The deserter: How I escaped one of Syria's deadliest fronts

Salim Ayash, a barber from the Old City of Damascus, never dreamed that he would find himself on one of the worst frontlines of the Syrian war.

Ayash, now 28, was attempting to leave Syria through a checkpoint on the Lebanese border in 2015 when one of the officials there told him he was wanted for conscription.

Days later, he says he was put on a plane to eastern Syria and landed in Deir e-Zor city, where the regime holds two districts and the nearby military airport.

Those two districts and airport are small islands in a sea of Islamic State territory. Food and supplies are airdropped over the areas to sustain the civilians trapped inside.

Ayash’s job was to help hold the districts as part of the Syrian Arab Army’s 17th Reserve Division.

In Deir e-Zor, the apolitical Ayash says he found himself trapped in a world of death and madness, a soldier on the frontline of a war he never wanted any part of. 

“When Daesh fighters advanced, those of us who could shoot did so, but without focus,” the former soldier says. “The others, who didn’t know how to use the weapons, would be captured by the Islamic State. We’d see them later in some IS publication, being beheaded.”

After five months on the front, Ayash finally found a way out. After initial hesitation about firing at Islamic State fighters, he found the courage to shoot someone: himself.

 Pro-government fighters in Deir e-Zor in 2016. Photo courtesy of Deir e-Zor News.

After he was evacuated from Deir e-Zor, Ayash defected and made his way to opposition-held territory in northwest Syria. He then paid a smuggler to bring him into Turkey last year.

There, in Istanbul, where he was working as a barber once more, Ayash met with Syria Direct’s Osama Abu Zeid and told him his story.

Here, we bring his first-person narrative in five acts.

There are elements of Ayash’s story that Syria Direct could not independently confirm. However, the account he gives does correspond to our previous reporting and narratives heard from the ground. Ayash has been granted anonymity because of his status as a military deserter, and because some of the actions he describes are illegal.

I. The Beginning

Just before everything started in Syria, I was living in Jordan. I worked there, as a barber in Amman. In January 2011, I went back home to Damascus to live with my family because my father was sick. He suffers from heart disease, and needed to have surgery.

The revolution happened, the wave of demonstrations, but I decided to stay out of it. I didn’t participate on the side of the revolution or in support of the regime. I was not convinced by the regime, but I didn’t do anything for the sake of my family and myself, staying on the sidelines to avoid being detained or separated from them.

I lived in Damascus [for around five years]. As time passed, things got worse. Work was bad. Few young men were left in the neighborhood, and most were afraid to go to a barbershop because security forces would often raid places where young men gathered in order to arrest or conscript them.

I was scared, too, that one day I would find myself among those taken for the reserves. I passed through many checkpoints while living in Damascus, but my name was never flagged when security forces ran it through their database.

In November 2015, I married my wife. One month later, I decided to leave Syria for Turkey. That was before Syrians needed a visa to enter Turkey. I reserved a plane ticket leaving from Lebanon and said goodbye to my family and wife. The plan was that I would go find a job and a place to live, and she would follow me one month later.

I set off in a minibus from Damascus in December 2015 and headed to Lebanon along the Damascus-Beirut highway. On the way to the Masnaa border crossing [in the mountains west of Damascus], we passed through several checkpoints. At each one, the security personnel ran my name through their system, and there were no complications.

When we arrived at the Syrian side of the Masnaa crossing with Lebanon, an officer there took my identification card and told me to get out of the bus and take down my luggage. When I asked him why, he said: ‘Your name is up.’

 Syrian soldiers in a Deir e-Zor in a picture posted online March 2017. Photo courtesy of Deir e-Zor News.

I answered him: ‘Not seven minutes ago I passed through a checkpoint, and many others before that, and my name wasn’t flagged.’

To that, he responded: ‘Well, now your name is up for reserve service, whether you like it or not.’

It had to have been his decision, without my name really being there.

I was put in a room with six other young men. From there, we were taken to [a military base near the village of] a-Dreij, eight kilometers from Damascus. There were many young guys there who had been detained and taken for the reserves.

[Ed.: In November 2015, pro-opposition media reported a wide-ranging conscription and arrest campaign in the Damascus area. Some conscripts were reportedly held and trained in a military base in the a-Dreij area, though it is not clear whether Ayash was conscripted within this campaign. Ayash says he did not receive any training at the base.]

I was in shock, asking myself: Where am I? Where am I going? Is this really happening?

After less than 24 hours, I was put on a military plane carrying around 350 people and taken to the Qamishli airport in northeastern Syria. We spent three days there, in a single dorm. Nobody was allowed to leave unaccompanied, not even to go to the bathroom. It was as though we were in prison.

Many of the guys around me thought about running, supposing it would be easy to do since the Turkish border was close. But we couldn’t escape.

II. The Front

After three days in Qamishli, we were transported in groups to Deir e-Zor city by helicopter. We were dropped off in the city itself, because it was too dangerous to reach the Deir e-Zor airport, which was being targeted by Daesh [the Islamic State (IS)].

I never thought that I would find myself in Deir e-Zor one day. All you hear about the city is the siege, the Islamic State's cruelty.

In Deir e-Zor, we were taken to the front straight away and armed with a Chinese-made Kalashnikov rifle, four clips of bullets—each holding thirty rounds—and 150 reserve bullets in a personal magazine pouch.

I was with the 17th Reserve Division in Deir e-Zor.

They put us on the front in the industrial district without training. When they gave us the Kalashnikov, we had a 15-minute lesson on how to take apart and clean the weapon. Most of those taken to Deir e-Zor with us didn’t know how to use the weapons, or had never shot a gun. Some were young men who had not been in the army before.

I had completed my mandatory military service, but didn’t know how to use the gun very well at all. When I was first in the army, I paid an officer a sum of money—a bribe—each month so he would grant me repeated vacations. [Ed.: Referred to as tafyeesh, this practice was relatively common before the war.]

After a few days in the industrial district of Deir e-Zor city, I was moved via helicopter to the Deir e-Zor airport. The situation was catastrophic there, too. I saw officers who hadn’t seen their families in more than a year. I saw soldiers who had been there for years, and others who had finished their mandatory service but had not been discharged.

Exhaustion, madness, fear clung to everything. The food was bad—four loaves of dried-up bread a day and half a liter of water. Some days we got a boiled egg, other days we didn't, and one boiled potato a week.

I began to despair.

On the front, hidden in a trench with some other men, our thoughts were frozen: ‘What do we do?’ ‘I don’t know.’

 SAA soldiers in Deir e-Zor in late 2016. Photo courtesy of Deir e-Zor News.

The only way to get away was to be severely wounded, or get a bone injury, something that would eliminate the possibility of a speedy recovery. Something to make it so you couldn’t fight again.

Because of the psychological state everyone was in, cursing Bashar al-Assad was a normal thing, even in front of the officers. They, too, would occasionally rail against Assad, the army and the state of things in Deir e-Zor.

Remember, the airport and districts of Deir e-Zor that the government controls are not well-armed. Even individual ammunition is sparse, airdropped with the food.

III. Despair

Horror and madness grew inside me, increasing day after day, with every Islamic State attack around the airport.

They launched drones to film our positions and launch precision missiles, then would send a suicide car bomb. We didn’t have advanced weaponry to stop it, just RPG missiles, which can’t affect the armor of a car bomb coming at you with lightning speed.

When Daesh fighters advanced, those of us who could shoot did so, but without focus. Others, who didn’t know how to use the weapons, would be captured by the Islamic State. We’d see them later in some IS publication, being beheaded.

Then, as soon as IS came, they would turn back, as though they didn’t really want to take control of anything, just kill and capture people.

With each new prisoner, madness would grip another soldier or two. Somebody would shoot himself to get leave. Then there would be an inquiry. If it was discovered that he shot himself when there were no clashes, or it became clear that the bullet came from his gun, he would be executed, a lesson for the rest.

I remember one guy, we were in a trench together. The rest of us were talking and he was withdrawn, silent. Then, all of a sudden, he takes his gun and shoots himself in the chest, just above his heart. We freaked out. We didn’t know what to do. We took him to the officer’s station in the airport, and they decided to take him to Damascus for treatment. He didn’t last long. Two or three hours passed, and he died. There were no medical supplies or medication.

Once, two young guys decided to run towards IS, to turn themselves in, hoping that they would be allowed to return to their families as defectors from Assad’s army. Daesh executed them immediately and hung their heads on the front. The heads were in our direct line of sight, and the horror grew. How long could this go on?

I remember, when I saw the severed heads, a blinding anger exploded inside of me. I regretted how, when I first came, I didn’t shoot a single bullet directly at IS fighters. I had been afraid of the thought that I was killing a person. I cannot kill. But their monstrosity made me regret that I didn’t aim for them.

IV. The Escape

The only way to call home was to risk our lives and move closer to the frontline with IS at night in order to get cell phone coverage. We had mobile phones that we bought from the residents of Deir e-Zor, even though it was against the rules to have them.

In March 2016, I was able to call my family and my wife. I learned that she was pregnant, and would give birth soon. [When I heard the news,] I started to cry. I wished that I were dead, done with this living nightmare.

All of us in Deir e-Zor cried, like children. How long will this continue? What is the solution? How can we be saved?

That is when I decided to make myself a target for IS sniper fire, to be wounded. It could be fatal, I didn’t know. I risked my life because I had to. I would walk in areas targeted by the snipers, crossing through areas in their range.

Despite my efforts, I was not injured. I only grew more depressed.

We went to sleep thirsty, or didn’t sleep at all, thinking about our fate. Thinking about salvation.

Around that time, I was moved from the airport front to the [IS-blockaded] Deir e-Zor neighborhoods once again, back to the industrial district.

When I was there, I was able to buy some food that had been airdropped for the residents and soldiers. A few of the officers had absolute control over that aid. They would sell it to the blockaded residents, who in turn would sell it to us. We bought it with our army salaries, around SP35,000 [$163] per month.

A few friends and I would put our money together and buy a kilo of sugar here, a kilo of rice there. We would get a good meal once a month.

We would lie to the officers, tell them that we had killed an IS fighter to get the reward—a bottle of water. We would vouch for each other.

Before long, IS attacked the industrial district of Deir e-Zor city in April 2016. Intense clashes started, and there were only a few moments before I gathered my courage and decided to shoot myself, as though it had happened in the clashes.

I took a piece of wood and covered my hand with it, then shot through it, point blank. I used the wood so that the barrel of the gun wouldn’t leave a direct burn where it touched my hand. That would have given away that I shot myself in an investigation.

I was rescued and taken to the rear, then to the hospital. There were no painkillers.

A little while later I learned that IS had taken control of the district. They captured a bunch of guys who never fired a shot. Maybe they didn’t know how to use the weapons, maybe the Chinese-made Kalashnikovs didn’t work because of their poor quality.

The chaos created by the battle helped me to avoid an inquiry into my injury. My friends’ testimony also helped. They said I was injured in the battle, which helped speed up my leave being granted.

I had been in Deir e-Zor for five months.

V. The Journey

I was taken to Qamishli first, then to Hama city. In Hama, I went from the military airport to a hospital to continue treatment. After two weeks, when I was given permission to go to Damascus, I contacted a smuggler, who I reached through friends in northern Syria.

I couldn’t go back to Deir e-Zor, to the living nightmare.

The smuggler agreed to move me to FSA areas in Idlib. He didn’t know that I was a defected soldier, just that I was a wounded civilian who wanted to go to Idlib.

I got the money for the smuggler from my wife’s brother, who works in Qatar. She told him about my situation, and he sent money to his friend in Turkey, who arranged payment for the smuggler.

The journey to Idlib was through way-stations you get to by motorcycle, traveling from village to village until reaching the Hama countryside, and then the Idlib countryside.

In Idlib, I stayed with the relatives of my friends, the ones I had been communicating with.

My family had known that I wanted to defect, and they tried to pay large sums of money to officers in Damascus for me to be moved from Deir e-Zor to another front. But no officer could help, and my family didn’t know that I defected until I reached Idlib.

There, I recovered somewhat from my injury, but there was nerve damage. I partially lost feeling and movement in my hand. After I healed as much as I could, I started trying to enter Turkey via smuggling routes near Atma in northwestern Idlib, on the border.

While I was in Idlib, my wife had contacted my family and my father sent me $800 so I could pay a smuggler and enter Turkey. The hope was that I could meet my wife there. She had already given birth to my daughter, who I had not seen.

I made it to Turkey. There, in Istanbul, I went back to working as a barber so that I could save up money. My wife and daughter made several attempts to join me, but they were unsuccessful.

The only choice became for me to meet my wife and daughter in Sudan, which does not require a visa for Syrians, and then smuggle ourselves by land into Egypt, where one of my relatives lives.

In Istanbul, I saved up money, and with the help of my relatives and my wife’s relatives, I was able to travel to Sudan [on May 2].

[Ed.: Several days ago, Salim’s wife and child reached Sudan. The family is currently waiting to make an attempt to enter Egypt.]

Osama Abu Zeid

Osama Abu Zeid is a native of Homs, where he served as a media activist and founding member of the Homs Revolutionary Council after the Syrian uprising began in 2011.

Maria Nelson

Maria Nelson was a 2014-2015 fellow at the Center for Arabic Study Abroad program (CASA I) in Amman, Jordan. She holds a BA in Near Eastern Studies from Princeton University, with a certificate in Arabic Language and Culture.