Syrian military officers: ‘There’s no one left from our graduating class’

Reporting for the Daily Star, Marlin Dick describes a phone conversation, claimed to be between two Syrian military officers — a conversation that was recorded presumably without the awareness of either party and then posted on YouTube. Dick acknowledges that the authenticity of the recording cannot be verified, but he presents several reasons for concluding that it is not a fake. As for why it was recorded and then ended up on YouTube, he writes:

“The likeliest explanation is that the conversation was recorded, possibly as a part of the regime’s surveillance of its officers, and then seized when Base 46 near Maaret al-Numan was taken by the rebels, several weeks after the Eid.

“Regime positions at Saraqeb were overrun right after the purported conversation took place.

“A Syrian Alawite familiar with military culture described the men’s dialect as impeccable and their conversation as natural.”

The phone conversation described is around 11 minutes long. An army operator makes a brief appearance at the beginning, to put the call through to a Lt. Mohammad.

The two officers then engage in a back-and-forth conversation whose staccato pace signals that they know each other well. Their accents indicate they are Alawites, although that sect is not mentioned, and neither are the civilian casualties, or any political aspects of the war.

The caller passes on holiday greetings for the Eid al-Adha, indicating that the conversation took place at the end of October. He immediately senses that the officer, possibly a relative, is either upset or in pain.

“What’s the matter, you’re not doing well?” the caller asks, generating the weary response: “It was the worst day of my life.”

At first the two avoid discussing the details of battles and other military operations; they complain about the lack of opportunities to make telephone calls using either land lines or cellphones due to poor network coverage.

They move to the news that a friend or acquaintance has been killed in battle; the word “martyred” is used, which is common in Arab armies.

They debate when exactly, and from whom, they heard the news. The two men spend time discussing several such cases of friends lost, and the caller notes sadly how their graduating class is becoming depleted. He goes on to mention how he has now lost two commanding officers, and laughs nervously.

They talk about where mutual acquaintances are posted, and what they know of conditions in these places. In answer to a question, the caller says he is stationed in Maaret al-Numan, probably meaning in or near the largely rebel-held town, while the other man is in Saraqeb, a town in Idlib 30 kilometers to the north.

The caller describes the constant rebel attacks on army checkpoints in the Idlib area and the many regime troops who have been killed.

In response to a question about his duties in Maaret al-Numan, the caller says he commands a unit responsible for guarding a nearby depot in Wadi Daif, the airbase that has been under siege by rebels since October.

“What’s in the depot?” the officer in Saraqeb asks.

“There’s fuel – 5,000 liters of gasoline. Enough to blow Maaret al-Numan and Kafranbel to smithereens,” he says.

“So blow it up, and get out of there,” the officer responds.

The caller is amused by the idea and quickly dismisses it. This doesn’t prevent his friend from repeating the suggestion over the next few minutes, in a tone that manages to be both playful, and serious.

They both complain about the lack of support from other units, the inability to use many roads – “you just get blown up if you do” – and the isolation.

Throughout the rest of the conversation they make several brief references to the state of the war and the regime’s prospects for victory.

The caller talks about being a “strike force” in the area while the second man, who is markedly demoralized, rejects the idea, based on the steady, bloody attrition.

“No … no … we’re not a strike force,” he insists, before asking: “What’s the point of being out here?”

The caller tries repeatedly to boost his friend’s morale but at one point blurts out: “There’s no solution.”

When the caller asks about defections, the demoralized officer’s response is: “No, there haven’t been any defections … there’s just … disgust.”

Neither man presumes to predict how or when the war will end.

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