'It was a hot July day in Ramadan when Khaled al-Shami saw an opportunity to flee Division 9 in Daraa, southern Syria, the place which had been his army barracks for the past four years. One month before, two soldiers like him had taken the same route, but had been spotted; one was gunned down and killed, the other was wounded and died as he was run over by the pursuing forces of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad. He walked five kilometres before he met soldiers from Saif Al Sham, a group in the Free Syrian Army’s Southern Front with whom he had been coordinating his defection.
“I was living in a nightmare,” he said. “I need a software change after everything I saw and experienced. Most people like me want to leave, but it’s the overwhelming fear that stops you”. He described what life was like inside Assad’s army. “One important thing to realise is that there is no Syrian Army anymore, it is just militias, mostly Iranians and Lebanese.”
“Without the Iranian Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC) and Lebanese Hezbollah the army could not stand up. Seventy percent of the troops in Division 9 are Iranian troops or Lebanese Hezbollah, the rest are shabiha. Only two to three percent are regular Syrian soldiers,” Khaled said.“Ten high-ranking Iranian officers control the division, they plan the operations. Only Iranian or Hezbollah forces can access operations rooms, no Syrian soldiers are allowed in." For battles, groups of 50 fighters are deployed: 15 IRGC, 15 Hezbollah, 20 Syrians, the majority of which areshabiha. Within battles the hierarchy is clear: the commander is an Iranian IRGC officer and his deputy will be a Hezbollah officer, according to Khaled.
Major Abu Osama al-Jolani, a Free Syrian Army (FSA) commander and defected officer, told me how the war has changed over the past 12 months. “The Shia militias are leading military action to support the regime in all battles for the last year … Everyone we are fighting now are foreigners.” '