Emad Khareeta says he had no choice but to defect. The 23-year-old, a member of the Free Syrian Army (FSA), stands outside his family home in a deserted section of town. Shards of concrete and glass litter the ground, the result of nearby shelling. The street is dark and quiet, his face only discernible in the glow of a cigarette. He tells his story slowly.
In April 2010, Emad was called up for his mandatory army service. When the revolution broke out in March 2011, he was deployed to various parts of the country—but it was his time in Homs, where he was sent on December 31, 2011, that compelled him to leave his unit. Sometimes called the “capital of the revolution,” the restive city in western Syria had been under siege by the regime of Bashar al-Assad since May and was the site of some of its bloodiest crackdowns. Emad describes indiscriminate killing and widespread looting by fellow soldiers, as well as an incident that deeply affected him, when an unarmed truck driver shot in the arm and legs was left to bleed to death in front of him. Ordered to fire on protesters at demonstrations, he says he aimed away.
“I was ready to die after what I had seen and been through,” he says. “I don’t want to oppress anyone.” He eventually paid an officer 20,000 Syrian pounds (approximately $300) for a three-day vacation leave. On January 26, Emad left and never returned, making his way back home to Zabadani.
Emad is just one of thousands of army defectors who are switching sides in a conflict that began as a nonviolent popular uprising but has since spiraled into an increasingly bitter and polarizing civil war, one that has become a theater for geopolitical interests. Facing crackdowns and mass detentions by security forces, protesters began to arm themselves in the late summer of 2011, many by purchasing smuggled weapons from border countries like Lebanon and Iraq. The revolt was further militarized by soldiers defecting to their local communities and bringing their weapons with them.
“They dragged us into arming ourselves,” says Malek al-Tinnawi, a 25-year-old FSA volunteer. He limps badly as he goes to retrieve a newly acquired assault rifle. Two months ago, he was shot through the ankle in clashes with the army. The local doctor inserted a metal rod in his leg to replace the shattered bone. “It’s a good one, isn’t it?” he smiles, brandishing the German-made H&K Model G3 rifle. “Not too used, almost like new.”
The rifle was brought to him on foot through a mountainous smuggling route from Lebanon. It was a gift from fellow opposition fighters, for being the first in Zabadani to demonstrate and one of the first in the town to take up arms. Still, Malek says, he would have preferred for the revolution to have remained nonviolent. “When we were peaceful, we were stronger than when we had weapons,” he says, patting the gun in his lap.
“This revolt started out with very modest demands concerning the state of emergency, and it has been dealt with since then as a war of a security state against its people,” says Fawwaz Traboulsi, a Beirut-based historian and columnist. It is this response, he says, that has militarized the opposition. As the revolt plunged deeper into a military confrontation this spring, countries in the Persian Gulf—primarily Saudi Arabia and Qatar—began to channel funds to the FSA on a sustained basis. More sophisticated arms and heavy weaponry have been funneled to the rebels through southern Turkey with assistance from the CIA.