Behind the Syrian Regimes Lines: Brave soldier risks life to upload the truth
Editor’s note: Some dissident Syrian soldiers ordered to violently suppress pro-democracy protests have been risking their lives to secretly shoot and upload video of the deadly clashes. The author of this article recently met with several soldiers in a Damascus suburb.
The real identities of all of the people in this story, including the author, have been withheld to prevent reprisals. Similarly, the videos included with this report, some of which the author says were recorded by Syrian soldiers, have been altered by Wired.com to conceal the identities of the people in them.
Wired.com acknowledges the assistance of Meedan, a community for Arabic-English dialogue and translated current affairs, in reporting this story
DAMASCUS, Syria — Osama is 22 years old, green-eyed and short-haired, and loves wearing casual jeans and colored graffiti T-shirts. He is a soldier serving the Syrian army, but sometimes he leaves his uniform at the military base and bribes his chief officer, to take a day off.
He recently traveled here to go hunting for a brand-new video-equipped smartphone in Bahtha, the tech district of the Syrian capital where you can find every sort of electronics at a bargain price.
“They told me that Israel had occupied Daraa, and some people there were siding with Zionism against our president, so we had to go and liberate the city,” he says. But “there was no Israeli occupation there. We were actually occupying the city, there was nobody else”.
Like Osama, Ahmed, Rami and Mansour are soldiers in their 20s. They are here on their day off after a recent military action in [warning: links to graphic video] Izraa to meet with a tech-savvy friend and hand over graphic footage they shot inside a hospital immediately after a bloody clash with protesters.
The friend, who coordinates teams of so-called video soldiers with a satellite link from a suburban flat, takes their full flash cards and gives them back empty ones. In the past weeks, he has been uploading and circulating the mobile camera shots from Ahmed, Rami, Mansour and others on a number of video-sharing web platforms and on major TV channels.
“I decided to start filming and documenting the truth when I realized the amount of lies we are forced to believe at the army,” says Rami, echoing other soldiers interviews by Wired.com here who say they are determined to bear witness to the violence, despite the personal cost.
After more than two months of unrest and 850 confirmed deaths, the Syrian uprising has reached a new crisis point. On Thursday, U.S. President Barack Obama made his first public address dedicated to the Middle East uprisings that started last December in Tunis, then spread to Egypt and many other Arab countries.
it was the first time Syria was mentioned publicly by Obama, who made it clear that the U.S. will stand with the people’s legitimate demands for freedom. He has called upon the Syrian President Bashar al Asad to adopt a serious program of reforms, or leave.
But, as has already been the case in Tunisia and Egypt, the most important factor in determining the final outcome will be the position of the national army.
So far the Syrian military has not sided with the protesters, but some people — such as the soldiers drawn to the secret suburban flat here to bear witness to the violence — believe it is just a matter of time.
Slogans like “Syrian people and the army are one” are being heard at the demonstrations all over Syria. Protesters have been singing the national anthem, which highly praises the military.
People serving in the army are just ordinary Syrians, and for the first time many of them have been confronted with the dilemma of shooting at other fellow Syrians for reasons that are still unclear.
Military service is compulsory in Syria, and lasts almost two years. When called on duty, young Syrians have to go, unless they are the only male child in a family or unless they have had the privilege of living abroad for more than 5 years, in which case they can pay and clear their obligations towards the Syrian state. In 2010, army regulars were estimated at 220,000 troops, with an additional 300,000 in reserve.
Osama, Ahmed, Rami and Mansour are united in their criticism of the government, but they have very different personal stories, family backgrounds, social classes and religious beliefs.
Before joining the army, Rami was a journalist, Ahmed had a shop, and Mansour was trying to study at the university — without much success. Osama answers with a silent smile when asked about it: He was probably doing something illegal, and that’s how he has learned the “casual bribe” in order to obtain favors, even in the army.
“There are many people inside the army who think that what’s going on it’s wrong,” says Mansour. “They are still silent, but who knows in the future how they will react.”