They had been on both sides of the revolution, joining in peaceful protests against the Assad regime, but they had refused to join in the armed conflict against the government.
“It was impossible for me to shoot at the army,” said Ahmad, the more loquacious of the two. Syria Deeply is withholding their surnames and photographs at the request of their parents, who still live in the regime-controlled Idlib city.
In May 2012, they were nabbed at a military checkpoint and were forced to fulfill their mandatory military service, which both had been deferring. Syria’s army was in dire need of boosting its officer ranks, Ahmad said, and placed the two educated young men in the infantry school on the outskirts of Aleppo.
Roughly 500 cadets were in Adel and Ahmad’s class, 90% of them from the Alawite sect, according to Ahmad. Adel and Ahmed, on the other hand, are Sunni. Training for the first two months involved fitness exercises and classroom instruction, but that was interrupted when rebels swept into Aleppo late in July and Syria’s largest city was plunged into brutal urban warfare.
Most of the cadets were dispatched to man checkpoints in the city. Adel and Ahmad, the lucky ones, were ordered to guard the three square km campus. “The Alawites, even those who were our friends, seemed to be afraid of us,” Ahmad said. “When we went on patrol, especially when it was one Alawite and one Sunni, they used to watch us more than the fence ahead of us. You could sense that they didn’t trust us.”
Most of the supervising officers were Alawites, Adel said, and the commanders told cadets that the fight was against armed terrorists, many of them foreign, who were bent on destroying the country. Unable to call their parents or watch foreign news channels, the cadets had no way to verify this assessment. “They would insult Sheikh Arour,” Adel said, referring to the firebrand and sectarian Sunni cleric who has a TV show on a Saudi satellite station.
(A Syrian officer defects from the infantry school).
As war raged in Aleppo and news trickled into the infantry school of comrades who died or fled the battle, cadets from all sects quietly talked about plans to defect and speculated on when Assad would fall, Ahmad said. By November 1st, the battle reached the infantry school.
Rebels implemented a siege of the campus and methodically forced Syrian soldiers and officers to contract into defensive positions, in what was known as the “Battle of the Trenches.” Colonel Ali Saeed, the school’s commander, cancelled all training and classes to focus on breaking the siege. According to Ahmad, he explained the retreats as tactical and promised cadets that the military’s best tanks and Republican Guard units were just hours away from destroying the “terrorists.”
“They lied to us,” Ahmad said. “By November 18, the siege was tighter and we knew that we were done. Soldiers and officers began to defect every day.”
Food sources were depleted and cadets began to eat powdered mixes used to make Tang-like drinks. Water was short. Bread was flown in, but the commanding officers kept the bulk of the food for themselves, Ahmad said. “Even the Alawite students were hungry,” he said.
On December 15, rebels surged into the final stronghold left at the school. Ahmad and Adel used the confusion to flee, disobeying orders from the commanding officer, Major Ibrahim Haidar, to fight to the death. The rebels provided food and water to the survivors, Adel said, and took them to Aleppo for a week before sending them back to their families in Idlib.
(Rebels use a tank to shell the infantry school).
One rebel commander, Abu Furat, who died that day after gaining control of the school, had previously broadcast a public plea to the parents of the cadets, urging them to defect. But Ahmad’s mother said she never heard the message, which is unsurprising given the lack of power and unreliable Internet services in much of the country.
Ahmad and Adel’s friends in rural Idlib are now hardened fighters. One of the rebels said he was glad that his friends are alive and is certain that they weren’t criminals, but he doesn’t accept them as revolutionaries. He called them selfish, complaining that they stayed in the Syrian Army because Ahmad was scared of losing his job, while Adel wanted to be near his new fiancé.
Both men are thinking about leaving the country, but their families no longer have the resources to help them start a new life, and competition for jobs in neighboring countries is fierce. They are relatively safe for now, filling their nights by serving food and tea to rebels who were trying to kill them only a few weeks before.