Reporting From Homs Without Syria's Knowledge

British journalist James Longman managed to spend two weeks in Syria on his own accord and without the Syrian government's knowledge. He attended protests by the opposition movement and spoke to army defectors about their decision to leave. Melissa Block talks to him about his experience.

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MELISSA BLOCK, Host:

Now to the ongoing revolt in Syria. A colonel who defected from the Syrian army has taken refuge in Turkey. Colonel Riad al-Asaad is the highest ranking officer to defect to the Syrian opposition movement. He says he escaped after being targeted by Syrian military forces near the city of Homs.

We're going to hear now from a British freelance journalist who managed to make his way into Homs without the Syrian government's knowledge. James Longman is now in Beirut.

Welcome to the program, James.

JAMES LONGMAN: Hi, there.

BLOCK: You spoke with a number of people who have also defected from the Syrian army in Homs. What did they tell you?

LONGMAN: Well, what they said was that Homs is facing a huge military campaign at the moment against a huge military crackdown. There's a massive military presence in the city. But what they said was that they're committed for the long run on getting rid of this regime.

I met a number of defected soldiers there as well who only actually on the previous week had been shooting on protesters. And so from what I could see, the people of Homs are very committed to the revolution.

BLOCK: How do they explain why they defected if they've been shooting on protesters just the week before?

LONGMAN: Well, when the military enters a city in Syria, you know, conscripted and non-constricted army soldiers enter the city first. And immediately behind them, the security forces enter. And so when these younger men opened fire on protesters, they're being told to do so from their superior officers behind them. If they don't open fire, they themselves can expect to be shot. As one man said to me: If I don't shoot, these snipers that they bring will shoot me too.

So I'm not saying this is happening - you know, every single soldier who's opening fires on soldiers is doing so against his will. But it seemed to me, and it seemed to them, that a huge number of soldiers are being forced into this.

BLOCK: You mentioned the reprisals they might face. The soldiers who defect are putting not just themselves at risk but their families too.

LONGMAN: Absolutely. I met one ex-member of the air force intelligence. Now, air force intelligence is probably the most feared branch of the security services. And he said that he heard a group had been to his family's home and said if they don't find him, and if he doesn't come forward and come back to the military intelligence, which obviously would just mean death, then they would take his family away.

But the thing is, is that, what they also made clear was that whether or not they defect, their families are going to be targets anyway.

BLOCK: James, there was a report yesterday in The New York Times which said that Homs, where you were, is approaching civil war. The report said that the opposition now has taken up arms, and that there has been a wave of targeted assassinations and sectarian killings, the opposition now killing those people who are believed to be government informants. Did you see that or hear about that when you were there?

LONGMAN: I did hear about a lot of these sorts of reports. I didn't just hear about it in Homs. I also heard it in Zabadani. Yes, there is an influx of arms. Yes, you know, the reports spoke about guns going on the market for a couple of thousand dollars and the rest. But I think we have to be careful about these sort of sensationalist kind of statements about sectarian civil wars.

There may well be a backlash against certain groups, in particular the Alawite groups, who've taken the side of the government, who, you know, obviously, that the government represents. But I met an Alawite-defected soldier, and the message that I heard time and time again was that this is not about sectarianism. This is not about civil war. This is about individuals protecting their right to live and their right to protest. It's about men wanting to arm in order to protect their families from the government.

If you call opposition groups fighting back against the military oppression a civil war, then maybe that's what's happening. But I don't know if we can call it a civil war just yet.

BLOCK: James Longman, thanks for talking with us.

LONGMAN: Thank you.

BLOCK: James Longman is a British freelance journalist. He recently managed to travel to Syria without the government's knowledge. He visited cities near the Lebanese border that have been sites of intense protest and government crackdown.

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