In the past few weeks, Jordan has seen a remarkable increase in the number of brigadier-generals, officers and soldiers defecting from the Syrian army into Jordan, taking refuge in the kingdom to escape the killings taking place in their country.
There is an official silence regarding the details of the number of defected soldiers and senior officers who have arrived in Jordan over the various stages of the crisis. However, sources in the Syrian opposition confirmed to Al-Hayat that this number has risen to over 800, including four brigadier-generals, 20 colonels, 45 senior officers and 10 pilots.
The defectors are currently under house arrest in a camp set up by the local authorities in Jordan in the northern city of Mafraq, which is only a few kilometers away from the Syrian border.
Afaq Ahmad, a defected Syrian officer and former director of the office of the chief of operations for Syrian Air Force Intelligence who has sought refuge in Jordan, told Al-Hayat that close to 8,000 soldiers, officers and noncommissioned officers have taken refuge in the kingdom since the start of the protests in Syria and after running out of ammunition while fighting forces loyal to the Bashar al-Assad regime.
However, he stressed that the defectors “have returned to Syria after the right conditions became available for them, and they were told by the Jordanian authorities that their choice to return to their country would mean that they would not be able to return to Jordan again.”
Ahmad said, “The remaining defected soldiers and officers in Jordan number over 800, while there were only scores of defectors previously.”
A number of defected officers and soldiers spoke to Al-Hayat about their difficult living conditions in Jordan, where they were put under house arrest. Hundreds of defectors are housed in small rooms at the camp, which is located along the Jordanian-Syrian border. Eight senior officers spend their days following news about Syria by following satellite channels and through newspapers that they buy at their own expense from the camp shop.
The camp blockade
Despite the blockade imposed on the camp, which covers a wide area of Jordan’s northern desert, we were able to talk to the defectors through Skype and the phones they had.
A defected officer — who pointed out that his military service was in the province of Daraa — said, “I headed to Jordan after announcing my defection and my ammunition ran out.” He added, “I never imagined I would become a prisoner within four walls. This is the situation of many who have declared their defection from the Syrian regime and sought refuge in Jordan.”
The officer, who preferred to remain anonymous, complained about the decision of the Jordanian authorities to prevent defectors from leaving the camp, even with guarantees, as is an option for the rest of the Syrian refugees. He also complained of Jordan’s decision to separate defectors from their families, who live in places reserved for refugees outside the camp.
He added that “the defectors here need security clearances to be able to meet their families outside the camp, and the visits usually take place two months after submitting a request.”
Mohammad al-Homsi, an officer who defected from the civilian police in Baba Amr in the province of Homs, had a similar story. Homsi has been staying in a small room with seven beds with a number of his colleagues for months.
According to Homsi, his defection journey began when he returned to his home in Baba Amr to find that it had been reduced to rubble. His home had been shelled by his colleagues in the military, killing four members of his family.
He said, “The army shells killed one of my brothers and three of my cousins ... I was forced to smuggle my wife and children into Jordan at night. When we reached the Jordanian city of Mafraq, army units transferred me to the defectors’ camp, while my family was moved to other housing units allocated for civilian refugees.”
Homsi explained that “the camp administration allows the families of the defectors to visit them three times a week, but the visit takes place under strict procedures, and from a distance.”
Homsi describes a shocking scene during his military-service days that he has not been able to forget, saying, “I remember that day very well, when military soldiers cold-bloodedly killed a wounded person at the military hospital in the area of Al-Wa’r. One of the soldiers punctured his head with an electrical perforator.”
An officer who defected from the military security force in the province of Latakia, Ma’adh al-Atrash — as he identified himself — complains about a shortage of mattresses and pillows in some caravans in the camp.
He says, “Many defectors are sleeping in the open air since the camp is overcrowded and suffers from a shortage of beds and mattresses," noting that “the camp administrators used to provide us with drinking water free of charge, but today we have to buy it at our own expense.”
No aid for military personnel
Atrash noted that “decisions that were issued concerning the defected military personnel prohibit the registration of their names in the United Nations High Commission for Refugees (UNHCR), which deprives them from the aid provided by the commission.”
He added, “We receive meals provided by the camp, and a few dinars from good people and NGOs concerned with providing services to refugees ... The scenes of of killings that can be seen in every Syrian city made me reconsider my position and take the side of my people, who are immersed in pools of blood.”
Zayed Hammad, head of the Ketab and Sunna Society, which provides relief for around 50,000 Syrian refugees in the kingdom, said that “the number of Syrians who are fleeing to Jordan has increased significantly during the last few days. On a daily basis, 500 to 1,000 people are escaping to Jordan.” He added, “We provide continuous and urgent aid for thousands of SyrianS, including the military defectors, through coordination with the official bodies that are responsible for their conditions.”
Hammad noted that “the cost of both the cash and relief aid distributed by the society since the beginning of the crisis to the roughly 50,000 Syrian refugees in Jordan amounts to $10 million.”
A senior government source told Al-Hayat that Jordan is dealing with the defected Syrian soldiers “with some level of sensitivity, saying that they are being dealt with somewhat “firmly” out of “concern for their safety.”
He said, “We fear that the Syrian defectors in Jordan might be subjected to assassination attempts. Any assassination that occurs on Jordanian territory will have significant implications.”
Regarding the shortage of aid provided to the refugees, the source asserted that “the government is bearing a high cost due to the presence of the Syrians in the kingdom, and we are in need of urgent international help.”
The latest official census on the number of Syrian refugees present in Jordan shows that there were 140,000 refugees at the end of June. However, relief workers say that the number is actually larger.