ANTAKYA, Turkey (Reuters) - As one of the Sunni Muslim soldiers who form the bulk of the Syrian army, Lieutenant Adnan Suleibi kept being pushed to the front of units fighting in the rebellious city of Homs.
Alawite personnel - members of the same minority sect as President Bashar al-Assad - remained in the rear. Alawites control the military through their domination of the officer corps and, crucially, direct the Soviet-style intelligence and secret police apparatus entrusted with preventing dissent.
“The Sunnis are cannon fodder and morale has been sapped. There are 75 men left in my brigade out of 250. The rest were killed, injured or deserted,” said Suleibi, a slim 23-year-old in jeans and striped t-shirt.
“As soon as the chance came, I made a run for it,” he said after crossing to the safety of Turkey last week with a comrade.
They are among a new wave of Sunni defectors who have abandoned the military in recent weeks as the army, short of gung-ho infantry, relies more on heavy artillery to batter Sunni towns.
The opposition says at least 17,000 people have been killed in a 16-month uprising against Assad, who says he is defending his country against foreign-backed terrorists.
Assad loyalists in the military use classic Soviet techniques to keep the men in the front line from running away, including the threat of death.
“In Homs I was afraid more of the military intelligence behind me that of the rebels in front,” Suleibi said.
“The military has become a murder and theft machine. The priority of the officers is for us to bring them big-screen televisions from the homes we enter,” he said. “I would have defected earlier if not for concern for my parents’ safety.”
Suleibi, who is from the coastal province of Latakia, served inland in Homs, part of a long-standing Syrian army policy of never using troops in their home regions.
After coordinating through Facebook using coded language with comrades who had defected, he flitted through the olive groves and vineyards of northern Idlib province and made a dash across barren land to Turkey.
Syrian military aircraft drop fliers near the border carrying barely veiled threats to defectors on the last stage of their escape, telling them that loved ones left behind will suffer.
“This is your last chance for you to save yourself. You are helpless in front of the Syrian Arab Army,” says one. “Go back to your folks and to the people you love, and do not become fuel for the hatred of others.”
Thousands of soldiers have been killed or imprisoned because they tried to flee and failed, or were suspected of planning to do so. Around 2,500 officers and lesser ranks are imprisoned in the notorious Seidnaya jail north of Damascus, which has been emptied of political prisoners to make way for military personnel, according to opposition sources.
A Syrian army pullback in the last two weeks from areas in rural Idlib and Aleppo bordering Turkey’s Hatay province, following Turkish army reinforcement on part of the frontier, has given rebels more room to operate.
The frontier terrain is a mixture of rolling hills and flat farmland planted with olive trees, vineyards, wheat and vegetables. The Orontes River, which turns in several parts into a muddy stream in the summer, separates the two countries at Hacipasa.
Hundreds of refugees are crossing to Turkey daily to join more than 30,000 already there. They include military personnel who surrender to Turkish authorities and then are sent to special camps, or who go directly to join activists or relatives.
Opposition campaigners say it is difficult to know exactly how many soldiers have defected or the total number of rebels fighting back against Assad’s crackdown. They estimate that tens of thousands out of the 300,000-member army have deserted.
Syria’s military fell under Alawite sway in the early 1960s, when Alawite officers took control of the best armed divisions and of intelligence units. That ushered in five decades of domination, strengthened by Assad’s late father Hafez al-Assad, who co-opted key Sunni merchants and tribes to cement his power.
With the officer corps overwhelmingly Alawite, most of the deserters have been Sunnis of lower rank, although lately religious minority soldiers, particularly Druze, have also been trickling out, Free Syrian Army sources say.
Abu Suhaib, a non-commissioned officer in the Syrian navy at Latakia, defected at the beginning of this year after being imprisoned for six months in Seidnaya.
“I was lucky. Arab observers visited Seidnaya and the authorities decided to release nine of us. We were told to go back to our units. Eight of us defected,” said Abu Suhaib, who goes by his nom de guerre and is now leading a platoon fighting Assad’s forces in the province of Idlib.
“I was beaten and tortured and hauled in front of a field court where I was not allowed even a defense. I had to sign everything they wanted, including admitting a charge that I had planned an attack on Qerdaha,” he said, referring to Assad’s hometown in the mountains overlooking the Mediterranean.
The battle-hardened 28-year old, who had moved his wife and baby boy to Turkey, said he became pro-revolution after he witnessed the killing of unarmed protesters, whom his Alawite officers later described as “terrorists” who deserved to die.
One Friday in April last year, he went down to Sheikh Daher Square in Latakia, where about 200 demonstrators had broken through barriers set up by pro-Assad militiamen and tried to bring down a statue of Hafez al-Assad.
“Military Intelligence snipers shot dead nine demonstrators, including two boys. I decided then that I could be useful to the revolt by staying on the inside,” he said.
Others wanted to flee early but could not.
Abdelilah Farzat, a Lieutenant Colonel now defending the rebel town of Rastan in the central Homs province, said he was itching to defect after Assad’s forces killed dozens of demonstrators in Rastan early in the uprising.
But Farzat’s son, a conscript, was being held at an army camp along with relatives of other military personnel from Rastan, to discourage defections.
“It was not easy. We were even being forced to shoot at protesters,” said Farzat, who was stationed in the eastern Ghouta suburbs of Damascus, conservative Sunni Muslim areas that were among the first to erupt in pro-democracy protests.
Farzat said Sunni soldiers were ordered to deploy at roadblocks and fire at the demonstrations while Alawite Military Intelligence personnel stood to the back or on the balconies of apartments, ready to shoot the soldiers if they disobeyed orders.
As soon as his son was freed, he crossed sides.
“It took a year before I managed to defect,” Farzat said. “I am not proud of this, but the regime has many ways to hurt our families, which is the main reason many are still hesitant to desert.”
Editing by Douglas Hamilton and Mark Trevelyan