Ehsan Hammadeh

Produced by: Sharq.Org
Part of the Curated Collection: Syrian Histories,
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Interview Location: Turkey
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Serving in the army for 24 years

Ehsan Hammadeh was raised by a poor family in Aleppo. He went to middle school then enlisted in the army in 1967 so that he could financially support his family and avoid the long and costly years of education.

Ehsan was appointed as an electronics technician in the Air Force. During his service, he underwent professional military and technical training and was put in charge of signal and radio equipment to ensure communication and maintenance work in the military section, the air defense, and the Army Command.

“At the beginning of my service, there was freedom and respect for all sects and religions. There was a prayer room in every military barrack. However, at the beginning of 1970, restrictions were imposed on religious practices,” says Ehsan.

“In our military section, there was religious diversity in terms of the number of officers, whereas Alawites were the majority in other sections, such as the Defense Brigades that were headed by Rifaat al-Assad. They claimed that the main goal was protecting the revolution, while the truth was that the army was sectarian in nature and aimed at protecting President Hafez al-Assad,” he adds.

Ehsan witnessed several important landmark events during his service, including the 1967 war, during which Hafez al-Assad turned in Golan when he was the Minister of Defense. He ordered the army to withdraw and announced the fall of Quneitra, although the Israeli army was more than 5 kilometers away from the governorate, according to Ehsan.

Ehsan also experienced the 1973 October War, which Hafez al-Assad started to prepare for in advance, expanding the army horizontally in terms of number of soldiers, and vertically in terms of increased arms in cooperation with the Soviet Union. "Many young people were influenced by the slogans about restoring Golan and liberating Palestine, which later turned out to be mere illusions as only a small part of the governorate was reclaimed,” he says. As for the city of Quneitra, al-Assad restored it as a land without people, turning it into a platform from which he begged the kings and princes of the Gulf for aid, so that he could fill his coffers with the funds granted to rebuild the destroyed city.”

"Unfortunately, the October War was not liberating, it was triggering. The army came out destroyed, and the Israeli threat reached the area of Sasa, about 30 kilometers away from Damascus,” he adds. “Had it not been for the intervention of the Iraqi army against the Israeli attack, Damascus would have faced the threat of falling.

The Baath Party had a presence in all parts of the country, including the army. The highest-ranking officer in the battalion or military section managed the affairs of the party members, whether they were supporters or active members of the party. It was also strictly forbiddenespecially for officers, to join any party other than the Baath Party, even if it was part of the so-called "National Progressive Front."

After the Syrian-Israeli clashes in Lebanon in 1982, sectarianism became apparent in the ranks of the army, and the military camps and barracks were divided between Sunnis and Alawites. “Anyone originating from Aleppo, Hama, or Idlib was automatically classified as Sunni, even if they were Christian. Similarly, anyone who came from the coast was considered Alawite. After the 1982 war, many Sunnis, Druze, and Christians were reluctant to join the army. This reluctance was the result of the army’s low salaries and the absence of any kind of financial incentives,” says Ehsan. Consequently, the percentage of Alawites - 50% of non-commissioned officers and 85% of officers - increased.

Bribery and corruption spread after the 1982 war and became more public than before. They increased flagrantly and excessively after 1990, especially when it came to approving leave for army personnel and non-commissioned officers. Members of the army offered the commanding officer a monthly salary and, in return, stayed at home during their compulsory military service. In this way, not only did senior officers improve their incomes, but they also increased their fortunes through corruption.

Ehsan’s financial situation deteriorated and he was no longer able to meet the needs of his six children. He was forced to work in smuggling, he says, until he was arrested by Customs and turned over to the Military Court.

Ehsan was sentenced to two years in prison. He spent some of that period in Tadmor prison and the rest in the military section of Saydnaya Prison. He was released after a year and a half of imprisonment. Then, the Minister of Defense, Mustafa Tlass, issued a decree dismissing him from the army and stripping him of all his civil and military rights. As such, he did not receive any retirement or material compensation for his 24 years of service in the army. Consequently, he had to work in a chandelier workshop and then as a vendor in a booth on a sidewalk, where the police threatened his livelihood and openly asked him for bribes.