In a closed-door briefing to the U.N. Security Council earlier this month, Oscar Ferandez-Taranco, the U.N.'s assistant secretary general for political affairs, cited reports that Syrian security forces had opened fire on defectors within its own ranks and executed troops that refused orders to kill civilians, according to a confidential copy of the briefing notes obtained by Turtle Bay.
The reports, which are unverified, appear to highlight the brutality of President Bashar al-Assad's efforts to enforce loyalty within his own ranks, and raised questions about the veracity of Syrian government claims -- echoed by Brazil, India, and Russia -- that the violence in Syria is increasingly waged between two armed camps.
U.N. officials and experts on Syria concede it is impossible to obtain a clear picture of events unfolding on the ground in Syria, where the government has enforced a strict prohibition on access by foreign media and outside observers to the country's wave of anti-government protests. But they maintain that the overall impression relayed by defectors, refugees, and human rights groups, suggests a one-sided bloody crackdown on peaceful protesters.
Last week, Syria's U.N. ambassador Bashar Jafaari, told reporters at U.N. headquarters that armed "gangs" and "terrorists" have killed more than five hundred members of the Syrian security forces. India's U.N. ambassador, Hardeep Singh Puri, has echoed those claims saying that this is "no longer an issue, and has not been for a while, of only a state against innocent, helpless civilians. There has been violence perpetrated against the security forces and against public infrastructure."
Jafaari said there are three categories of opposition figures in Syria: economically disadvantaged segments of the populations, intellectuals and academics, and armed terrorists groups that he said are responsible of killing at least 500 police officers and soldiers. He scolded his European counterparts for glossing over the violence against Syrian forces, saying they "were misleading you. This not honest."
Taranco said in the August 1 briefing that while "reports from a variety of sources assert that demonstrations have remained largely peaceful, there are also a few credible reports that military forces using excessive force against civilians have been confronted with armed opposition in some areas, in particular in Homs."
But he also cited one instance in which a defected military officer from the town of Deir al-Zour threatened to turn his troops on the security forces and government-backed militia, known as Shabihha, if they didn't stop the crackdown on civilians.
"There are also indications that more than 300 security forces or army personnel have died, in circumstances that remain to be elucidated, but could include clashes with armed opposition as well as internal executions of defecting soldiers," Taranco said. "A number of former defected soldiers or policemen interviewed by human rights organizations have stated that they received clear orders to use live ammunition against protestors and that those who did not obey were shot from behind by other security officers and Shabihha units."
In contrast, Taranco said in the same August 1 briefing that the government attacks on civilians followed a clear and consistent pattern throughout the country. "The pattern of violent repression has remained the same, with military units, security forces and supporting militias (referred to as "Shabihha") using live ammunition, including from snipers, shelling from heavy machine guns and tanks as well as air power," Taranco said. ""Overall, human rights groups put the death toll at 1,500 killed." (That number has since surpassed 2,000, according to a subsequent August 10 briefing to the council by Taranco.)
Nadim Houry, a Beirut-based researcher for Human Rights Watch who has interviewed military defectors, said that it appears plausible that hundreds of security forces have been killed during months of political unrest, including some who were killed by protesters who took up arms against the government.
"There have been a few examples where protesters did attack security forces," he said. "But these have remained marginal to the larger narrative. The claim that the Syrian regime has been battling armed gangs and terrorist is frankly not true. Yes, in certain towns some individuals who lost a friend or a cousin have decided to fight back. But this has remained quite limited. They are fighting tanks with Molotov cocktails, sticks and hunting rifles."
Houry also noted that in the early stages of the protests, he said some plain clothes intelligence agents, known as the Mukhabarat, mingling among the protesters were inadvertently killed by Syrian forces as they fired on the demonstrators. Additionally, he claimed that defectors have reported that the security forces have also opened fire on army defectors.
In the town of Jisr al-Shughur, protesters attacked the local office of military security, but only after coming under sustained fire by government forces, Houry told Turtle Bay. And in the town of Daraa, Houry has documented "a few cases where protesters picked up guns and shot at security forces. What happened there is we had seen protesters had come under fire, and eventually a few said ‘this is crazy' and they went home and came back with pump action hunting rifles and shot back."
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Longtime Washington Post correspondent Colum Lynch reports on all things United Nations for Turtle Bay.