The Soldier Who Gave Up on Assad to Protect Syria's People

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An image grab from footage aired on Syrian state television on June 13, 2011, shows what the official media reported was the discovery of a mass grave containing the mutilated bodies of uniformed men in the town of Jisr al-Shoughour

The Syrian colonel sits cross-legged on a patch of moist soil, wearing a borrowed plaid shirt and pale green trousers, surrounded by dozens of men who had fled the besieged northern Syrian city of Jisr al-Shoughour to an orchard a few hundred meters from the Turkish border. He says his name is Hussein Harmoush and shows TIME a laminated military ID card indicating his name and title. Everyone around calls him moqadam — Arabic for his rank. A colonel with the 11th Armored Division of the army's 3rd Corps, the 22-year military veteran says he burned his uniform in disgust more than a week ago, starting with the rank designated on his epaulets, then the rest of it.

"I defected from the Syrian Arab army and took responsibility for protecting civilians in Jisr al-Shoughour," he says. "I was late in taking this decision." His lower lip quivers. He struggles to maintain his composure. After a long pause and several deep breaths, the man with the thinning salt-and-pepper hair resumes: "I feel like I am responsible for the deaths of every single martyr in Syria."

There have been growing reports of Syrian military defections in recent weeks, after regime loyalists escalated their attacks in the northwest of the country. On June 5, units of the army reportedly defected en masse in Jisr al-Shoughour and used their weapons to defend unarmed protesters. Some 120 security personnel were killed in the mutinous clashes with loyalists, according to residents and rights activists, although Damascus denies the mutiny and says the deaths were at the hands of "armed gangs" wearing stolen military uniforms.

Although foreign journalists are barred from reporting in Syria, TIME managed to get across the Turkish border along steep mountainous terrain to reach thousands of refugees, most from Jisr al-Shoughour, staying in open fields and orchards on the outskirts of the Syrian town of Khirbet al-Jouz.

Harmoush, a native of the Syrian city of Homs, some 160 km from Damascus, the capital, says his orders were clear. His division was told to leave its base in Homs and "sweep the towns," starting at al-Serminiyye and continuing 5 km north to Jisr al-Shoughour. "We were told that we were doing this to capture armed gangs, but I didn't see any. I saw soldiers indiscriminately shooting people like they were hunting, burning their fields, cutting down their olive trees. There was no resistance in the towns. I saw people fleeing on foot to the hills who were shot in the back."

The refugees — who have just spent a chilly night in an open field under pouring rain — listen carefully and respectfully as Harmoush recounts his tale. They crouch in the mud, forming layers of concentric circles around the officer. He says he had been growing disillusioned with the military and the governing regime of President Bashar Assad for years, but like most Syrians raised on fear, he remained silent. The Sunni Muslim says officers from Assad's Alawite sect were given preference when it came to promotions and that some 85% of places in the officers' cadet corps were reserved for the President's co-religionists — the other 15% had to be shared among the rest of Syria's multisectarian and -ethnic patchwork society. Assad has surrounded himself with Alawite loyalists as well as people from other sects, including Sunnis, who comprise the elite merchant class.

For Harmoush, the government's spin on events in the southern city of Dara'a, where antigovernment protests first erupted in mid-March, was further proof that the system he'd sworn to protect was corrupt. "I know Dara'a. I lived in Dara'a. There are no Salafists or terrorists there. The people of Dara'a were slaughtered," he says. He furtively watched dissident videos, taking care to make sure none of his soldiers saw him. He followed Arabic satellite news channels, seeking another perspective than that of the sycophantic Syrian press.

Harmoush says that in al-Serminiyye on Friday, June 3, he decided enough was enough. "When we saw them shelling the town, shelling it indiscriminately, I decided to defect. I knew my men. They are largely conscripts. I know that if given the chance — and a guarantee that they won't be shot for defecting — three-quarters of them will leave, but fear keeps them in their place. I told them I took an oath to protect my people and my country, whoever wants to do the same and is a man of honor, follow me. Thirty did immediately."

According to Harmoush, the soldiers headed toward nearby Jisr al-Shoughour. More soldiers joined them. Soon, Harmoush says, he had 120 men under his command, including a lieutenant called Mazin who joined him along with his unit. They were there after June 5, the day hundreds of people who had gathered in a public garden were shot. "In Jisr al-Shoughour, we decided to defend the people until the last moment, but we had light weapons, rifles. They had tanks. We set up traps, an ambush. That brought us some time to evacuate civilians."

At one point, he recalls, about three dozen soldiers approached the defectors, claiming they wanted to join them. Instead, they opened fire on the defectors, killing many. "I tell you, I wouldn't have made that mistake," he says bitterly of the decision to let them join. "Shouldn't have made it, but things were crazy. The shelling was so heavy, the civilians were all around us — I didn't have time to think. So some of the soldiers were martyred, others fled into the hills, and some came over near the Turkish border."

For the past few days, Harmoush and a handful of his men have been helping residents of Jisr al-Shoughour trek across the hills toward the safety of the Turkish border. His own family is now safely in Turkey. He won't divulge whether he still has his weapon, nor if there are other defectors among the refugees in the fields, although many residents say there are. Harmoush is grateful for the opportunity to help his people but is haunted by some of the atrocities he says he has witnessed committed by the Syrian security forces. Tears quickly well up in his eyes when he's asked if there's an episode that sticks out in his mind. A man sitting next to him puts his arm around the colonel, who is now crying. At least half a dozen other men, most with graying hair and weathered faces, also begin to silently sob. These are rural Arab men, from a conservative community, openly crying, their grief overpowering their pride. The colonel doesn't answer the question. Instead, his voice cracking, he makes a plea: "I call on people of conscience, on people with humanity: Please help the Syrian people."