Manu Brabo / AP
Syrian army solider defectors are seen in a temporary prison, as Free Syrian Army fighters investigate their identity, not pictured, in the village of Azaz on Monday.
NORTHERN SYRIA -- The former Syrian military intelligence officer had his family to think of. They lived on his base and would be punished if he joined the Syrian rebels who have been fighting the government of President Bashar Assad.
“You need to get your family out before you can defect,” Abu Mohammed told NBC News at a makeshift bomb-making factory in the outskirts of Aleppo just days after he had escaped. (Due to the location and nature of the interview, NBC was not able to confirm the soldier's account.)
Smoking cigarettes and wearing his army jacket and a woolly hat, he said his wife and three children faced certain imprisonment once the government found out he defected. They would have been used as a barging chip to force home to come back where he would face certain death, he said.
He also had to think of his family and how staying with Assad's forces was wounding them too.
“The violence has become part of my children’s lives,” he said.
After plotting for months, Abu Mohammed made his move last week. While he did not want to discuss how exactly he got them off the base so as not to reveal information that would allow Syrian authorities to retaliate against them, he said he believed his family was safe.
As for himself, not so much: Abu Mohammed, which means father of Mohammed, has joined the rebels he’s spent almost two years working to exterminate. The war, which has pitted a Shiite-linked Alawite elite against largely Sunni rebels, has killed an estimated 40,000 Syrians and driven 500,000 abroad.
A look back at the violence that has overtaken the country
Abu Mohammed interrupted his conversation with NBC News to kneel and pray in the back room of a makeshift bomb factory on the outskirts of Aleppo. Explosions from a nearby rebel siege of an army base punctuated his prayers.
Preparing for the defection was not easy either because nobody could suspect you had any doubts about the government’s fight, he said.
“It’s a police state,” he said. And he would know -- his unit used to monitor fellow soldiers’ emails and telephone conversations, he said.
While morale had collapsed among the soldiers he knew, they could never let on, he said.
“You have to act like you believe the state media,” he said. “If you don’t do that, if you even show some suspicion, you could be accused of 'weakening the collective feeling of national patriotism'.”
Islamic radicals captured a key Syrian army base outside Aleppo as the city is left battered and divided amid a growing humanitarian crisis. NBC's Richard Engel reports.
“This regime forced the people to kill each other,” he said. “The West has not intervened because they want Syrians to kill each other, they know Assad is eventually going and until then they want to weaken the country.”
“Otherwise, why have they not intervened before?” he said.
Despite the destruction and death that he’d seen, Abu Mohammed said he was hopeful his country would come together when the war ended.
“The Syrian people will stick together again,” he said. “Now they are disagreeing on something -- Assad’s rule. When he goes, they will unite again."
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