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Wednesday, July 17, 2024

Defection of Hussein Harmoush and the intrigue surrounding his capture

Video screenshot of Lieutenant Colonel Hussein Mustafa Harmoush announcing his defection on June 9, 2011 from the Syrian army led by Bashar Assad

“Syria is for everyone, not for a single person.” These were the final words of a video recorded by Lieutenant Colonel Hussein Mustafa Harmoush announcing his defection 13 years ago from the Syrian Army led by Bashar Assad. As the first major defector from the regime’s military force that Harmoush believed had strayed far from its intended purpose, Harmoush exposed the lies of Assad and made himself a target for revenge by the brutal dictator more concerned with remaining in power than protecting his people.

Unfortunately, the courageous lieutenant colonel who established the first division of the Free Syrian Army called the “Brigade of Free Officers” underestimated how far the vicious tentacles of the regime had spread outside of Syria’s borders, leaving him vulnerable to betrayal even in Turkey where he and his family had sought safety in June 2011.

Harmoush’s decision to defect came after a massacre of civilians by government forces on June 4, 2011, in the city of Jisr al-Shughur located in the Idlib countryside

A true patriot devoted to the well-being of his people and his country Harmoush was born in 1972 in the village of Iblin in the Jabal al-Zawiya area in northern Idlib countryside. After joining the Syrian army, he went to Russia to study military engineering and later worked on several projects in his homeland’s two largest cities, Damascus and Aleppo.

When the revolution began in 2011, Harmoush had worked his way up the ranks to become a Lieutenant Colonel in the 11th Infantry Division of the Syrian army. Troubled by the regime’s violent response to peaceful civilians calling for government reform, Harmoush’s decision to defect came after a massacre of civilians by government forces on June 4, 2011, in the city of Jisr al-Shughur located in the Idlib countryside.

In the video, Harmoush had also urged his fellow soldiers to join him saying “Our mission is to protect unarmed protesters who are asking for freedom and democracy,” adding “We took an oath to stand in the face of our enemies, not our unarmed people.”

His brother Ibrahim recalled later that, “Hussein was on leave from his work and witnessed the regime’s massacres with his own eyes. He joined us in protests against the regime and then decided to defect. We supported his decision, but we were searching for a safe place to flee to before announcing his defection to avoid the regime’s retaliation.”

The video in which Harmoush announced his defection was recorded on June 9, 2011. Ten days later, he and several of his family members crossed into Turkey where they believed they would be safe. In the video, Harmoush had also urged his fellow soldiers to join him saying “Our mission is to protect unarmed protesters who are asking for freedom and democracy,” adding “We took an oath to stand in the face of our enemies, not our unarmed people.”

In a typical response by Syrian security forces to anyone not perceived to be 100% loyal to Assad, 486 members of Harmoush’s family, including his wife, children, and siblings, were placed on the regime’s “Wanted” list which in the minds of Syria’s freedom seekers had become more of a roll call of human rights activists than a list of real criminals.

On September 8, 2011, a mere 10 days after his disappearance, Assad’s forces stormed the village of Iblin where Harmoush had been born, killing his elder brother Mohammad and arresting his wife and son

After settling in with several of his family members at the Altınözü refugee camp in Turkey’s Hatay Province, Harmoush continued to work on recruiting supplies for what would eventually become known as the Free Syrian Army. Ironically, it was for this purpose that he left the camp on August 29, 2011, a noble mission from which he never returned. 

On September 8, 2011, a mere 10 days after his disappearance, Assad’s forces stormed the village of Iblin where Harmoush had been born, killing his elder brother Mohammad and arresting his wife and son. Five more young men from his family were arrested in the coming days, including a nephew and his brothers Walid and Hassan. None of them have been heard from since.

On September 15, 2011, Syrian State TV posted a video of Harmoush in which he appears to withdraw his support for the Syrian opposition, but he has not been seen or heard from since.

One month after his disappearance, Al Arabiya (Arabic news channel) published an article stating that information had been obtained indicating the involvement of Turkish, Iranian, and Syrian intelligence elements in the abduction and subsequent return to Syria of Lieutenant Colonel Hussein Harmoush. The affair was a source of much embarrassment for the Turkish government at the time, with Prime Minister Erdogan insisting that all Syrians who had crossed into Turkey were welcome and safe.

In February 2012, the Attorney General’s office in Adana, Turkey, released a statement confirming that Hussein Harmoush had indeed been forcibly handed over to Syrian security agencies. Five people, including Turkish intelligence officer Onder Oğlu, were arrested in connection with the case.

According to information obtained by Harmoush’s brother Ibrahim, Onder Oğlu kidnapped Lieutenant Colonel Harmoush and transported him to the town of Kasab in Latakia Province. From there he was taken to the Mezzeh Military Airport in Damascus where he is believed to have been tortured and eventually killed.

For the role he played in Harmoush’s abduction, Onder Oğlu was convicted and sentenced to 20 years in prison but managed to escape after serving 23 months. As for Lieutenant Colonel Harmoush, we can only speculate about his fate even as we honor him as one of the heroes of Syria’s revolution for freedom and dignity.

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