Cajoling, Drugging and More as Rebels Try to Draw Defectors
ANTAKYA, Turkey — For months, the disparate militias known as the Free Syrian Army relied on defections from the Syrian military to lead a credible if halting challenge to the government of President Bashar al-Assad. Every day seemed to bring word of new recruits. Soldiers fled in packs, or officers stole across a border, lifting the rebels’ morale while swelling their ranks.
But now opposition commanders say defections have slowed to a trickle. Some commanders have given up trying to entice defectors, and others have resorted to more desperate measures: cajoling, duping, threatening and even drugging and kidnapping military men to get them to change sides, or at least stay out of the fight. Without defections, they say, the opposition cannot hope to grow, never mind prevail.
“We use means only used by the devil,” said Ahmed Qunatri, a rebel commander in northern Syria who defected from the Republican Guard.
As Syria’s fighting burns into its 19th month, Mr. Assad’s forces have moved effectively to cut off what amounts to the armed rebellion’s most significant resource: soldiers with training and weapons who change sides. In a shift in strategy, the government has preferred to attack towns and neighborhoods from a distance using artillery and air power, preserving its resources and distancing its soldiers from rebel fighters — and from the public, including friends and neighbors, who might encourage defections.