BEIRUT -- A large group of Syrian military men, including a general, two colonels and at least 30 soldiers, have crossed into Turkey, becoming the latest to have switched sides in the Syrian conflict, Turkish media reported Monday.
They join the swelling numbers of defectors, whose ranks include a Syrian air force colonel granted political asylum in neighboring Jordan on June 21 after landing his MiG-21 fighter jet at a military airfield. Syria denounced the pilot, whose family is reportedly safe in Jordan, as a traitor.
More than a dozen generals are among the defectors who have abandoned their posts since the revolt against Syrian President Bashar Assad began almost 16 months ago. The desertions have been both a potent symbolic victory for the opposition and a source of experienced rebel recruits to battle government forces. Some officers have publicly urged their colleagues to join them in changing loyalties.
However, it remains unclear to what extent the continued stream of desertions has degraded Syria’s overall counterinsurgency capabilities. The opposition says the Syrian armed forces are stretched thin and suffer from failing equipment and battered morale.
But the upper echelons of the Syrian military and security establishment are said to remain loyal to Assad. The president, like much of the security elite, is a member of the minority Alawite sect, an offshoot of Shiite Islam. Most Army conscripts come from the Sunni Muslim majority, which is the driving force behind the rebellion. Many Alawites have come to regard their fates as intertwined with that of Assad, as the conflict takes on what many view as an increasingly sectarian character.
There have been no reported large-scale defections of entire Syrian battalions or brigades, as seen last year in the Libyan revolt against Moammar Kadafi. And Syrian troops using tanks, artillery and attack helicopters have shown a continuing ability to push back opposition fighters.
-- Patrick J. McDonnell
Photo: A picture provided by Syrian activists shows the Syrian air force's Russian-made MiG-21 plane that a pilot landed at the King Hussein military base in northern Jordan on June 21, 2012. Credit: Ammon News