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First published in  Now Lebabnon
The Scoop
May 21, 2012

Sons of Idlib

Michael Weiss reports on the Syrian refugees in Turkey

by
Michael Weiss

This commentary is from two separate articles written by Michael Weiss and published by Now Lebanon!

Part 1 is available here

Part 2 is available here

“This is where they took Harmoush.”

I was standing on a road outside the Altinozu refugee camp in southern Hatay, Turkey, waiting to see if Mahmoud, my Syrian-American translator and guide on this trip, could get us in. We’d been joined by Ismail, a refugee from al-Maland, a town of about 5,000 people in Idlib province. Ismail fled along with his wife and daughter last June after his home was raided by the regime for the “crime” of hosting internally displaced Syrians from Jisr al-Shughour, the site of the most well-documented massacre of the revolution.

“Harmoush” was Lieutenant Colonel Hussain Harmoush, perhaps the first known military defector from the Syrian army who, along with 100 or so comrades and a few armed civilians, defended the people of Jisr al-Shughour long enough to allow them to flee to Turkey. It was Harmoush’s ad hoc battalion that killed 120 security forces, which led the regime to dispatch tanks and attack helicopters into Jisr al-Shughour to fire on the defectors. It also led Syrian state media to claim that these 120 had been killed by “armed gangs.”

Harmoush remains a hero to the Syrian refugees of Hatay. He was lured into a trap by an Alawite Turkish intelligence officer—since arrested—who then handed him over to the Syrian mukhabarat, right here on the road I was standing on. The Syrian secret police then spirited Harmoush back to Damascus where he was made to “confess” on state television to all manner of hysterical conspiracies about the supposedly foreign origins and financing of the revolution. According to another veteran activist I know inside the country, Harmoush was the first detainee executed by a regime field court that was activated for the express purposes of handing down death sentences to protestors and rebels captured since the outset of the uprising in March 2011. “Now there is no more Harmoush family,” Mahmoud told me later. “They killed everyone back home. Even babies.”

Ismail was one of dozens of refugees I would meet in the course of a three-day stay in Hatay, and although on day two I’d make it inside another refugee camp, Altinozu was a trickier safe haven to penetrate for a foreigner like me. I made the mistake of identifying myself as a journalist to the Turkish border guards who instructed me to ask permission with the governor’s office in Hatay. A very nice official there said to come back in an hour after he’d confer with his superiors.

Turkey officially hosts 23,000 Syrian refugees (who are technically designated as “guests”) although the actual number of Syrian exiles living on Turkish soil is higher. Many wealthier Syrians fled legally, on their own passports, and have rented apartments in border towns of Hatay, solemnly waiting for the regime to fall so they can return back home. Anywhere between 3,000 and 6,000 Syrians live outside the camps, a fact I discovered at a dinky, Graham Greene-ish cafe in Altinozu with surprisingly good coffee where I awaited my appointment with the Hatay governor’s office. I was joined by Mahmoud, who’s become a recognized and well-liked figure in this town (a week before I arrived, he bought out an entire store’s inventory of bicycles for the children in the Altinozu camp) and two other camp residents, Yahye and Ibrahim. Yahye has Chechen ancestry and looks it, with pale skin, hazel-green eyes and a thick, black but shortly cropped beard. Ibrahim had a sharp, angular face with a patchy beard—he’d lost weight since moving to Turkey, judging by his Syrian passport photo which showed a chubbier, hairless version. Both are from the Idlib town of al-Janodya, both were dressed in track suits, but only Yahye, nicknamed “the Sniper,” was a rebel in the Free Syrian Army (FSA).

Hatay has become a sort of de facto base of operations for anti-Assad fighters who go in and out of Syria and leave their weapons at the border. Yahye told me that he’d formed his own battalion eight or nine months ago, once the peaceful protests in Idlib were met with brute violence by the regime. He has 30 men, eight of whom are military defectors and 22 of whom are civilians who took up arms—hunting rifles, then later Kalashnikovs confiscated from killed or captured shabiha and security force personnel—to defend themselves, their families and their properties. Yahye said that he was in Hatay now because his FSA unit (nominally under the command of Riad al-Assaad –who takes credit for all FSA operations, even the ones he doesn’t know about—but practically under the command of Yahye) was observing the Kofi Annan-brokered cease-fire. Once the cease-fire was declared over, he planned to go back in.

“What do you need?” I asked him. “A buffer zone, a no-fly zone and weapons,” he said, prompting Mahmoud and Ibrahim to start laughing. I’d end my stay in Hatay laughing at this troika too since it was an automatic reply by every Syrian I interviewed. “We don’t need food or humanitarian aid; we need anti-tank and anti-aircraft weapons.” I asked if the non-lethal aid the United States and other Western countries had promised the FSA had reached Yahye’s unit. None had.

Could he describe an insurgent operation he’d led or participated in?  He told me a story of how shabiha and mukhabarat agents had surrounded a public square in one village in Idlib. Yahye’s battalion ambushed them, then stole their weapons. He had the cellphone footage of this raid to corroborate his account and a third-party source to vouch for his activity in general. Yahye opened his cell phone and dialed a number. “Hallo, Bradley?”

On the line was Bradley Secker, a freelance English photojournalist based in Istanbul who, several months prior, had embedded with Yahye’s unit in Idlib. Secker explained how he’d spent several days hanging around Janodya and surrounding villages with Yahye and other rebels. “Then, during one Friday demonstration which I photographed, there were five or six gun battles in Janodya. One protester got shot in the head, a six- or seven-year old boy was shot, so was an old man on a tractor.”  Secker said he’d been staying in a hut where the FSA stored weapons in a village adjacent to Janodya.  One morning he woke up to the news that the mukhabarat and shabiha were raiding the village looking for rebels. He fled back into to Janodya, where Yahye’s unit sheltered him long enough for him to mount an escape back across the border.  “These are all good guys,” Secker said, echoing the sentiments of another photojournalist, The Sunday Times’ Paul Conroy, who was famously trapped in besieged Baba Amr last February and was only smuggled out by a group of FSA soldiers, some of whom died in the process.

“And what does this tell you about us?” asked Mahmoud. “The regime is trying to scare the West into thinking that we are all extremists. I remember when I was a kid in Hama, we had a lot of archaeological sites and many Western tourists came to view them. I was like 12 or 13 years old, and I used to go and invite them to my home, my mom would cook for them. That’s how we are. You are my guest. I will take a bullet for you because you are my guest.”

At 52, Mahmoud doesn’t look the part of a revolutionary. He’s several inches shorter than I am, slight of build, and he wears glasses. He’s also incredibly generous (he was doing me the favor of arranging these interviews and translating them, yet insisted on no money for his services) and by the time we’d parted ways I felt as if I’d been in the care of a hyper-attentive uncle. Over the course of the next 48 hours I’d learn his life story: He’s been married four times. He owned a successful construction vehicle retail company in Atlanta, Georgia, most of his shares of which he sold off to come to Hatay to help with the Syrian struggle however he could. His German wife was displeased. “I told her, ‘What is your wish for your life?’ She said, ‘To be safe and happy.’ I said, ‘OK, my wish is to go and liberate Syria.’”  I asked why he didn’t think he could accomplish much from the Peach State. “We raised some funds in Atlanta. I had $300,000. We used it to send humanitarian aid to the Syrians, but some of it was intercepted by shabiha and sold. I have a friend who sold his land, his house, his business to buy weapons and help the rebels.”

A few days before I met him, Mahmoud and other Syrian-Americans entered the camp reserved for defected military personnel in Hatay, the camp that housed FSA commander Riad al-Assaad. “I asked him, ‘How can we help?’  He said: ‘We have an account in Saudi Arabia in our name. You can send money there.’  I said: ‘What are you going to do with the money?’  ‘We’ll send it to the battalions in Syria. If we send the money, then we can control the battalions.’  But so far he hasn’t sent the money.”  Mahmoud thinks Riad al-Assaad has squandered his own credibility among Syrians by not leaving his camp to return to Syria. “Respect has to be earned. It’s not enough to be on the TV. People want to see you on the ground, carrying arms.”  Harmoush did that, even after fleeing Jisr al-Shughour: He returned to Syria and showed himself to the people. That’s why the regime made it a priority to kill him.

During the time I was in Turkey, the news hadn’t broken that the United States had begun facilitating weapons transfers—most likely by Qatar and Saudi Arabia—to trusted rebel units inside Syria.  Nevertheless, no one I spoke to in 72 hours claimed to have received any of the goods. “We wish that was true,” Mahmoud said when I asked about any sources of foreign materiel.  He spent $6,000 on his own Kalashnikov but suggested that even these were becoming harder to find on the black market, as shabiha are instructed to buy them up. The only exception was a consignment sent by sympathetic Libyans in Misrata—not the National Transitional Council itself—which was intercepted in Lebanon. The problem that time, Mahmoud told me, was that the guns weren’t concealed correctly in the shipping containers. It costs about $30,000 to pack contraband weapons properly.

We left the cafe and returned to the governor’s office. The man we’d spoken with earlier now referred me to a higher-up in the Turkish Interior Ministry who explained over the phone that it took upwards of a week for a foreigner to gain access to the Altinozu camp.  I didn’t have that much time. “Why don’t you just ask the refugees to come outside and talk with you there,” he said. “They can move freely in and out of the camp.”

We made our way back, and by now a small group of refugees who had been told an American journalist was there to talk to them had gathered in the visitors’ quarters, which is as far as I’d get. Mahmoud, who as a Syrian has unhindered access, offered to go inside the warehouse where the refugees were domiciled and take pictures for me. On the cleanly painted and well-kept walls outside in the visitors’ quarters I noticed a very UN-looking image of a small tree growing out of a globe with multicolored hands all holding various objects such as a sheep, a ship and an alphabet card. This must have been done for the children—or for Angelina Jolie, who visited Altinozu a few months ago.

Mahmoud explained that an ad hoc picnic was being set up in the olive tree garden across the road where everyone would happily talk about their experiences. I sat among six or seven refugees, including Ibrahim, Yahye and Yahye’s son and daughter (they each can’t have been older than five years old and they were almost insufferably cute), though it was hard to keep track as people kept wandering in and out of the picnic area. As ever, no cup of tea or coffee ever went empty.

A young Syrian student I’ll call Salam told me he’d joined the anti-Assad protests in Jisr al-Shughour which had started in solidarity with the people of Daraa. After the massacre in Jisr al-Shughour, followed by mass arrests, humiliation and property theft, the protests spread through neighboring towns and villages in Idlib. “I never carried a weapon or participated in any insurgency,” Salam said. Wasn’t he scared of the consequences? “In my world, it is better to die than to be arrested.”

I asked Salam about the threat of sectarianism. After all, Alawites from loyalist areas in Idlib had been brought in by the regime to confiscate the land and homes of disbursed Sunnis. Did he not think that, whatever the pluralist beginnings of the protest movement, an ethnic civil war was inevitable given the regime’s stoking of latent tensions? “We are not sectarian,” Salam insisted. “Even the Alawite sect, there are honest, loyal people who love Syria like everybody else. Our problem is with the regime and its proxies.”  To illustrate his point, he noted that shabiha, while majority Alawite, also had plenty of Sunnis and Christians in their ranks. “They were a sleeper cell that worked with the Assad family as drugs and weapons smugglers. They used to recruit the jihadists that Assad sent to Iraq. Assef Shawkat [Assad’s brother-in-law, now deputy defense minister] used to recruit them, give them weapons. Then, when they returned from Iraq, he had them killed.”

At this point, an older man with a graying mustache introduced himself as an ex-shabih. “Fawaz” (not his real name) is indeed a Sunni from Jisr al-Shughour but used to work in Qardaha, the hometown of Hafez al-Assad in the coastal province of Latakia. He was hired by members of the Assad family from 1988 to 1992. “I drove one of their cars one time, and they liked the way I drove, so they hired me. I drove cars—all of them stolen from Lebanon—that were smuggling drugs and weapons.” Fawaz said that Numeir Makhlouf, the chairman of state-owned Syrian Co. for Oil Transport and a member of Syria’s second family—Rami Makhlouf is Bashar al-Assad’s billionaire industrialist cousin—was now leading the shabiha in Damascus. Fawaz explained that he still has contacts in the regime and that several had told him that the major explosion that rocked Damascus two days earlier, thought to be the work of al-Qaeda affiliates, was actually supposed to happen today, a Friday, and that it was the work of Iranians. “The bomb maker was killed in the blast,” Fawaz said, adding that Iranian infiltration in Syria is widely known. “One sniper, he killed seven or eight people. So the people from my village went to the origin of the shooting and found an Iranian. They threw him off the building.”

So why did Fawaz quit the shabiha in 1992?  He said that shabiha had hit a woman in a car and just left her by the side of the road. This led the people of Jisr al-Shughour to protest, and there ensued a firefight between the shabiha and the townsfolk; Fawaz sided with the townsfolk. “I never killed anyone, I was just a driver.”  Perhaps thinking that my view of shabiha was not yet sufficiently dire, Yahye once again opened his cell phone and showed me a video, one that hadn’t been uploaded to YouTube, which he said his unit captured from a shabih who kept the footage as a memento mori of regime might.  It showed a column of Syrian tanks and soldiers firing uninterrupted—and at deafening volume—into the distance. Their unspecified targets, Yahye said, were the people of Hama.

I knew beforehand that all present were in favor of a buffer zone on the Syrian-Turkish border. The radius and locus of the zone varied depending on whom you questioned: Some said they wanted it to extend from Aleppo to Latakia, others said one centered in Jisr al-Shughour would be sufficient. But wasn’t the terrain there rocky and unnavigable?  Ibrahim replied that a mountainous region was preferable for the rebels since they knew the best hiding spots and the topography afforded its own natural defenses. “This is where the French military was defeated when they occupied Syria,” he noted proudly.  All agreed that a buffer zone wasn’t for refuge but for a fortified gathering point for military defectors and rebels. The problem with defecting now was that while an individual soldier or commander might make it safely into Turkey, smuggling his family across the border was treacherous.

Syrian tanks with night-vision capability are parked along the border; snipers have taken up high-altitude positions in Idlib; and the regime tends to dispatch aircraft to hunt down defectors. “Let’s say Deir Ezzor, for example,” Mahmoud said. “If you want to defect from there, the regime will send helicopters and destroy everything in a few minutes.”  Plus, there are land mines laid wherever Assad’s forces withdraw. Ibrahim told me that a Turk from Altinozu sold him a metal detector. “He told me, ‘You can go and find coins.’ I said, ‘Forget coins, I want to find mines!’  We found 370 with this metal detector.” And what’d you do with the mines once you dug them up? “We put them in a pile by the side of the road.”

Michael Weiss

About Michael Weiss

A widely published journalist, Weiss has expertise in the Israel-Palestine conflict and human rights in the Middle East. He recently wrote HJS's Media Briefing: "Fatah-Hamas Reconciliation: A Preliminary Assessment". Weiss has been published in Slate, The Wall Street Journal, The Weekly Standard, The Daily Telegraph, The New Criterion, The Guardian, Foreign Policy, Prospect, Standpoint, Democratiya and The New Republic. He keeps a regular blog on foreign policy and the Middle East for the Daily Telegraph and one on culture for The New Criterion.

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