By Khaled Yacoub Oweis
ANTAKYA, Turkey, July 12(Reuters) - As one of the Sunni Muslim soldiers who form the bulk of the Syrian army, Lieutenant Adnan Suleibi kept being pushed to the front of units fighting in the rebellious city of Homs.
Alawite personnel - members of the same minority sect as President Bashar al-Assad - remained in the rear. Alawites control the military through their domination of the officer corps and, crucially, direct the Soviet-style intelligence and secret police apparatus entrusted with preventing dissent.
"The Sunnis are cannon fodder and morale has been sapped. There are 75 men left in my brigade out of 250. The rest were killed, injured or deserted," said Suleibi, a slim 23-year-old in jeans and striped t-shirt.
"As soon as the chance came, I made a run for it," he said after crossing to the safety of Turkey last week with a comrade.
They are among a new wave of Sunni defectors who have abandoned the military in recent weeks as the army, short of gung-ho infantry, relies more on heavy artillery to batter Sunni towns.
The opposition says at least 17,000 people have been killed in a 16-month uprising against Assad, who says he is defending his country against foreign-backed terrorists.
Assad loyalists in the military use classic Soviet techniques to keep the men in the front line from running away, including the threat of death.
"In Homs I was afraid more of the military intelligence behind me that of the rebels in front," Suleibi said.
"The military has become a murder and theft machine. The priority of the officers is for us to bring them big-screen televisions from the homes we enter," he said. "I would have defected earlier if not for concern for my parents' safety."
Suleibi, who is from the coastal province of Latakia, served inland in Homs, part of a long-standing Syrian army policy of never using troops in their home regions.
After coordinating through Facebook using coded language with comrades who had defected, he flitted through the olive groves and vineyards of northern Idlib province and made a dash across barren land to Turkey.
"THE HATRED OF OTHERS"
Syrian military aircraft drop fliers near the border carrying barely veiled threats to defectors on the last stage of their escape, telling them that loved ones left behind will suffer.
"This is your last chance for you to save yourself. You are helpless in front of the Syrian Arab Army," says one. "Go back to your folks and to the people you love, and do not become fuel for the hatred of others."
Thousands of soldiers have been killed or imprisoned because they tried to flee and failed, or were suspected of planning to do so. Around 2,500 officers and lesser ranks are imprisoned in the notorious Seidnaya jail north of Damascus, which has been emptied of political prisoners to make way for military personnel, according to opposition sources.
A Syrian army pullback in the last two weeks from areas in rural Idlib and Aleppo bordering Turkey's Hatay province, following Turkish army reinforcement on part of the frontier, has given rebels more room to operate.
The frontier terrain is a mixture of rolling hills and flat farmland planted with olive trees, vineyards, wheat and vegetables. The Orontes River, which turns in several parts into a muddy stream in the summer, separates the two countries at Hacipasa.
Hundreds of refugees are crossing to Turkey daily to join more than 30,000 already there. They include military personnel who surrender to Turkish authorities and then are sent to special camps, or who go directly to join activists or relatives.
Opposition campaigners say it is difficult to know exactly how many soldiers have defected or the total number of rebels fighting back against Assad's crackdown. They estimate that tens of thousands out of the 300,000-member army have deserted.
Syria's military fell under Alawite sway in the early 1960s, when Alawite officers took control of the best armed divisions and of intelligence units. That ushered in five decades of domination, strengthened by Assad's late father Hafez al-Assad, who co-opted key Sunni merchants and tribes to cement his power.
With the officer corps overwhelmingly Alawite, most of the deserters have been Sunnis of lower rank, although lately religious minority soldiers, particularly Druze, have also been trickling out, Free Syrian Army sources say.
SHOOT OR BE SHOT
Abu Suhaib, a non-commissioned officer in the Syrian navy at Latakia, defected at the beginning of this year after being imprisoned for six months in Seidnaya.
"I was lucky. Arab observers visited Seidnaya and the authorities decided to release nine of us. We were told to go back to our units. Eight of us defected," said Abu Suhaib, who goes by his nom de guerre and is now leading a platoon fighting Assad's forces in the province of Idlib.
"I was beaten and tortured and hauled in front of a field court where I was not allowed even a defence. I had to sign everything they wanted, including admitting a charge that I had planned an attack on Qerdaha," he said, referring to Assad's hometown in the mountains overlooking the Mediterranean.
The battle-hardened 28-year old, who had moved his wife and baby boy to Turkey, said he became pro-revolution after he witnessed the killing of unarmed protesters, whom his Alawite officers later described as "terrorists" who deserved to die.
One Friday in April last year, he went down to Sheikh Daher Square in Latakia, where about 200 demonstrators had broken through barriers set up by pro-Assad militiamen and tried to bring down a statue of Hafez al-Assad.
"Military Intelligence snipers shot dead nine demonstrators, including two boys. I decided then that I could be useful to the revolt by staying on the inside," he said.
Others wanted to flee early but could not.
Abdelilah Farzat, a Lieutenant Colonel now defending the rebel town of Rastan in the central Homs province, said he was itching to defect after Assad's forces killed dozens of demonstrators in Rastan early in the uprising.
But Farzat's son, a conscript, was being held at an army camp along with relatives of other military personnel from Rastan, to discourage defections.
"It was not easy. We were even being forced to shoot at protesters," said Farzat, who was stationed in the eastern Ghouta suburbs of Damascus, conservative Sunni Muslim areas that were among the first to erupt in pro-democracy protests.
Farzat said Sunni soldiers were ordered to deploy at roadblocks and fire at the demonstrations while Alawite Military Intelligence personnel stood to the back or on the balconies of apartments, ready to shoot the soldiers if they disobeyed orders.
As soon as his son was freed, he crossed sides.
"It took a year before I managed to defect," Farzat said. "I am not proud of this, but the regime has many ways to hurt our families, which is the main reason many are still hesitant to desert." (Editing by Douglas Hamilton and Mark Trevelyan)
BEFORE YOU GO
07/13/2012 1:00 PM EDT
Car Bomb In Damascus
Syrian policemen inspect the site of a car bomb explosion on Mazzeh highway in the capital Damascus on July 13, 2012. AFP PHOTO/STR (Photo credit should read -/AFP/GettyImages)
07/13/2012 12:00 PM EDT
Susan Rice Condemns Killings
U.S. ambassador to the U.N. Susan Rice tweets:
@ AmbassadorRice :
#Syria regime turned artillery, tanks and helicopters on its own men & women. It unleashed knife-wielding shabiha gangs on its own children.
07/13/2012 11:58 AM EDT
Russia Condemns Massacre
Russia says international envoy Kofi Annan will visit Moscow on Monday to discuss the ongoing crisis in Syria. Russia also called for an inquiry into an alleged massacre that took place in the village of Tramseh on Thursday. "We have no doubt that this wrongdoing serves the interests of those powers that are not seeking peace but persistently seek to sow the seeds of interconfessional and civilian conflict on Syrian soil," Russia's foreign ministry said in a statement, according to Reuters. Moscow did not apportion blame for the killings.
Read more on Reuters.com.
07/13/2012 11:55 AM EDT
Footage Of Massacre Aftermath (WARNING: VIDEO CONTAINS DISTURBING IMAGES)
The Associated Press obtained a video that purports to show the aftermath of an alleged massacre in the village of Tramseh, near Hama.
07/13/2012 9:34 AM EDT
How Do Syrian Fighters Get Their Arms?
How do Syria's fighters get their arms? An overview put together by Reuters explains that there are three gateways to the country -- Lebanon, Turkey, and Iraq.
Syrian rebels are smuggling small arms into Syria through a network of land and sea routes involving cargo ships and trucks moving through Turkey, Lebanon and Iraq, maritime intelligence and Free Syrian Army (FSA) officers say.
Western and regional powers deny any suggestion they are involved in gun running. Their interest in the sensitive border region lies rather in screening to ensure powerful weapons such as surface to air missiles do not find their way to Islamist or other militants.
Read the full report here.
07/13/2012 9:10 AM EDT
Activists Report New Massacre (WARNING: GRAPHIC PHOTOS)
This citizen journalism image made from video provided by Shaam News Network SNN, purports to show a victim wounded by violence that, according to anti-regime activists, was carried out by government forces in Tremseh, Syria about 15 kilometers (nine miles) northwest of the central city of Hama, Thursday, July 12, 2012. The accounts, some of which claim more than 200 people were killed in the violence Thursday, could not be independently confirmed, but would mark the latest in a string of brutal offensives by Syrian forces attempting to crush the rebellion. (AP Photo/Shaam News Network, SNN)
This citizen journalism image made from video provided by Shaam News Network SNN, purports to show a man mourning a victim killed by violence that, according to anti-regime activists, was carried out by government forces in Tremseh, Syria about 15 kilometers (nine miles) northwest of the central city of Hama, Thursday, July 12, 2012. (AP Photo/Shaam News Network, SNN)
07/12/2012 6:50 PM EDT
Hama Revolutionary Council: More Than 220 Killed
According to the Hama Revolutionary Council, a Syrian opposition group, more than 220 people have been killed in a new alleged massacre in Taramseh. Earlier reports said more than 100 people were killed. "More than 220 people fell today in Taramseh," the Council said in a statement. "They died from bombardment by tanks and helicopters, artillery shelling and summary executions."
Fadi Sameh, an opposition activist from Taramseh, told Reuters he had left the town before the reported massacre but was in touch with residents. "It appears that Alawite militiamen from surrounding villages descended on Taramseh after its rebel defenders pulled out, and started killing the people. Whole houses have been destroyed and burned from the shelling," Sameh claimed.
Read more on Reuters.com.
07/12/2012 6:17 PM EDT
Syrian State TV: 'Large Numbers Of Terrorists Killed'
Syrian activist Rami Jarrah tweets that Syrian State TV has confirmed deaths in Tremseh. "Terrorists" is often the term used by the Syrian regime for opposition forces.
@ AlexanderPageSY :
Syrian State TV: clashes between security apparatus & terrorists in #Tremseh of #Hama leaves large numbers of terrorists killed #Syria
07/12/2012 5:36 PM EDT
Update: Death Toll In New Massacre Reportedly More Than 200
@ Reuters :
UPDATE: DEATH TOLL IN SYRIAN FORCES' ATTACK ON VILLAGE IN SYRIA'S HAMA REGION IS MORE THAN 200, MOSTLY CIVILIANS - OPPOSITION ACTIVISTS