BEIRUT, Lebanon -- Raed is fit, tall and handsome. Last month, he celebrated his 21st birthday. Before the Syrian uprising began in March of 2011, Raed aspired to work in construction, though he was not clear exactly in what capacity. He just likes “to build things,” he said. All he had to do was finish his military service, mandatory for young men in Syria, then start looking for work.
But these days, Raed leads a life he could not have imagined. He lives in hiding in Lebanon with his parents and seven siblings, with an eighth one on the way, all of whom he helped smuggle out of Syria four months ago.
He worries constantly about being stopped at one of Lebanon’s many checkpoints, where he fears the Lebanese authorities, or any number of pro-Syrian government militia, would immediately send him back to Syria. “There, I would be eliminated right away. No questions asked. It would be a field execution,” he said. And he carries the physical evidence of combat, a serious face injury from a sniper’s bullet.
Raed is like so many young Syrian men today: He defected from the Syrian military to join the country’s armed rebellion. There are no formal statistics on how many armed rebels there are in Syria today, but the Free Syrian Army claims to be 30,000 strong. Of those, activists say at least one third are defectors from President Bashar al-Assad’s forces, both soldiers and officers.
Also difficult to know is the number of armed rebels killed since Syria’s uprising began 17 months ago. According to the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights, more than 23,000 Syrians have been killed in the conflict so far. This figure includes civilians, which activists say could be more than half of the casualties.
He himself is one, he says, of only six survivors of his 240-strong rebel brigade. Those who aren’t dead are all injured and in hiding.
Raed said he is still “mentally processing” all that has happened in his life over the past few months. His story tells of a harrowing journey from a cushy job as a conscript in Syria’s elite Republican Guard to his later defection. In it, he sheds light on complicated sectarian relations within the military ranks, disillusionment with the uprising among rebels themselves and the overall tragedy of Syria’s civil war, with all the lives it is destroying.
Raed’s conscription began in June 2010, months before the start of the uprising. His assignment was to be the personal driver to his commanding officer at a post in the country’s capital, Damascus. At the time, there were no signs of the violence that would soon grip the country. Conscripts even complained of having too much downtime during their mandatory 18-month service.
“The officers would often throw barbecue parties, and they’d ask me to grill the meat and fix them a carafe of arak,” Raed said, referring to the popular alcoholic drink that requires just the right balance of chilled water and ice. (In Syria, a majority-Muslim but secular country, alcohol is commonly available.)
Suspect From Homs
When the first signs of turmoil began to emerge, starting with unrest in the country’s southern town of Daraa, the armed forces went on alert. As Syrian civilians became more divided about the direction their country was taking, military personnel, too, grew distrustful of each other.
Raed recalled purposely sidestepping conversations with his fellow conscripts about the uprising. At a time when there were conflicting reports about whether the military was shooting at unarmed civilians, Raed said he knew firsthand that this was happening. He said he knew this because he used to join the protests, incognito, during his home-leave weekends in Homs, one of the rebellion’s hotbed cities. Being from there also made him suspect in the eyes of many in the military.
On one occasion, a fellow conscript reported Raed up the chain of command on suspicion that he had torn down a picture of Syria’s president and stepped on it with his combat boots. Raed was indeed guilty of the offense, but fortunately he had a good relationship with his commanding officer, who seemed to have taken him in as a protégé. When the officer asked Raed about the incident, he denied it, and his boss did not press the matter. “He just smiled a little,” Raed said.
Raed is a Sunni Muslim, and his commanding officer belonged, like President Assad, to the Alawite ruling minority, an offshoot of Shiite Islam. Yet Raed sensed, though he could never be certain, that the officer actually sympathized with the uprising.
This is a common theme heard from the hundreds of officers who have defected from the Syrian army over the past months, among them Alawites. Many defectors say there is a great deal of discontent within the ranks regardless of sect, but fear for one’s life and the lives of family members stop many from defecting.
It was this fear that also stopped Raed from acting sooner. First, he needed to send his family into hiding. There were too many stories of harm brought to families of defectors by regime sympathizers. Then he had to have the freedom of movement to leave his post. This was becoming increasingly more difficult as the military cancelled home leave for all personnel and severely curtailed movement to prevent rising defections.
Soldier, Rebel And Double Agent
Opportunity came knocking when Raed was approached by Syrian intelligence to become an informant on the armed rebels in Homs. Had Raed turned down the offer, he probably would have been flagged as suspect. “So I accepted,” Raed said. “And on my first day in Homs, I defected. I told the Free Syrian Army what was up, that I’d been sent to spy on them. I told them I was willing to give my bosses false intel.”
For four months, he said, he did just that. He said the commander of his FSA militia group, called Al Farouq Brigade, was a Salafi, someone who adheres to a puritanical interpretation of Islam. Salafi-funded brigades have been on the rise in Syria’s armed rebellion. Activists explain that different militia receive funding from different individuals or groups abroad, almost always anonymously. When a brigade starts to “look” Salafi, then it can be presumed that its funder, too, is Salafi. The tell-tale signs of the Salafi “look” is a goatee with a shaved mustache, which is how top commanders of the Al Farouq Brigade looked in their own YouTube videos.
The rise of such Salafi groups has been a lightning rod for criticism in the widely secular country. The Free Syrian Army, a loose coalition of independently funded militia, often tries to distance itself from Salafis. But Raed said the commander of his brigade never pressured any of the fighters to embrace the Salafi way. They all focused on the one thing they agreed upon: Fight the Syrian military.
Asked how he felt about fighting and killing young conscripts like himself, Raed said he had no doubt he was acting in the defense of innocent civilians: “It’s kill or allow civilians to be killed.”
Such was the case in late February of this year, the day Raed got injured. He threw a grenade from a low rooftop at a troop of six soldiers who he said were trying to enter the besieged neighborhood of Baba Amr in Homs, which has endured some of the worst devastation in Syria.
A Sniper’s Bullet
“The soldiers were charging in, and behind me were homes of families, with women and children,” he recalled. Raed said that after the grenade exploded, he spotted a sniper that appeared to see him from a taller roof kitty-corner from him. “So I ducked into his blind spot, but he then moved to his other corner and took a shot at me from there,” Raed said.
The bullet grazed his face and chipped a piece off his cheekbone: “It felt like a strong electric shock. I didn’t even know I’d been hit until I put my hand on my face and found blood.”
He walked to a field clinic set up by rebels to treat injured civilians and fighters. He found some of his friends from the battalion there, and he said it was their reaction that gave him an inkling about the severity of his injury. “My friend saw me and immediately had tears running down his face,” Raed said. “He kept telling me ‘say your shahada, say your shahada’” -- one of Islam’s five pillars, which Muslims say often in prayer and even in casual conversation. It is also the final rite, to be uttered when one feels that death is imminent.
Raed passed out after that, but he said he later learned that the doctors at the field clinic stabilized and prepared him to be smuggled to a proper hospital in Lebanon. Taking him to a one in Syria would have been too dangerous, because the authorities could have captured him there. He recalls coming in and out of consciousness as he was being carried through the same underground tunnel that he had once used to smuggle weapons.
When he first joined Al Farouq, Raed said he was promised that anyone injured would be fully cared for, along with his family. But this promise has proven false.
“The commander wants nothing to do with me now. I’m completely on my own,” he said.
The Red Crescent, the Muslim equivalent of the Red Cross, and some Qatari-based charities paid for Raed’s initial operation, but he said his doctors explained that he still needs facial reconstructive surgery. But the Red Crescent considers the additional work to be aesthetic and, therefore, will not cover it.
Today, Raed worries that his visible facial injury might blow his cover to Syrian intelligence, which is known to operate extensively in Lebanon. He worries also about what his doctors told him -- that in time his cheekbone will recede further, unless he has the proper reconstructive procedure.
As for the future, Raed has no plans to return to Syria. He said too many brigades were acting on their own, interested only in advancing their agenda. Some of them, including in his Homs neighborhood of Khalidiya, act “like armed gangsters. The revolution used to be a beautiful thing,” he said. “But now, it’s all ruined.”
His younger brother wants to take up arms and join the rebels in Syria, but a disillusioned Raed has warned him to stay away. “I tell him he should fight for the revolution, but on his own. He should go in as a one-man revolutionary.”