Syrian pilot’s defection signals trouble for regime

C.J.Chivers reports: To escape the government he served until it gave him an order he could not obey, Capt. Akhmed Trad, a pilot in Syria’s air force, needed a plan: how to spirit himself over a border quickly, and leave no family behind.

In hurried meetings between the pilot and his parents, and indirect conversations over cellphones, evading what they worried were monitored calls, the Trad family set a time and place for everyone to meet, and fled.

Now safely in Turkey, where he is providing information to the rebels and helping them plan attacks, Captain Trad represents one of the great challenges to the government of President Bashar al-Assad and his military.

The Syrian government hails from the Alawite minority. But much of its administration and its military ability depend on Sunni bureaucrats, soldiers and officers like Captain Trad, whose alienation has been growing and whose defections risk increasing as Syria’s internal war takes on deepening sectarian tones.

Defected Sunni army officers have played a large role in the armed opposition since the war began last year, and they lead many of the field units of the Free Syrian Army, the umbrella antigovernment force. While the skills of defected air force pilots have less direct application for the rebels (who have no aircraft), the pilots’ decisions to join the uprising amount to both a moral and public relations victory for the rebels, and undermine the Assad military’s strength.

Captain Trad, interviewed with several family members in a village near this city by the Turkish-Syrian border, said he decided last year to defect, and he waited for his chance. When violence against Sunni citizens escalated this spring, he decided he could serve no more.

Captain Trad is a Mi-17 helicopter pilot; he said his aircraft was equipped to fire rockets. Pro-Assad forces were accused of ethnically motivated killings of Sunni Muslims in Houla, and as the primarily Sunni opposition forces were gaining strength, his commanders ordered his helicopter squadron to attack cities where the resistance was strong, including Idlib. This is where the Trads were born.

“We were told to bomb them, and for us, we did not accept it,” he said. “Bomb what? My town and my friends?” [Continue reading…]

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