AR RAMTHA, Jordan – A man who said he is a former commander in Syria’s “Mukhabarat al-Askariya” military intelligence directorate, which operates under the direct authority of President Bashar Assad, claimed this week that the Assad regime has ordered its commanders to “shoot to kill five percent of the participants in any given demonstration.”
When the soldiers under his command, mostly Sunnis, refused to kill unarmed civilians at a demonstration outside Damascus, they themselves were slaughtered by the army and intelligence services, and dozens of them were killed, he said.
The “former commander,” who was interviewed by The Times of Israel on Tuesday in his hiding place across the Syrian border in northern Jordan, also said that Assad has been using Shiite fighters from Iran, Lebanon and Iraq in his attempt to quell demonstrations and fight back against opposition forces since the early days of the uprising against him.
Faisal — he asked not to use his real name because family members are imprisoned in Syria — told his story from a room in a rickety, seemingly abandoned building on the outskirts of Ar Ramtha, an ancient Jordanian city of 120,000 that lies directly across the Syrian border.
We had come across the building looking for Syrian refugees who might be living outside the camps set up by the Jordanian government; the police had blocked us from entering those. The entire building, which at one time had been a hotel — there was even a pool, half filled with brackish water — was now occupied by refugees, mostly from the town of Dara, which lies 15 kilometers or so inside Syria, north of the Jordanian border.
Faisal, thin and handsome, with taut muscles and a tattoo on his left forearm, squatted with us on the straw mats that covered his floor. He showed us his Mukhabarat photo ID, issued by military intelligence.
Soon afterwards, two other Syrian refugees, burly farmers from Dura, entered the room and for several tense minutes one of them interrupted Faisal’s narrative angrily.
“Why should we speak to you?” one of the farmers asked us, his voice rising. “What good will it do? If you want to see Assad slaughtering children, all you have to do is turn on the television. I spoke to my family in Dura on the phone today. They said that just today soldiers grabbed a nine-year-old boy in our neighborhood — a boy we all know — and slit his throat with a knife. Just to scare his family and the rest of us. Enough interviews! ”
Finally, the farmer calmed down, and Faisal continued to speak.
When the uprising began in March 2011, Faisal was in Lebanon, where he said he had been sent to tail a visitor to Lebanon from Los Angeles in whom Syrian intelligence had a special interest. He was called back home in mid-assignment in order to fight the “terrorists” — the government’s term — who were challenging the Assad regime.
One of his missions, he said, was to manage security arrangements for a group of 300 Shiite fighters who had been organized by the Iranian regime and sent to Syria before the uprising had erupted in full force. The fighters, Faisal said, had been sent from Iran, from Lebanon’s Hezbollah militia, and from Muktada Al Sadr, the radical Shiite cleric based in Baghdad’s Mahdi Army. Now, as opposition forces began to organize after the brutal attempts to suppress a Syrian spring, the Shiite fighters had become a target.
In a letter Faisal showed us, and allowed us to photograph, addressed to “All the heads of security committees in Syria,” security agents are warned that opposition forces are targeting the “fighters and intelligence officers from Lebanon, Iran and Iraq” and that their locations have been leaked. The committees are charged with protecting the foreigners by moving them around frequently, and by the “targeted killing of anyone who tries to get near them.” The authenticity of the document could not be independently confirmed.
As the uprising progressed, Faisal said, he was reassigned from army intelligence to duty in the field and was given command of a group of 250 soldiers. According to Faisal, that is when he received the direct order to have his men shoot 5% of participants in any given demonstration. If there were 1,000 demonstrators, the order was to kill 50, in order to strike fear and create deterrence.
But, assigned to suppress a demonstration in Douma, on the outskirts of Damascus, his men, mostly Sunni themselves like the demonstrators, refused to fire. Soon, his soldiers themselves were being fired upon by army and Mukhabarat forces, and dozens of them — as many as 100, in his estimation — were killed. Faisal himself fled in a jeep, and hid inside Syria for several months before escaping, through Jordan, to Egypt and then Libya.
Now back in Jordan living among fellow refugees near the Syrian border, Faisal is reluctant to leave his room. “There are Syrian Mukhabarat here in Jordan,” he told us. “That is for sure.”