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In recent weeks, the Syrian regime of President Bashar al-Assad has been shaken by a series of prominent defections, from the prime minister, to a leading Sunni general, to a military aviator who was Syria's first man in space. Defections are having an impact on the manpower, morale and weaponry on both sides of the ongoing conflict.
From Beirut, NPR's Anthony Kuhn tells us the story of one soldier who defected from an elite Syrian military unit.
ANTHONY KUHN, BYLINE: The Republican Guard is the Syrian army's most prestigious unit. Its chief duty is to protect the Syrian leadership. But Ra'ed never felt proud to serve. He was drafted in June of 2010 at age 19. Ra'ed asked that we just use his first name out of concern for his safety.
Ra'ed says his commanding officers were mostly minority Alawites, whose first loyalty is to Alawite president Bashar al-Assad. He says the officers did not trust Sunni conscripts like him, who were suspected of sympathizing with the rebels.
RA'ED: (Through translator) Some conscripts who are not trusted are issued rifles with no ammunition. I was one of them. I was given a Kalashnikov, but no bullets. Some conscripts who are considered troublemakers are just issued sticks.
KUHN: Riad Kahwaji is the CEO of the Dubai-based Institute for Near East and Gulf Military Analysis. He says that even conscripts whose loyalties are suspect can still be useful to the regime. They can be sent into battle in front of the pro-regime shabiha militia.
RIAD KAHWAJI: As frontline, just to act as sandbags for the shabiha and the Alawite troops.
KUHN: Republican Guard conscripts are the best-paid in the Syrian army. Ra'ed said he was paid about $10 a month. His chief duty was to chauffeur his commanding officer around Damascus. Riad Kahwaji says this kind of pay is not enough to maintain a professional military.
KAHWAJI: The conscripts are cheap labor. These guys are paid peanuts, if anything, for their military service. So they are dying for nothing.
KUHN: The prospect of being used as cannon fodder in a war on one's own people is enough to make many conscripts defect, Kahwaji says.
Ra'ed says he just wanted to serve his mandatory 18 months and get out, which he did. But while he was waiting for his military discharge papers, he says, he was contacted by military intelligence. They asked him to pose as a defector in order to get information on the rebels' troop strength and weapons. He pretended to comply.
RA'ED: (Through translator) I would give them outdated information, or just tell them obvious things. Or I gave them information that would help the rebels. For example, if the rebels planned to liberate a certain checkpoint, I would tell my handlers that the rebels would hit a different checkpoint.
KUHN: Ra'ed was sure one side or the other would find out he was a traitor and kill him. So he got rid of his cell phone, moved his family to a safe place, and defected to the Free Syrian Army.
Earlier this year, Ra'ed fought in the battle of Baba Amr, a neighborhood in the city of Homs. Ra'ed was firing down on Syrian army troops from a rooftop one day when he was hit by an enemy sniper.
RA'ED: (Through translator) The wound felt like an electric shock to my head. I held the wound and walked to a field hospital. At the hospital, the doctor asked my name and blood type. I handed him a piece of paper that I was given when I gave blood a week before. Then I lost consciousness.
KUHN: Ra'ed was carried out of Baba Amr through underground drainpipes and smuggled out to a hospital in Lebanon for treatment.
Ra'ed says that for him, defection was the right choice, and the only choice. Syrian authorities warned him about joining the opposition, but it went against what he knew.
RA'ED: (Through translator) They used to tell us that the opposition was just armed gangs. But that's not true. I know the people who were taking to the streets in protest. This revolution should have happened a long time ago.
KUHN: Ra'ed is now 21. He's slowly recovering from the large, bandaged wound on his head. He's seeking asylum in Europe, but he hasn't had any luck so far.
The Syrian regime has many allies in Lebanon, and Ra'ed fears that if detained here, he could be handed over to Syrian authorities and summarily executed.
Anthony Kuhn, NPR News, Beirut.
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