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ALEPPO — At one of the gates of a major infantry academy at the northern entrance of Aleppo — also known as Sheikh Suleiman Base — a tank stands, covered by leaves and grass. The tank was taken by the Free Syrian Army (FSA) early in the morning of 12 December during an ongoing battle by Syrian rebels for the strategic location.
Some of the fighters posed in front of the tank and took pictures with their mobile phones to celebrate and document their victory. A few meters away, at the FSA operations headquarters, commander Abu Fourat from the Tawheed Brigade, drank tea as he chatted with his officers.
He told Egypt Independent they had been fighting in the area of the base — some eight kilometers square — for the last month. It began as a snipers’ battle, but, last week, the rebels began to attack the base on the ground.
Due to its size and location, the FSA considers the base an important target. Taking it means full control from the border with Turkey to Aleppo, Syria’s second largest city and its economic hub. The base also connects Aleppo to the countryside, with most artillery attacks on villages coming from the base.
Victory on the base could possibly conclude the months-long fighting in the northern part of Syria. This control had so far been prevented by President Bashar al-Assad’s snipers, who had taken advantage of the city’s open spaces to identify and strike targets.
On the morning of 10 December, the Islamist Nusra Brigade ended one of the main operations at the frontline inside the school after other FSA brigades, most notably the Tawheed Brigade, paved the way for fighting around the facility.
The brigades set up check points around the military base once they managed to liberate most of the areas surrounding Aleppo and besiege Assad’s soldiers, who were only receiving supplies via helicopter. As FSA soldiers closed in on the base, they set up an operations center and asked civilians to move away, positioning snipers at strategic points. Only after they managed to secure weapons and more soldiers, did the fighters step in on the ground to conclude the battle.
With the help of the Nusra soldiers on 10 December, they could have taken over the whole school, says Abu Fourat.
“But we were waiting for some soldiers who want to defect,” he says. “We know that the situation on the other side is very bad. They are not well treated and don’t want to fight anymore.” Abu Fourat and his fighters say they did not want to kill the possible defectors during the fighting.
Then, on 12 December, 19 soldiers did defect with the help of the FSA.
“We had this group today and we are waiting for 28 more soldiers to defect. Once they come to us, they are free to return to their families or to join the FSA,” Abu Fourat says.
Thirty meters from headquarters, a single room shelters the 19 defected soldiers. who slowly explain how the situation has become dire on the other side. One of them says they were fighting with just one meal of soup a day.
“We were getting very cold and, if someone was sick, we didn’t get the proper medicine. The morale of the troops is down. Once the FSA got close to us in the field, they were able to suggest to us to defect,” said one soldier, who preferred to remain anonymous.
The FSA arranged their escape from the school by attacking one of the areas through which they snuck out. Once they met with the FSA, they put their arms down and asked to defect, they tell Egypt Independent.
All of them were completing their mandatory military service when the revolution started. “We didn’t have any other choice than to fight. We have been under death threats in case we considered defecting. Anti-FSA propaganda in the army is present as well. They tell us that the FSA is a bunch of terrorists,” adds the soldier.
“We are under pressure from the Alawis,” he added, referring to the religious minority to which Assad and other regime figures belong. “But we don’t want to stay on the side of Bashar. Too many people died in the last 18 months and there is no support. If one of us is injured, we don’t even get first aid. If a soldier dies, we have to burn his body. It won’t get back to the family. Why should we die for a man who just sits on his chair all day?”
The defectors come from different dominations, including Christians. After fighting with Assad’s army for more than a year and a half, most have been cut off from the situation in Syria at large. “We need information from the FSA before going back to our town. If it’s not liberated, we can’t go back as defectors. We’ll immediately be arrested,” said another soldier. “We know that if we join the FSA, we will die for something. We believe in God, not in Bashar,” he adds.
The day after, one of the main commanders from the regime forces in the school defected and was joined by 28 other soldiers.
On Sunday 16 December, as the battle was raging at the base, an FSA commander in the village of Marea alleged that before running away, Alawi soldiers killed 20 fellow soldiers from the regime’s army, who happened to be Sunnis. The account could not be corroborated.
Today, the military school is under control of the FSA. Beside defecting soldiers, the FSA has seized arms and ammunitions that travelled to the countryside of Aleppo to be used in the battle to seize Azaz Airport.
But the battle for the military school did not come without a cost for the FSA fighters.
Two days after Egypt Independent sat with defecting soldiers, Abu Fourat died following an attack that ended the fighting in the school and produced 50 more defectors. At the moment, there are different versions of his death. The main account is that a hidden tank attacked his team by surprise while they were checking the ammunitions gained at the base. This information could not be verified by Egypt Independent.
This piece was originally published in Egypt Independent's weekly print edition.