Syrian refugees grow impatient with top defectors

August 1, 2012 - 2:38 PM
Mideast Syria

FILE - In this undated file photo, Syrian Commander Riad al-Asaad, who heads a group of Syrian army defectors appears on a video posted on the group's Facebook page. Syrians hoping for a swift rebel victory in their homeland are growing impatient with top army defectors who are staying behind in Turkey, even though their comrades are gaining territory in northern Syria. But now, as the rebels make gains, some rebels and refugees say it's time for the most elite defectors _ including dozens of officers and more than 25 generals _ to go home and fight. (AP Photo/Free Syrian Army) THE ASSOCIATED PRESS HAS NO WAY OF INDEPENDENTLY VERIFYING THE CONTENT, LOCATION OR DATE OF THIS VIDEO IMAGE.

YAYLADAGI, Turkey (AP) — Syrians hoping for a swift rebel victory in their homeland are growing impatient with top army defectors who are staying in Turkey even after fighters on the ground have gained territory across the border in northern Syria.

Turkey has emerged as a haven not only for tens of thousands of Syrian refugees, but for some of the most high-level defectors from President Bashar Assad's regime. The Free Syrian Army, the loose umbrella group of rebel fighters, uses Turkey as a headquarters and staging ground, in part because the rebels have not been able to secure a safe haven inside the country.

But now rebel fighters have carved out some ground for themselves along the border inside Syria, and some rebels and refugees say it's time for the most elite defectors — including dozens of officers and more than 25 generals — to go home and fight.

"Why does an officer defect? He defects in order to protect the nation," Baraa, a Syrian refugee in Turkey, told The Associated Press. He asked that only his first name be published, fearing for the safety of his family in Syria. "They should go into Syria and let the revolution benefit from their long years of experience."

Commanders of the FSA in Turkey say they are hardly sitting idle and have been directing the fight inside Syria — and that Turkey is a secure place to do it from. Unfair or not, the criticism reflects a tension over who has real credibility to claim the revolt's leadership among the Syrian opposition, which includes multiple militias on the ground, politicians who live in exile and now defectors from some of the upper levels of Assad's military. If the revolt ever succeeds in ousting Assad, those tensions could fuel a divisive power struggle among the winners.

Thousands of Syrian soldiers, most of them low-level conscripts, have deserted and joined the rebels since the uprising against Assad began in March 2011. The higher echelons of Assad's military have stayed largely intact, which makes those generals and senior officers who did break away and are now in Turkey important sources of information and expertise for the rebellion.

Even if they are active in planning and direction, there is a perception among refugees and even some in the FSA that those who were in the military's officer corps — and used to its perks — are happy to stay in Turkey, while the former conscripts and Syrian civilians who took up weapons and joined FSA-linked militias do the fighting. Most of those based in Turkey are mid-level officers ranging from lieutenants to colonels, staying in a camp separate from those housing the refugees.

In recent weeks, rebels have taken control of large areas on the border with Turkey as well as several neighborhoods in Syria's largest city, Aleppo, about 25 miles (40 kilometers) south of the border, where heavy fighting has been raging for nearly two weeks as regime forces try to dislodge them. Although the area is not a stronghold akin to Libya's Benghazi — from which rebels in that country launched their revolt — it does allow a certain amount of freedom along the border.

"If army defectors who are in Turkey today were real officers and deserved to be called officers they should enter now," said one FSA operative, Ahmed Kassem, who moves between Syria, Jordan and Turkey to coordinate among the group's factions. "They used to say there are no buffer zones. Now the field is open and there are liberated areas."

The generals "are sitting outside the country waiting for others to prepare senior seats for them," he said. "They should go in and fight, not stay in the camp. The real defectors are the ones who fight on the ground."

The head of the FSA, Riad al-Asaad, said there are plenty of officers on the ground inside Syria — including two colonels in Aleppo — and that those still in Turkey are "not just sitting around."

"If the leaders are abroad, they do so in order to gather support for their country," al-Asaad said by telephone. "In most revolutions of the world, the commanders were outside their countries."

Asked if he himself is going back and forth to Syria, the colonel said "these are military secrets that I will not reveal."

There are those in the FSA who see the logic in having the command in Turkey. "Generals can work from behind putting plans and directing the situation through maps," said Jamal, a Syrian rebel who asked that his full name not be published out of fear for his or his family's personal safety.

But another fighter, Sobhi, said he hopes the defectors soon turn up the battlefield.

"We wish they were with the rebels," he said. "They have experience that the rebels desperately need."

The FSA defectors are in a camp in the Turkish province of Hatay, on the border, separate from the eight refugee camps Turkey has set up in the region. While journalists can approach the gates of the refugee camps and talk to people outside, access to the FSA's Apaydin camp is strict and no one is allowed to approach it.

Baraa, the refugee, said there is resentment in the other camps, where many believe the defectors are living much better. In fact, the camps are largely the same, with the same food supplies and tents, though there is one key perk for generals: air conditioning.

"It seems they enjoy life here in Turkey," Baraa said.