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Syrian civil war creates new class of defectors -- from rebels to regime

By Frederik Pleitgen, CNN
updated 2:49 AM EST, Wed December 4, 2013
  • Some who joined the Free Syrian Army are returning to Assad regime forces
  • One man joined FSA for the money and left because he witnessed atrocities
  • Another said he was kidnapped by rebels and forced to work
  • President Bashar Al-Assad has offered amnesty to returning defectors

Damascus (CNN) -- Since the beginning of the uprising against the regime of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad, a lot has been written about high level defections from the government side.

At first it was soldiers from the Syrian army, then officers and generals and even some high level politicians. But very little is known about those who joined the opposition but then returned to the government side.

When we were traveling in the suburbs of Damascus, a Syrian military commander introduced us to several men who said they had been with the Free Syrian Army in the Damascus countryside but had then fled to return to the government-controlled area in the capital.

It is impossible for CNN to independently verify their stories and claims, and government officials say they are skeptical, but their cases show that breaking the ranks in this bloody civil war is by no means a one-way street.

One of those we spoke to is 25-year-old Akram Samer Halabi. He said he joined the Free Syrian Army in 2012 for financial reasons.

Strategic Syrian town changes hands

"I didn't have much money to get my family food, and the FSA promised me that they would give me $400 a month to carry a weapon and help," Halabi said. He claims he was with opposition fighters during several battlefield operations but had never fired at the Syrian military.

Halabi said he decided to flee the rebel territory after he saw fighters carry out atrocities against civilians.

Another man, Wael Fadel Ninn, 28, claims he was kidnapped by rebel fighters while selling vegetables in the Mleha district south of Damascus, which is controlled by the opposition.

"A guy said, 'let's go sell in Mleha' and I did not know that his brother was with the FSA. All of a sudden fighters came and said I had to come with them or they would kill me."

Ninn said he spent most of his time in the rear echelon.

"Sometimes I had to dig fox holes and tunnels for them, and sometimes when they went to fight, they took me with them as well as a driver."

Both men said they managed to escape the opposition-controlled area that is surrounded by government forces by making contact with the Syrian army on the phone and then fleeing with their weapons.

"At night the FSA guys were playing cards. So I told them I could take their weapons and stand guard. I was talking on the phone, and they thought I was just talking with my wife. I started to run until I got to the highway on the government side," Ninn said.

The Syrian army commander for the south of Damascus told CNN that his forces are seeing more opposition fighters willing to defect.

"In the last months, the numbers became larger. We began with one person months ago and finished with dozens a week ago," said the commander, who would only be identified as Abu Saleem.

In the past, Assad has given several offers of amnesty to anti-government demonstrators for "all crimes committed" over the course of the uprising. His most recent offer came in October.

Abu Saleem said there is a procedure for those who want to quit the opposition.

"We make a paper for them, where they must guarantee that they will not go back to the other side and we check them to see whether they were involved in any crimes. Then we give them the paper for the authorities, and they are free to go. We do not detain them even for one minute," he said.

But the commander added that those who had been involved in the killing of Syrian soldiers would not be allowed to return.

Even with the number of defectors on the rise, according to the commander, their numbers have made very little difference on the battlefield, where both sides remain in a stalemate most believe will last for a while.

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