The Syrian army corporal had entertained thoughts of defecting for a long time. He was just an office worker at his base in the southern province of Deraa, never firing his military-issued rifle or pistol. Like all rank-and-file soldiers, though, he was under close watch. Bolting the army—which could see him imprisoned or killed—didn’t seem worth the risk. But that changed when news came that America might attack. The corporal’s superiors tried to dismiss the threat as “just some kind of bullshit,” but they seemed rattled. He was too. “I was truly and frankly afraid from the American scenario approaching,” he says. “It was fear.”

So the 28-year-old corporal, who asked to use only his first name, Majid, because he has family in Syria, worked up his nerve. He bribed a superior to let him take a two-day leave, saying he needed to visit family in Damascus. Then he linked up with rebels who specialize in helping would-be defectors escape. Soon he was bumping along back roads in a busload of fellow fleeing soldiers, bound for Turkey, where he arrived this weekend. “This threatening [of a U.S. strike] is even more effective than the strike itself,” Majid says.

As the drum beats for possible U.S. strikes on Syria, the opposition has claimed a surge in defections like Majid’s. The threat alone of American involvement, some say, has been enough to jar the government and the beleaguered forces of President Bashar al-Assad—suggesting that he is facing a growing psychological as well as military threat.

Despite presenting a defiant front, Assad’s government has shown signs of concern. It recently ran full-page advertisements in state newspapers, as The Wall Street Journal noted, telling Syrians to ignore “rumors about the escape of important people from the country” and “videos of people impersonating Syrian officials”–a likely bid to head off news of high-profile defections. The Journal also reported that Syrian troops have positioned themselves in residential neighborhoods that house key military and government installations, as the government urges civilians to evacuate.

On Wednesday, a senior opposition figure claimed that the top Syrian official to date had defected and escaped into Turkey: Ali Habib, who served as defense minister until August 2011. Unlike the vast majority of defectors – such as Majid, the corporal from Deraa – Habib is a member of Assad’s Alawite sect, a minority that dominates the government and security forces in the predominately Sunni country. But Habib has yet to appear publicly, and Syrian state media denied the defection, insisting that Habib was still at home.

Analysts tracking the conflict say that an uptick in defections–which have helped to fuel the rebellion since it began – does seem to be underway. “The psychological impact of not actual strikes, but of suspected strikes, has been huge. And we’ve seen a large number of defections,” says Elizabeth O’Bagy, a senior Syria analyst for the Institute for the Study of War in Washington, DC, and the political director for the Syrian Emergency Task Force, which lobbies the U.S. government on behalf of the Syrian opposition. “News of the U.S. strikes did to a certain degree change the calculations on the ground.”

Courtesy The Daily Beast.