Syrian military kills civilians in reprisals, 'executes own
troops,' defectors say
does not take credit for and is not responsible for the
content of news information on this page
Syrian military kills civilians in
reprisals, 'executes own troops,' defectors say
By Roy Gutman, McClatchy Newspapers
April 3, 2012
Syrian soldiers display their ID cards after
reportedly escaped to Iraq's Kurdistan region in
January 2012. Photo: AFP/YouTube
Civilians fleeing from fighting after Syrian army
tanks entered the city of Idlib, Syria. Photo: AP
See Related Links
DOMZIN, Iraqi Kurdistan, — Former Syrian
soldiers who have escaped to Kurdistan region in
northern Iraq are telling grisly stories of how
their units executed unarmed civilians for
demonstrating against the Assad regime and staged
mass reprisals when residents shot back, on one
occasion lining up and shooting 30 defenseless
The former soldiers - Syrian Kurds who've crossed
the mountainous border into Iraq's Kurdistan region
in small groups over the past three months, a group
that now totals well more than 400 - also brought
tales of colleagues being shot for not firing on
civilians. One former noncommissioned special-forces
officer even said he suspected that other government
troops had orchestrated an ambush his unit endured,
in an effort to motivate the unit to kill civilians.
Members of a special United Nations commission of
inquiry said they'd heard many reports of soldiers
being shot for not shooting civilians but that they
hadn't been able to confirm them. The U.N.
investigators said they hadn't heard reports of
government-staged ambushes against its own forces.
Reports of brutality against Syrian civilians in the
year since the government of President Bashar Assad
has moved aggressively against demonstrators
demanding Assad's removal are nothing new. But those
accounts have come largely from members of the
opposition or refugees, who've told investigators of
The testimonies of the former soldiers, however, are
the first accounts from individuals who were serving
in military units that allegedly carried out the
atrocities. They provide new substance to the U.N.'s
accusations that the Syrian government may be guilty
of "crimes against humanity" for its brutal
suppression of the anti-Assad uprising.
With foreign reporters largely banned from Syria,
there's no way to confirm much of what the former
soldiers say. But the accounts of more than a dozen
deserters whom McClatchy Newspapers interviewed
offered a consistent tale of men in uniform who at
first tried to avoid carrying out their orders and
then fled their country rather than continue to open
fire on what they considered to be innocent
None of the deserters said they intended to return
to Syria to take up arms against Assad.
One of the most detailed accounts came from a former
soldier who identified himself as Master Sgt. Maxim
Kawa, a pseudonym he adopted to protect his family,
still in Syria.
Kawa, who said he was 26, said he was based in Homs
with the Syrian special forces, an elite unit that
was deployed repeatedly in the heartland of the
uprising to suppress civilian protesters starting
last May. Kawa said the unit's mission was to
protect and clear the way for one of Syria's 16
security services to seize civilian resisters,www.ekurd.net
but that his unit's members also were ordered to
execute civilians. This they did until something
snapped, and top officers were sent in to give them
a two-day "re-education" course.
Kawa said the unit mounted repeated assaults on
civilian protesters in Baba Amr, a part of Homs that
the army retook in February after 26 days of
artillery bombardment, in the towns of Rastan, about
12 miles from Homs, and Tel Kalakh, on Syria's
border with Lebanon.
Kawa's unit occupied Rastan for eight days last May,
losing one soldier to an armed local. "Our officers
told us that we must take revenge for our friends,"
Kawa said. "They pushed us to kill civilians."
He said his group of about 50 soldiers dragged 30
men out of their houses, tied their hands behind
their backs and took them to the town's main street.
"We put them against a wall and shot them," he said.
A truck was sent in to collect the bodies, along
with tanks to target the town, but there was a
dispute among officers over the next step. A top
officer ordered the tanks to retreat, but Kawa's
immediate commander countermanded it, saying he was
operating under direct command of the minister of
defense. "If the tanks retreat, I will shoot you,"
"Use up your ammunition," Kawa quoted his commander
as saying. "You must clean the area, so there is no
Yet a day later there was another demonstration of
400 to 500 men, women and children, and as the crowd
chanted "Allahu Akhbar" - God is great - his
commander ordered the unit to "Shut them up." First
they fired small arms over the crowd. "But they
didn't stop," Kawa recalled. The commander was
angry. "He said, 'Shell in their midst,' with a
rocket-propelled grenade. I saw with my binoculars
that people were killed," Kawa said.
Kawa said that he and his group "didn't kill anybody
directly. But when they gave us the order to fire a
shell, maybe someone has been killed."
The troops were traumatized. After Rastan, Kawa
said, "soldiers were breaking down." That's when
more than a dozen top officers came to his base and
gave two days of what he described as "political
The officers told the troops they were being
deployed not to kill protesters opposed to the Assad
regime but to counter "radical Muslims" who were
planning to set up an Islamic caliphate -
terminology used by al-Qaida that means a
religiously ruled state. "These people are bad
people," Kawa recalled the top officers telling the
300 soldiers in his group. "Take revenge for your
friends. You didn't come here to be killed."
On their next mission, to Bab Sbaa in Homs, Kawa's
unit was ambushed by what he now thinks was another
government unit that had been sent there for that
"It was at 3 or 4 in the morning, and we were to
search the houses and clear the way for the security
forces to arrest," Kawa recalled. As his unit moved
into the area, it came under attack from a large
truck that blocked the main street. "They were
shooting at us," he said. One soldier was killed and
two were wounded.
That same day a close friend in the same unit
received a call from his brother, who serves in the
Syrian air force intelligence service. "He asked if
anything had happened to him," Kawa recounted. "He
told him, 'We have an order to shoot you.' "
Kawa said he now thought that government security
forces set up the ambush "just to push us to
continue fighting." The word got around the unit
quickly, further depressing morale. The unit was
ambushed again two days later. This time, he said,
an officer and five soldiers were killed.
A deep rift developed in the unit, Kawa said. He
said a lieutenant who defected to the rebels later
in the year planned the assassination of the unit's
commander, who was said to have had a direct
connection to Assad. He "laid a trap for him by
telling people in Rastan about his movements. They
assassinated him," Kawa told McClatchy.
Altogether Kawa's group carried out four missions to
Rastan, eight to Bab Sbaa, five to Baba Amr and many
others - as many as 100 in the second half of 2011.
Kawa fled Syria on Jan. 5.
For the non-elite troops, harsh conditions, poor
food, cancellation of all leaves, corruption among
officers and indefinite extensions of service
prompted many to plot their escapes. Several said
they had to take money from their families to buy
food from local merchants. But if caught sneaking
off base, they faced beatings, humiliation and a
week or more in the brig. They described prison
conditions as medieval, with 30 to 40 men packed
into a small cell.
"My unit, if it had the chance, would all flee,"
said Rolat Azad, 21, who was stationed near the town
of Idlib in northern Syria and was interviewed in
Domzin, near the town of Dohuk in north Iraq. Like
the others, he used a pseudonym. "Maybe 75 to 85
percent of the military, if they had the
opportunity, would escape and desert the army. They
are not with this regime."
Corruption is deep-rooted, with officers selling
food, access to cellphones, leaves, even allowing
those in jail to sleep in guard's quarters. It cost
Azad $500 to have a one-day leave, which he used to
escape the army and the country. But leaves have
always been for sale. "Before the revolution, one
month was $300," he said.
Another soldier, who gave his name as Diyar and his
age as 20, said he'd fled the military after he was
told that a close friend in another unit had been
executed March 6, apparently for refusing an order
to fire on civilians.
Diyar - who was based at a training center for
drivers near Dumeir, north of Damascus, for seven
months - was, like many soldiers, diverted into
joining the crackdown, and took part in seizing
houses and arresting civilians. Unprompted, he
pulled a photograph out of his pocket that showed
his friend Nechirvan Ali. "He was shot because he
wouldn't shoot others," Diyar said.
When he first heard of Ali's death, he called his
friend's unit and got the official explanation that
a friend had killed Ali killed accidentally. It
wasn't until Diyar fled his base and returned to his
hometown of Qamishli for his friend's funeral that
he knew Ali had been executed.
"We saw the body. He was shot three times, once in
the left chest, once in the right and once at the
center, as if he was tied up when he was shot," he
"We heard that there were a lot of defections (in
his unit) and he was told to shoot them but refused.
So they executed him," Diyar said.
He said he witnessed security personnel at the
funeral approach Ali's family members and offer to
pay them tens of thousands of dollars in
compensation if they'd say that terrorists had
Lawlan Ibrahim, 34, a civilian from Qamishli who
fled Syria in mid-March along with his 19-year-old
brother, a military deserter, was telling a visiting
reporter about the increasing pace of protests in
the mainly Kurdish town in northeastern Syria when
he pulled out his cellphone unprompted to show two
pictures of dead soldiers, whom he identified as
Govan Seid Osman and Isa Dawan Govan.
Both, he said, had been shot in the back. He said
both men had called their families a few days
earlier to say goodbye. "The day they brought in Isa,
they brought another 13 dead soldiers," Ibrahim
added, saying he'd heard that from the parents of
the dead. "I think a lot of them were killed in the
same way." He said the authorities took them to the
refrigerated morgue in the national hospital and
asked the families to bury them privately.
This has aroused a public furor in Qamishli. "This
is what makes people go out and do the
demonstrations daily. People are angry. They had
been every Friday. Now they're every night," Ibrahim
Copyright ©, respective author or news agency,
does not take credit for and is not responsible for the
content of news information on this page