Amer Mohammad Ali made his way to Syria’s northern border hidden in a car full of produce. The vehicle came to a stop just before the Turkish side of the crossing. Amer got out, dashed toward the barbed wire fence and climbed over onto Turkish soil.
The 25-year-old had just defected from the Kurdish-led Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF), now battling the Islamic State (IS) in the north.
Amer, a university graduate from the town of Amouda in Hasakah province, voluntarily enlisted in the SDF in 2015 after peer pressure from his friends.
“There was a lot of pressure from my friends to join and fight the terrorists [of the Islamic State],” Ali says.
But after almost two years of military service, Ali knew he wasn’t soldier material.
“I felt mentally tortured from carrying weapons, killing and military life in general,” Ali, now in Germany, tells Syria Direct’s Nevien al-Kurdi.
He tried to get a discharge, but had no grounds to do so other than his mental health.
All four of his requests for a military discharge were rejected. After being injured in battle, Amer says he knew it was time to make arrangements with a smuggler to flee the country.
A class of SDF fighters completes their training rotation in March 2017. Photo courtesy of Hawar News.
Syria Direct contacted an SDF spokesman to ask about the punishment for military defection. He replied: These matters are handled by SDF leadership and the laws pertaining to defection “are not available for public access.”
Q: What pushed you to defect from the Syrian Democratic Forces? How did you know it was time to go?
There were a number of reasons why I fled. I lost of a lot of friends and comrades. They were killed right before my eyes. This in itself was debilitating. I grew to hate weapons, fighting and killing, even if it’s to defend oneself and one’s homeland. Part of it was that my parents pressured me to leave Syria, fearing that I would be killed.
I decided I should resign and return to my friends and family. I had a university degree, and I could go back to my studies and my old job.
The problem was that my multiple requests for a discharge were denied. I began to think about leaving the country because staying would mean giving up my life.
At the end of my time [with the SDF], I went through a difficult period of psychological stress. I was living in a state of fear and panic.
At one point, I was injured, and I had to take sick leave. I didn’t think I would survive. It was then that the idea of fleeing grew stronger.
Q: Could you describe what your time in the military was like?
It was a life of complete torment. Death was always nearby. We could see it. We were stationed primarily in battle areas, and we were always targets.
I used to spend my days on patrol or in battles. We’d go several days without sleep or food.
[Personal] leave was short and hard to come by. In any case, I was far away from my family, and I hadn’t seen them for a long time.
Q: Is there any protocol in the SDF for obtaining an early discharge?
Discharges are, of course, allowed in cases of disability, but that didn’t apply to me. I asked for a discharge four times, but to no avail. Each time, they would reject my request for the same reasons—the time wasn’t right, they needed me and they didn’t want to lose the university graduates in their ranks.
New fighters take part in YPG training in northern Syria. March 2016. Photo courtesy of Delil Souleiman/AFP/Getty Images.
Q: Could you tell us about what your life was like in Amouda before your military service began?
I had completed my studies. I worked nights at a small coffee shop I owned. In the day, I worked as an accountant for a factory. My life was simple, like most young guys.
I signed up for the military [the Syrian Democratic Forces] in 2015 and continued to serve for about 21 months. I wasn’t conscripted—I voluntarily enlisted.
Q: Why did you choose to enlist?
I joined after one of my cousins was killed. There was a lot of pressure from my friends to join and fight the terrorists [of the Islamic State]. At that point, I decided to enlist, not thinking about anything but defending my region.
I didn’t think that the war would last all these years, that I would stay a soldier forever. In all honestly, I didn’t expect that I’d have problems being discharged. I thought that once the danger was done, I’d be able to lay down my weapons and pick up a pen again.
Q: Considering that you voluntarily enlisted in the SDF, didn’t you feel a sense of responsibility to keep that commitment?
After two years in battles, I was exhausted. I felt mentally tortured from carrying weapons, killing and military life in general. A number of my friends died in battle, which weighed on me. My parents were scared and tried to convince me to leave the service. They were against the idea from the beginning.
Of course, I felt a responsibility, but it’s out of my hands now.
Q: Can you talk about how you left Syria for Turkey and how you made it all the way to Germany?
I met a few smugglers who would transport people to the other side of the border. I knew that during the escape both [Kurdish and Turkish border guards] would have orders to kill me. The Kurdish forces would not allow me to leave. The Turkish forces would not allow me to enter, especially as I had been a member of the SDF. Everyone knows the relationship between the Turkish and the Kurds.
[Ed.: The Syrian Democratic Forces is dominated by the Kurdish People’s Protection Units (YPG), the armed wing of the Democratic Union Party (PYD). The PYD, a Kurdish political party, maintains ties with the Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK), an organization based in Turkey that has waged a violent struggle against the government for decades.]
The smuggler was well-known in the area, and he was in contact with the Turkish guards in order to maintain his smuggling route. He would regularly smuggle goods between Rojava [the Kurdish-controlled region in northern Syria] and Turkey.
He hid me in a car full of produce so that the Kurdish forces wouldn’t see me. The road was meant for transporting goods only, not people. I paid him a lot of money to take this risk and bring me with him to the other side.
At the Turkish side [of the border], I had to run and climb over the barbed wire, because cars were stopped just before they reached the border.
I stayed in Turkey for a long time looking for work and housing, but I couldn’t find either. I contacted one of my relatives in Germany to ask about how I could get there. He gave me the number of a few smugglers and I made arrangements. The journey to Germany took seven months.
[Ed.: Amer crossed the Mediterranean Sea into Europe. He did not wish to provide any further details about being smuggled into Germany.]
Q: You mentioned that both the Kurdish and Turkish borders guards were a threat. Were the SDF border guards aware that you had defected?
Kurdish forces guard the border with Turkey. They monitor civilians who cross the border and issue civilians a pass at the crossing. I wouldn’t be able to get one from the guards, because I’m a member of the Kurdish forces and have a military ID.
As for the Turkish forces, they don’t let anyone cross, especially if they’re coming from the Kurdish region. Many men, women, and children have risked their lives trying to cross the Turkish border.
[Ed.: In May 2016, Human Rights Watch published a report documenting numerous cases in which Turkish border guards, known also as gendarmerie, have killed and injured Syrians attempting to cross into Turkey.]
Q: What is your life like now that you are in Germany?
I’ve reached the third level of German classes. I’ll continue my studies until I can enter the university and continue my education. For now, I’m practicing to be a barber. The apprenticeship takes six months to learn the skills for the job. I have small house, and I’ve made friends with a few Germans. It’s a normal life.
Q: Are you afraid for your family? Do you think they could face repercussions from the Protection Units because of your defection?
I don’t think anything will happen to them. Until now, my parents haven’t received any threats because of me.
Q: Do you think that everyone has a duty to serve in the armed forces to protect their land and people?
Everyone must defend their people and their homeland, but bearing arms is not demanded of everyone. Each person has their own set of circumstances, their own place in society. One can be a doctor, a journalist, a lawyer. All of them work for and serve their country just like a solider serves their country.