Middle East

Syrian deserters claim ruthless army commands

Media playback is unsupported on your device
Media captionSamir, a soldier from Damascus, says he deserted after he was ordered to shoot civilians

Hundreds of people in Syria have been killed in a popular uprising that began in March, according to human rights groups. The BBC's Ian Pannell has returned from a secret trip inside Syria where he was told by deserters that soldiers had orders to open fire on unarmed protesters.

The government in Damascus does not grant free access to foreign journalists.

It chooses to try to control what the world sees and hears about the growing crisis within its borders. So we crossed into the country with the help of smugglers, tracking along mountain passes and through thick woodland to avoid detection.

The security forces have tried to crush anti-government protests that erupted across Syria in March. The effect has been to force increasing numbers of people to flee their homes.

Thousands have left the country altogether and neat rows of white tents mark out a number of refugee camps that have been set up on the Turkish side of the border.

But the Syrian authorities have tried to prevent others from leaving and so hundreds of people are now living rough in shelters made of plastic sheets and cardboard in border areas.

'Order to fire'

Some have been here for months and are willing to tell their stories, albeit anonymously. One man explained what life has been like for him, his wife and their three children.

"The Syrian army and the secret police move around in the trees and check on the people. They want to catch people - to plant weapons on them and to accuse them of being criminals. They went into our houses in the villages and damaged them. This is why no-one will return back to their homes."

The Syrian army keeps a watchful eye from concrete towers perched high in the hills. The military in Egypt and Tunisia remained neutral throughout their respective upheavals.

It proved to be a decisive factor in draining support from the establishment and giving succour to opposition protesters. But in Syria the army has taken sides, firmly defending President Assad.

We heard rare testimony of what that means in practice. Samir Ibrahim is a soldier from Damascus who deserted after being given an order he simply could not accept.

Image caption Thousands of refugees have set up camps on the Turkish side of the border

"Every Thursday and Friday people come out to protest for freedom. Our commander, Captain Hassan, gave us guns and told us that whenever we see a protester we should fire at them at their legs. We didn't fire though. The secret police have a high-powered gun which they fired at buildings - they fired at people watching from their balconies."

Another soldier corroborates this story. Ahmad Suleiman was stationed in the seaside resort of Latakia. He says most had no choice but to follow orders.

"A regular soldier can't do anything. They put him in the first line of troops and behind them are other troops. If the soldiers at the front refuse to fire on the people then the soldiers behind will fire on the soldiers at the front."

Both men reject government contentions that those protesting are foreign agitators or criminals. Ahmad lays the blame for the violence squarely at the door of just one man, President Bashar al-Assad.

Bloodshed and instability

Syria is a delicate balance of race and religion and there are fears that if this unravels it could destabilise the region. So the West treads far more carefully, supporting change but not direct intervention, recognising that its ability to influence events is limited, unlike in Egypt and Tunisia.

The government in Damascus may have softened its rhetoric and made some small concessions but those we met expected further bloodshed and more instability in their struggle for freedom and democracy in Syria.

Oday Seyyid, a student activist, has had to go into hiding. His family have fled their homes and he claims thousands of people have been killed. But that does not deter him.

"The Tunisians, Libyans, Egyptians are examples for us and they encouraged us to break with the regime that has ruled us like slaves for 42 years. We can't accept less than what these people want, even if that means people die," he said.