For months Mohammed Ismael, a softly-spoken and clean-shaven 23-year-old, sat on the rooftops of buildings in Hama, menacing the city’s population with his powerful Chinese-made rifle.
He watched through his telescopic lens as men, women and children scattered in panic as his shots rang out, dropping their anti-regime banners and running for the cover of buildings and alleyways.
As a highly-trained sniper with the Syrian army’s elite 18th Division, he was repeatedly ordered by his officers to shoot protesters. He observed as the secret police arrested and savagely beat the people on the streets below him, and he listened as a handful of his comrades, hardcore regime supporters, boasted about their own prowess at hitting their mark – chalking up tallies of dead demonstrators who, they believed, were stooges paid $100 a day by Israel and other enemies of Syria.
But Mr Ismael, a Bedouin Arab from the desert region in the east of the country, was not so sure.
“At first we believed the officers when they said we were fighting against enemies of Syria,” he said. “We weren’t allowed to watch television and they took our mobile phones away, so we didn’t understand what was happening in our country.
“We were so excited. We wanted to do our duty and fight terrorists. But some of us soon realised that the crowds were just ordinary people, chanting for freedom.”
He dared not refuse to shoot, aware that if he did so he could be killed himself. Instead, he says, he was careful always to miss his targets: aiming slightly too high, silently praying that his bullet would hit nobody, and only then squeezing the trigger. To his relief, he claims, he never saw a body fall.
Finally it all became too much and in October – by now posted to a village near the Lebanese border – Mr Ismael decided to escape his unit. But as he did so he was shot in the shoulder, almost certainly by his commanding officer, he believes, and bleeding profusely had to be hauled to safety by other refugees.
Now Mr Ismael is among the growing number of Syrian army defectors who have found their way along a dangerous route across the border into neighbouring Lebanon.
Some have now joined the loose organistion that they call the Free Syrian Army, which is dedicated to fighting back against the regime – and Mr Ismael is convinced that thousands more would leave their posts almost immediately if only they had somewhere safe inside their own country to flee to.
“I wanted to escape in May, as soon as I realised that we had been lied to,” Mr Ismael told The Sunday Telegraph at his hiding place in the Lebanese city of Tripoli. “But there was nowhere to go then. Nearly everyone in the government army is secretly against the regime, but who wants to lose his life and throw away his future and that of his family for nothing?
“They would all defect if they had a chance.”
Like other army deserters, he believes the West has the means to provide that chance, and perhaps force the rapid collapse of the regime. “If there were a no fly zone, and some protected territory where army deserters could flee to, it would all be over quickly,” he said.
“Thousands of soldiers would defect, and they would kill the hard-core generals who still support President Bashar al-Assad. Peaceful protests are not enough. We need the Free Syrian Army and it needs the support of foreign countries.”
After 10 months of mostly peaceful protest in which the United Nations estimates 5,000 demonstrators have been killed, more and more opponents of Syria’s brutal regime are resigning themselves to the need to take up arms.
On Sunday an Arab League committee meets in Cairo to decide on whether to allow a team of monitors inside Syria to continue its work – where violence has not abated since it entered last weekend.
To add to the growing death toll inflicted on protesters, on Friday a suicide bomber apparently targeting a police bus in central Damascus killed 26 people and wounded 63. The government blamed the bloody attack on al-Qaeda, vowing an “iron fist” response. But a spokesman for the Syrian National Council blamed recent bombs on the “regime’s dirty game”, and activists pointed out that the attack was in Midan, an area with regular demonstrations on Fridays.
Soldiers who have deserted to Lebanon were blunter. Mr Ismael said: “There is no al Qaeda in Syria, this was done by the regime to try to frighten people. They want Syrians to think that if the regime falls, there will be bloodshed and civil war like in Iraq. Syrians know it is not true, they know the regime are killers.”
Karalokh Kal, a Syrian activist who fled to Beirut six weeks ago, said: “The regime was always a supporter of al Qaeda in Iraq so why should al Qaeda attack them now?
“The regime is ruthless enough to shed the blood of the poor, even of the thugs who it pays to support it who were killed in this bomb.”
Protesters in Syrian cities now call for military support from the West, after crowds initially insisted that Syrians could carry out a peaceful revolution by themselves.
Even educated liberals support the armed option, in many cases with a heavy heart.
“When I started protesting in the streets my parents said the regime would kill us, but we didn’t listen,” said one idealistic young medic who was forced to flee to Lebanon from Homs when the secret police came looking for him.
“We were hopeful and we thought we could bring the government down like they did in Egypt. Now I think the Free Syrian Army is the only way. And it needs weapons and help from abroad.”
Syria’s divided opposition in exile has argued over whether the revolution should take up arms and seek foreign military help. Last week in an interview with The Daily Telegraph the head of the Syrian National Council, Burhan Ghalioun, called for limited Western intervention, including air power to protect pockets of territory where anti-regime forces could rally and train – along the border with Turkey and perhaps the border with Jordan.
So far Turkey has talked tough but has refrained from active intervention, despite the flood of refugees entering from across the Syrian border, and other Western powers have remained unwilling to repeat their successful but expensive operation to enable regime change within Libya.
Those Syrians who hope the West will change its mind have been heartened in recent weeks at hearing stronger French criticisms of the Damascus regime.
But for now, the Free Syrian Army consists of only a few thousand lightly-armed men, capable of launching hit-and-run attacks against the regime but not a threat to its survival.
Its leader, Colonel Riad al-Asaad, last week threatened to launch attacks from his refuge on the Turkish border, but it was doubtful how many men really answer to him or what damage they can inflict.
Defectors claim that tens of thousands of soldiers have now fled their barracks, in many cases with their guns, and some have attempted to protect demonstrations from attack, with limited success. But the regime’s army probably still exceeds 300,000 men, armed with tanks and heavy weapons, making it a far more formidable force than anything at Colonel Gaddafi’s disposal in Libya.
Other army defectors whom The Sunday Telegraph met last week, huddled over a stove in the lawless Wadi Khalid area along the mountainous border, were hazy about the SFA to which they claimed to belong.
A former soldier called Zain said: “At the moment when a soldier defects he doesn’t know where to go, he needs sanctuary. If the SFA held territory inside Syria thousands would desert. We know that many of our old comrades would be desperate to get out of the army if they had a chance.”
The defectors are scathing about those activists who have themselves fled to Beirut, the Lebanese capital, but who still insist that their Syrian compatriots can bring down the regime without foreign help.
“Those activists who say we need a peaceful revolution, they are sitting in bars in Beirut enjoying themselves and they have no idea what it is like on the ground,” said a colleague.
“They can’t see what is going on and they don’t understand how much people are suffering in places like Hama. Food is cut off for neighbourhoods that are anti-regime, there is no power, and snipers shoot people at random.
“I’m sure that in these conditions, most people in Syria want foreign military help. They don’t want ground troops, but they do want a no-fly zone.”
Whether they get it or not, the defectors are determined to fight against the regime, and believe they now have no choice.
“If we fight, we believe we will win eventually. If we stop fighting, Assad will kill us all,” Mr Ismael said.