Syrian Armed Forces Desertion Said to Surge to 60,000

Desertions by members of Syria’s armed forces have swollen to about 60,000 as growing numbers of troops refuse to join the crackdown on protests by President Bashar al-Assad’s government, according to a Turkish Foreign Ministry official.

About 20,000 service personnel have left in less than a month, said the official, who cited Turkish intelligence reports and spoke on condition of anonymity in accordance with government rules. The desertions are in addition to 40,000 military personnel who left before Feb. 20, the official said. Turkey’s Foreign Ministry spokesman Selcuk Unal yesterday said a seventh Syrian general has defected and is now in Turkey.

Syria’s armed forces have 295,000 active personnel, according to the International Institute for Strategic Studies’ 2012 Military Balance. They have been at the forefront of Assad’s bid to stamp out the yearlong uprising, which this month resulted in the seizure of the rebel-held strongholds of Idlib and Homs. Some of the soldiers are joining the opposition Free Syrian Army, whose commanders reside in Turkish refugee camps.

“Elite units have demonstrated loyalty to the Assad regime and ruthlessness in suppressing demonstrators,” according to this month’s report from the London-based IISS. Even so, “a growing number of defections, mostly from junior officers and soldiers, have been recorded, raising questions about the army’s cohesiveness.”

It’s “not clear that the regime has sufficient loyal forces to guarantee survival against a sustained campaign of protest or an active armed insurgency,” according to the report.

More Than 8,000 Dead

“Well over” 8,000 people have died since protests began, United Nations Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon said yesterday, while more than 32,000 have fled abroad. At least 46 people died yesterday, most of them in Idlib, the Local Coordination Committees in Syria said in an e-mail.

Central Intelligence Agency Director David Petraeus this week met Hakan Fidan, head of Turkish intelligence, and Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan in Ankara. The Turkish government subsequently said they discussed the situation in Syria.

Syria’s allies Russia and China should support United Nations action to halt the “scorched earth methods” of Assad’s government, according to a Human Rights Watch report.

“City after city, town after town, Syria’s security forces are using their scorched earth methods while the Security Council’s hands remain tied by Russia and China,” Sarah Leah Whitson, the group’s Middle East director, said in the statement. “One year on, the Security Council should finally stand together and send a clear message to Assad that these attacks should end.”

SANA said millions of Syrians streamed into squares in cities across the country yesterday in a government-sanctioned “global march for Syria,” an initiative by the country’s youth. The march is “uniting all Syrians in affirmation of their loyalty and affiliation to their homeland,” SANA said, without providing further details.

To contact the reporters on this story: Donna Abu-Nasr in Manama at dabunasr@bloomberg.net; Emre Peker in Ankara at epeker2@bloomberg.net

To contact the editor responsible for this story: Andrew J. Barden at barden@bloomberg.net

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