was not able to intervene there.
The international community must realize what is happening and they must put an end to it now – and not wait until the point when 20,000 or 30,000 are dead.
Hilleary: OK, so if there is a safe haven, how, exactly would that stop the violence or bring about the fall of the regime?
Hashem: It would. In so many ways. First, politically: The Syrian National Council and its leadership, could move to that area, enabling it to lead the Syrian people from within Syria.
Second, all the immigrants who left Syria, some 12,000 now in Turkey, could return home.
Third, Arabic and international media outlets could come there and observe the situation firsthand. The United Nations Human Rights Commission, medical and other aid organizations could also come and provide much-needed assistance.
But the most important thing is that the Free Syrian Army would be able to assemble in this buffer zone and organize and amass the weapons that they don’t yet have. And this would trigger many more military defections.
Now, because there isn’t any safe haven, when someone wants to defect, he must simply pick up his weapon and run away and hide somewhere. He can’t take heavy machine guns, armored vehicles, artillery or any other heavy weaponry. But if a safe haven were established, soldiers would be more likely to take control of entire units and defect, bringing along their heavy weapons, armored vehicles, artillery, and flee to the buffer, where they could reorganize, regroup and work to create a real, stable command to fight the regime.
The buffer zone could then be extended to Hama and Homs, which are now virtually on fire and where citizens are undertaking unbelievably brave acts against the regime. With more troops, the Syrian Free Army could be in a better position to help them. They would first take control of that area and then move on to take control of the rest of Syria.
This regime, in spite of such a mighty show of force against the people, is very weak. And it would collapse almost immediately with only a small amount of NATO or other intervention. Those people who are now loyal to the regime would abandon Bashar al-Assad and run away, once they saw a force greater than the regime’s.
Hilleary: Even the elite, the Alawites?
Hashem: Yes, even the Alawites because they will understand that remaining loyal to the regime will ultimate destroy their lives. Now, this is very important: You know that there is a coalition in Syria between the regime and the elite. We call it the “Power and Wealth Coalition.” These wealthy people benefit from the regime, outside of the law, outside of all regulations. They don’t pay taxes. They don’t pay customs when they import something. They simply make huge amounts of money. These people are loyal to the regime as long as the regime is stable. But once the regime starts to crumble, they will abandon it.
Hilleary: What about reprisals?
Hashem: There is no way to save Syria from 40 years of a brutal regime without casualties. There will be casualties. The regime has been pushing for a sectarian civil war. Bashar al-Assad is pushing for that by using Alawite soldiers to kill the rest of the Syrian people. The Syrian people are very aware of this. They will avoid being driven into such a catastrophe.
Hilleary: You say Assad is trying to create civil war. Last week, the United Nations Human Rights Commission, Navi Pillay, essentially characterized the conflict as “civil war.”
Hashem: It’s not yet. I have information which I don’t like to reveal because I don’t like to scare people: Some civil fighting is already taking place in Homs. There are two big neighborhoods in the city which belong completely to the Alawites, who originally came from the villages outside Homs and have lived there for years and years. So there has been some fighting between groups of civilians, taking up weapons against one another. But these have only been isolated incidents.
This is a tragedy. At the same time, it’s a pattern, like we saw with Libya. NATO didn’t intervene in Libya until at least 20,000 people were killed across the country. This is what is happening now in Syria. The international community must realize what is happening and they must put an end to it now – and not wait until the point when 20,000 or 30,000 are dead.
Akil Hashem was born in Homs, Syria in 1942. The son of a doctor, he spent the first 20 years of his life moving between Syria, Iraq, Lebanon and Egypt. Hashem joined the Syrian Army in 1962 at age 20. He participated Six-Day War of 1967, the 1973 Arab-Israeli “October” War and the 1982 Lebanon War.
He rose to the rank of Brigadier General and, for the last thirteen years of his military service, he taught military strategy and history at the Syrian War College. He retired, at his own request, in 1989, and lives outside Syria today.
Middle East Voices routinely reaches out to officials representing the pro-Assad side of the conflict in Syria. As part of this ongoing effort, we have contacted, among others, the Ministry of Information in Damascus and the Embassy of Syria in Washington, D.C. To date, none of them have responded to our requests for statements or interviews.
Cecily began her reporting career in the 1990s, covering US Middle East policy for Dubai-TV English. She has lived and/or worked in the Middle East, North Africa and Gulf regions, consulting and producing for several regional radio and television networks and production houses, including MBC, Al-Arabiya, the former Emirates Media Incorporated and Al-Ikhbaria. She brings to VOA and MEV a keen understanding of the region's top social, cultural and political issues.