The strange, sad case of Hussein Harmoush

Captured defecting Syrian soldier Hussein Harmoush delivers a ‘confession’ on Syria’s state TV. Picture from AFP.

I’ve written an article for Eurasianet about the worrying case of Hussein Harmoush, the defecting Syrian soldier who disappeared in Turkey and reappeared two weeks later in Syrian custody.

This from the story:

Exactly how Lt. Col. Harmoush returned to Syria remains a mystery. Friends say that on the morning of August 29, he left the refugee camp in which he was staying in Hatay Province, bordering Syria, for what he said was a meeting with a Turkish intelligence agent. He was not seen or heard from again until he appeared on Syrian state television more than two weeks later, “confessing” his crimes and denouncing the Syrian rebel movement.
Syrian state media said he had been captured in a raid inside the country the previous week. It is an explanation fellow Syrian dissidents find difficult to accept. According to friends, Harmoush never mentioned any intention of returning to Syria and left without taking any belongings. “I called him in the morning because we were due to meet for an interview,” said al-Muqdad. “He said he was meeting an intelligence officer and then would come and join us. We never heard from him again.”
As the head of an organization of disaffected Syrian soldiers, the Free Officers Movement, Lt. Col. Harmoush had been in daily contact with other dissidents.
“It’s very unlikely he would go without informing us,” said another defected officer who worked with Lt. Col. Harmoush, speaking anonymously for fear of his safety. “We were in daily touch with each other because he was the head of the Free Officers Movement.”

I’d been looking at Harmoush’s case for a good few days before his appearance on Syrian TV; dissidents were already worried about his whereabouts, and convinced Turkey had arrested him.

I did one interesting interview with a fellow defector who believed the Turkish authorities arrested Harmoush for trying to set up weapons deals to aid Syrian rebel soldiers.

I didn’t use material from the interview in the Eurasianet story, but did so, briefly, in another piece I did on Harmoush for the Times last week.

Since it’s an interesting side angle on his story I’ll include what I was told here.

Lieutenant Abdullah Auday, who I met about a week ago, before Harmoush’s reappearance on Syrian television, said he had worked closely with him in Turkey trying to buy ammunition and small arms on the black market.

It was after all the avowed aim of the Free Officers’ Movement – which Harmoush headed – to take up arms in defence of Syrian demonstrators.

“What he was trying to do was to get things organized outside of Syria,” said Auday, who was adamant the Turks had arrested Harmoush.

“He asked the Turkish government to give him the right to establish his own military and political activities, but the Turkish government refused. I think they took him because of that,” he said.

Auday believed Turkish intelligence had been listening to both their phone calls, and that they were now looking for him as well.

I was slightly taken aback by how candid he was about all this, and his willingness to go on record with it.

He said the arms deals were now a ‘burnt card’, i.e. the Turkish government had thwarted them, and he didn’t care about keeping them a secret. Besides, he added, the Turkish government knows all about it anyway.

Another interesting thing he said was that during the time he and Harmoush were trying to buy weapons, they spent a long time courting a Syrian businessman in Gaziantep who had expressed an eagerness to finance the rebels.

After a couple of weeks of meeting with the man, contacts back in Syria told them he was an Assad spy, and they cut ties.

This account sheds an intriguing light on Harmoush’s disappearance.

Another very real possibility is that he secretly returned to Syria without telling anyone.

Given the atmosphere of suspicion and mistrust within the ranks of the dissident movement, it is very conceivable that he might keep his return to Syria a secret from all those around him.

However, it must have been a very well kept secret, because even now, the Syrian dissident movement remains adamant that Turkey arrested him.

If some of them knew he had really gone back of his own accord, would they expend such energy falsely blaming the government that is giving them sanctuary?

I personally believe it is highly unlikely Ankara would have sanctioned handing any Syrian dissident back to the Assad regime in the current environment.

In fact, the Turkish Foreign Ministry has been calling round Western newsrooms trying to scotch the story.

However, I’ve heard anecdotal accounts of Turkish police in Hatay bullying and threatening to send their Syrian ‘guests’ back home, particularly the soldiers.

It is possible a few police officers may have got together, and simply shoved him over the border. Given how closely the Syrians are watching that patch of border, Harmoush could have easily fallen into their hands.

Also, Harmoush had repeatedly absconded from refugee camps in which he was interned, and may have earned the ire of local officers for that or some other reason.

For anyone still interested enough in his case to have kept reading thus far, I thought I’d also include this account, which sent to me by Syria’s Local Co-ordinating Committees, of the truly awful suffering his relatives have endured since his defection:

Since Lt. Col. Hussein Harmoush declared his defection from the regime’s army, his family, which lives in Ebleen village in the Zawiyeh mountain in Idleb, has been suffering from a revenge campaign manifested in horrible crimes committed by the security forces and thugs.
This revenge started by kidnapping his brother, Hasan Harmoush (33 years old) by the military intelligence 3 months ago. This happened when he was on his way to visit relatives in Aleppo, and his last known whereabouts were that he was sent to the air-force intelligence division before there were no news of him at all.
Also, security forces invaded the home of his second brother , Mohammad Harmoush (74 years old, sick and has an artificial heart) and arrested him with his son  Ahmad (30 years) and his daughter’s husband Mohannad (34 years). His wife was shot in her shoulder and leg when during the arrest when they were shooting randomly at the home. The injured wife was also kidnapped.
A few days later, Mohammad and his daughter’s husband Mohannad were returned dead and their bodies had marks of severe torture. The wife and her son Ahmad are still kidnapped and no one knows anything of them.
The third brother, Mahmoud Harmoush (44 years) was also shot in his left leg but he managed to escape outside of Syria.
On September 8 2011 around dawn, security agents from all intelligence divisions invaded Ebleen village, wearing plain clothes and riding in two trucks for bread distribution. They arrived to the Harmoush home, where several defected officers were hiding after they announced that they joined the free army of Syria, and surrounded them until 7 BMP vehicles and two tanks arrived. The BMP vehicles shelled the house and destroyed most of it, then the tanks continued destroying what was left. Later they detained:
1.Lieutenant Yussef Jumaa Turki from Deir Ezzor/ Mayadeen neighbourhood after a serious injury in his right shoulder
2.Sergeant Bilal Salloum (intelligence services) from Haysh village
3.Sergeant Malek ‘Aliawi from Aleppo/ Bakkara village
4.Recruit Ahmad Zarzour from Rami village
5.Recruit Mustafa Diqmaq from Ebleen village
Bodies of martyrs were also returned all together while one officer (Lieutenant grade) and 3 soldiers were able to escape from the house through a small balcony at the backside of the house. One Lieutenant and three soldiers were martyred during the raid.

As if the torture and agony of the family on the hands of security forces were not enough, military intelligence agents also kidnapped the cousins of the defected Lieutenant Colonel last week: Mussa Harmoush (22 years old) and his brother Hassan (12 years old) from Ebleen village. The body of the child Hassan was returned after one day at 8.00 p.m. after having been brutally tortured then executed at the Military Security branch of Idlib.
After only a few hours, at 1.00 a.m., another car returned the body of the martyr Mussa after having also been brutally tortured then executed at the Military Security branch.

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