Insurgents take over the Syrian military's infantry school, December 2012
Last month, after weeks of siege, insurgents overran an infantry school near Aleppo.
Syria Deeply speaks to two men, pressed into the regime military. who were caught up in the assault:
Adel and Ahmad, two 24-year-old college graduates from Idlib, are survivors of a showdown between the rebels and the regime. When the battle began for a military school near Aleppo, they were inside, serving time in the Syrian Army.
They had been on both sides of the revolution, joining in peaceful protests against the Assad regime, but they had refused to join in the armed conflict against the government.
“It was impossible for me to shoot at the army,” said Ahmad, the more loquacious of the two. Syria Deeply is withholding their surnames and photographs at the request of their parents, who still live in the regime-controlled Idlib city.
In May 2012, they were nabbed at a military checkpoint and were forced to fulfill their mandatory military service, which both had been deferring. Syria’s army was in dire need of boosting its officer ranks, Ahmad said, and placed the two educated young men in the infantry school on the outskirts of Aleppo.
Roughly 500 cadets were in Adel and Ahmad’s class, 90% of them from the Alawite sect, according to Ahmad. Adel and Ahmed, on the other hand, are Sunni. Training for the first two months involved fitness exercises and classroom instruction, but that was interrupted when rebels swept into Aleppo late in July and Syria’s largest city was plunged into brutal urban warfare.
Most of the cadets were dispatched to man checkpoints in the city. Adel and Ahmad, the lucky ones, were ordered to guard the three square km campus. “The Alawites, even those who were our friends, seemed to be afraid of us,” Ahmad said. “When we went on patrol, especially when it was one Alawite and one Sunni, they used to watch us more than the fence ahead of us. You could sense that they didn’t trust us.”
Most of the supervising officers were Alawites, Adel said, and the commanders told cadets that the fight was against armed terrorists, many of them foreign, who were bent on destroying the country. Unable to call their parents or watch foreign news channels, the cadets had no way to verify this assessment. “They would insult Sheikh Arour,” Adel said, referring to the firebrand and sectarian Sunni cleric who has a TV show on a Saudi satellite station.
As war raged in Aleppo and news trickled into the infantry school of comrades who died or fled the battle, cadets from all sects quietly talked about plans to defect and speculated on when Assad would fall, Ahmad said. By November 1st, the battle reached the infantry school.
Rebels implemented a siege of the campus and methodically forced Syrian soldiers and officers to contract into defensive positions, in what was known as the “Battle of the Trenches.” Colonel Ali Saeed, the school’s commander, cancelled all training and classes to focus on breaking the siege. According to Ahmad, he explained the retreats as tactical and promised cadets that the military’s best tanks and Republican Guard units were just hours away from destroying the “terrorists.”
“They lied to us,” Ahmad said. “By November 18, the siege was tighter and we knew that we were done. Soldiers and officers began to defect every day.”
Food sources were depleted and cadets began to eat powdered mixes used to make Tang-like drinks. Water was short. Bread was flown in, but the commanding officers kept the bulk of the food for themselves, Ahmad said. “Even the Alawite students were hungry,” he said.
On December 15, rebels surged into the final stronghold left at the school.