Wasid, a Syrian conscript, set off for the southern town of Deraa in late April filled with the zeal of a soldier going to war. "We were going to fight terrorists," he said. But less than a day after arriving there, he was planning to defect.
The Syrian regime has cast the uprising in Deraa as a conflict between a loyal military and a large and highly mobile group of heavily-armed foreign-backed insurgents, roaming the country attempting to ignite sectarian strife.
Over three hours in an Istanbul safehouse, Wasid, 20, described events in the southern town where the wave of dissent that has swept Syria first broke. His account starkly contradicts the official narrative.
"As soon as we got there, the officers told us not to shoot at the men carrying guns. They said they [the gunmen] were with us. I couldn't believe what I was hearing. It had all been lies," he said.
In the month they were stationed there, neither Wasid nor any of his colleagues saw any demonstrators with weapons in Deraa or the nearby town of Izraa. And instead of confronting armed insurgents, the unit was ordered to shoot protesters. "It shocked me," he said. "We are soldiers and soldiers do not shoot at civilians."
In the weeks leading up his deployment with the Syrian army's 14th Division, commanders had given regular briefings on the "violence" ahead. Wasid was convinced he would soon be in combat.
"When we were at the base in Damascus before we left for Deraa, we were not allowed to watch television at all, except for two hours each day when we could watch Rami Makhlouf's channel," he said. [Makhlouf, a tycoon, is President Bashar al-Assad's first cousin]. "All they showed were armed groups roaming the villages. I found out later that these groups were on our [the regime's] side – they were the Shabiha." According to Wasid, the Shabiha – ghosts – were the only civilian gunmen in town. Their group has strong links to the military and has developed a reputation over recent bloody months of being willing to do the dirty work in troublesome towns and villages.
"The first day we arrived there, 24 April, the Shabiha came to the base to speak with our officers. It was clear that the relationship was close."
Wasid showed the Guardian his military ID and application for refugee status, copies of which have been kept.