Skip to main content

Syrian civil war creates new class of defectors -- from rebels to regime

By Frederik Pleitgen, CNN
December 4, 2013 -- Updated 0749 GMT (1549 HKT)
STORY HIGHLIGHTS
  • Some who joined the Free Syrian Army are returning to Assad regime forces
  • One man joined FSA for the money and left because he witnessed atrocities
  • Another said he was kidnapped by rebels and forced to work
  • President Bashar Al-Assad has offered amnesty to returning defectors

Damascus (CNN) -- Since the beginning of the uprising against the regime of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad, a lot has been written about high level defections from the government side.

At first it was soldiers from the Syrian army, then officers and generals and even some high level politicians. But very little is known about those who joined the opposition but then returned to the government side.

When we were traveling in the suburbs of Damascus, a Syrian military commander introduced us to several men who said they had been with the Free Syrian Army in the Damascus countryside but had then fled to return to the government-controlled area in the capital.

It is impossible for CNN to independently verify their stories and claims, and government officials say they are skeptical, but their cases show that breaking the ranks in this bloody civil war is by no means a one-way street.

One of those we spoke to is 25-year-old Akram Samer Halabi. He said he joined the Free Syrian Army in 2012 for financial reasons.

Strategic Syrian town changes hands

"I didn't have much money to get my family food, and the FSA promised me that they would give me $400 a month to carry a weapon and help," Halabi said. He claims he was with opposition fighters during several battlefield operations but had never fired at the Syrian military.

Halabi said he decided to flee the rebel territory after he saw fighters carry out atrocities against civilians.

Another man, Wael Fadel Ninn, 28, claims he was kidnapped by rebel fighters while selling vegetables in the Mleha district south of Damascus, which is controlled by the opposition.

"A guy said, 'let's go sell in Mleha' and I did not know that his brother was with the FSA. All of a sudden fighters came and said I had to come with them or they would kill me."

Ninn said he spent most of his time in the rear echelon.

"Sometimes I had to dig fox holes and tunnels for them, and sometimes when they went to fight, they took me with them as well as a driver."

Both men said they managed to escape the opposition-controlled area that is surrounded by government forces by making contact with the Syrian army on the phone and then fleeing with their weapons.

"At night the FSA guys were playing cards. So I told them I could take their weapons and stand guard. I was talking on the phone, and they thought I was just talking with my wife. I started to run until I got to the highway on the government side," Ninn said.

The Syrian army commander for the south of Damascus told CNN that his forces are seeing more opposition fighters willing to defect.

"In the last months, the numbers became larger. We began with one person months ago and finished with dozens a week ago," said the commander, who would only be identified as Abu Saleem.

In the past, Assad has given several offers of amnesty to anti-government demonstrators for "all crimes committed" over the course of the uprising. His most recent offer came in October.

Abu Saleem said there is a procedure for those who want to quit the opposition.

"We make a paper for them, where they must guarantee that they will not go back to the other side and we check them to see whether they were involved in any crimes. Then we give them the paper for the authorities, and they are free to go. We do not detain them even for one minute," he said.

But the commander added that those who had been involved in the killing of Syrian soldiers would not be allowed to return.

Even with the number of defectors on the rise, according to the commander, their numbers have made very little difference on the battlefield, where both sides remain in a stalemate most believe will last for a while.

ADVERTISEMENT
Part of complete coverage on
Syrian crisis
September 9, 2014 -- Updated 1448 GMT (2248 HKT)
As a 10-year-old, this boy first hit the headlines in 1982 when he saved his cat from a fire. This year, he was reported to be a suicide bomber.
September 5, 2014 -- Updated 1803 GMT (0203 HKT)
Aqsa Mahmood,19, would listen to Coldplay and read Harry Potter books. Then this Glasgow girl became an ISIS bride.
August 29, 2014 -- Updated 0823 GMT (1623 HKT)
The little boy looks barely old enough to walk, let alone understand the dark world he's now inhabiting.
August 29, 2014 -- Updated 0422 GMT (1222 HKT)
ISIS has released video of the aftermath of a mass execution. Another video shows alleged captured Peshmerga soldiers.
August 30, 2014 -- Updated 0933 GMT (1733 HKT)
The number of people who have fled Syria and registered as refugees amid the country's civil war will surpass 3 million Friday.
August 29, 2014 -- Updated 1849 GMT (0249 HKT)
Douglas McAuthur McCain, 33, grew up in the Minneapolis area, but died more than 6,000 miles away in Syria, fighting for ISIS.
September 1, 2014 -- Updated 2054 GMT (0454 HKT)
If the United States is serious about thoroughly defeating ISIS, it must, somehow, go through Syria.
June 26, 2014 -- Updated 1243 GMT (2043 HKT)
Jihadists have kidnapped over 140 Kurdish boys to "brainwash" them. But a few boys made a daring escape.
June 26, 2014 -- Updated 1248 GMT (2048 HKT)
Reports that Syrian warplanes carried out a cross-border attack on Iraqi towns is further evidence of the blurring of the two countries' borders.
June 24, 2014 -- Updated 2133 GMT (0533 HKT)
CNN's Atika Shubert speaks to a father whose teenage son joined the Jihad movement in Syria.
June 23, 2014 -- Updated 1141 GMT (1941 HKT)
At the start of Syria's civil unrest, Omar would rally against the government alongside his schoolmates, later taking to the streets in his hometown of Salqin.
June 23, 2014 -- Updated 2117 GMT (0517 HKT)
Atika Shubert looks at the rise of European jihadists traveling to Syria and whether they soon could join ISIS in Iraq.
June 23, 2014 -- Updated 1453 GMT (2253 HKT)
The final stockpile of Syria's chemical weapons has been shipped out of the country, according to the OPCW, the Organisation for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons.
June 25, 2014 -- Updated 2025 GMT (0425 HKT)
The US isn't doing airstrikes in Iraq. Is there a vacuum for Syria and Iran to step in? CNN's Fareed Zakaria weighs in.
June 10, 2014 -- Updated 0804 GMT (1604 HKT)
CNN's Nick Paton Walsh reports on Syrian rebels using underground explosions against the better-equipped regime.
June 9, 2014 -- Updated 1151 GMT (1951 HKT)
CNN's Nick Paton Walsh returns to the besieged rebel areas of Aleppo, a pale skeleton of a city that has had the life bombed out of it.
June 2, 2014 -- Updated 1151 GMT (1951 HKT)
Syria may be embroiled in a brutal three-year civil war, but that's not stopping the government from holding presidential elections.
June 3, 2014 -- Updated 1123 GMT (1923 HKT)
CNN's Nick Paton Walsh meets an ISIS defector in hiding and gets a rare look into the group's recruitment process.
June 5, 2014 -- Updated 1610 GMT (0010 HKT)
Over a thousand Syrian refugees have turned an abandoned shopping mall in Lebanon into makeshift living quarters.
September 22, 2014 -- Updated 1815 GMT (0215 HKT)
More than 100,000 people reportedly have been killed in Syria since a popular uprising in 2011 spiraled into a civil war.
ADVERTISEMENT