June 4, 2012
June 4, 2012
A senior Syrian military officer decided to defect and join opposition forces after witnessing hundreds of pro-regime militiamen massacring more than 100 civilians in the town of Houla one week ago, a newspaper reported on Saturday.
The Houla massacre, which has been singled out as the worst single atrocity of the Syrian uprising, heightened the international community’s anger against the Syrian President Bashar al-Assad’s regime. The killings occurred despite a ceasefire agreement between the Syrian regime, opposition forces and the United Nations.
Syria’s envoy to the United Nations, Bashar al-Jaafari, however, blamed terrorist groups as responsible for the massacre in which 49 children and at least 20 women were among the dead.
Jaafari said the Assad regime was undergoing an investigation to find the culprits behind the massacre, urging the international community to mitigate and not “escalate” what is happening in Syria.
However, the witness account of Major Jihad Raslan to the UK-based Observer online newspaper, defied the Syrian government’s propaganda and “made-up” scenarios.
Raslan’s account is considered to be the most important of the testimonies to have emerged since the massacre.
An officer’s account of Houla violence
Raslan, who served until last Saturday in the Syrian Air Force in the strategic port city of Tartous, said he had been in Houla on leave when the town was shelled just after 1 p.m. last Friday. It was then invaded by a civilian and gang-like militia, known as the Shabiha, he said.
Raslan said he was in his house, around 300 meters from the site of the first massacre in the village of Taldous, when several hundred men, whom he knew to be Shabiha members, rode into town in cars and army trucks and on motorbikes.
“A lot of them were bald and many had beards,” he told The Observer. “Many wore white sports shoes and army pants. They were shouting: ‘Shabiha forever, for your eyes, Assad.’ It was very obvious who they were.
“We used to be told that armed groups killed people and the Free Syria Army burned down houses,” he said. “They lied to us. Now I saw what they did with my own eyes.”
He said the killings in his area were over in around 15 minutes. However, the rampage in other parts of Houla continued until the early hours of Saturday, according to eye-witnesses and survivors.
“Those victims who were slaughtered are people that I knew well,” Raslan said. “These children I knew well, personally. I ate with their families. I had social ties with them. The regime cannot lie about these people, who they were and what they did to them. It was a brutal act by the regime against people who were with the revolution.”
Raslan said that he served on a missile base in Tartous, removed from the grinding everyday savagery of Syria’s uprising. “I knew they had been lying, but I had not been exposed to the effects of it. This was the first time I had seen anything like this.”
He said defections had increased sharply in the days following the massacre and he claimed to know of five defectors who were shot dead as they tried to flee through olive groves not far from Houla the day after the killings.
In late May, Syria’s Consul General in California, Hazem Chehabi, resigned from his post in protest of the massacre. The Syrian American Council (SAC) dubbed his political defection to be the first from Assad regime.
“Many more want to leave,” he said, “but they can’t. All holidays have been cancelled by the military. It is a very serious risk if anyone tries to flee now. I was only allowed to go on leave because of exceptional family circumstances.”
A second defector from Houla, a first lieutenant who was serving in nearby Homs city last weekend, told the British newspaper that Houla had changed the thinking of soldiers and officers like him who did not support the regime crackdown on dissent but had been too afraid to leave.
Allawites vs. Sunnis
Syria is a 70 percent Sunni country ruled by a minority called the Alawite, an offshoot Shiite sect.
The divide can be seen in Syria’s army, as the lower ranks are largely made up of Sunnis while high-ranking officers in the loyalist military are Alawites.
“There were no Sunni soldiers around Houla itself [when the massacre took place],” the former officer said. “They are all Alawites there, the officers and the soldiers.” [Houla] is a very sensitive area. Many of the Shabiha in Syria come from here. They won’t defect from here.”
The officer said he had regularly seen Shabiha groups work alongside regime forces, but said they appeared to take orders from intelligence officers, particularly the Air Force Intelligence Directorate, which has played a frontline role in the regime crackdown. “The military give them weapons and cover, and escort them in tanks,” he said. “But they sometimes work independently.”
“In other places away from Houla, it is not impossible that the Alawites might defect,” he added.
“They are starting to be worried now, starting to fear that Bashar [al-Assad] might leave.”
President Assad who has support from key allies, Russia and China, said Sunday that Syria is faced with a foreign plot to destroy the country and that the latest events have exposed them.
Russia and China continuously vetoed any foreign military intervention plan in Syria.