Samer, a bookish lawyer, clearly wasn’t winning the argument. He sat on a white plastic chair under a tarpaulin with about a dozen other male Syrian refugees in the Yayladagi camp, the largest of the six facilities in southern Turkey that are now home to some 7,500 people. A pile of manila folders rested on the table in front of him, handwritten notes documenting his days in this neat, well-organized tent city, musings he hopes to one day publish into a book. But on this afternoon, the men were all thinking about the present — and who was to blame for Syria’s crisis.
Samer insisted that Syria’s uprising did not have sectarian overtones, that such allegations were a ploy to distract from the opposition’s more basic demands for social, political and economic reform. “The regime is hiding behind sectarianism,” Samer said. “Not all of the Alawites are with the regime!” he said, referring to the minority sect to which [President Bashar al-Assad] and many of Syria’s ruling political, military and business elite belong. (Samer did not give his surname because he said he was ashamed to share it with a prominent member of Assad’s regime.) (See TIME’s photoessay “Protests in Syria.”)
The other men grew increasingly agitated as Samer continued to speak. Some shuffled in their chairs, one knitted his brows and clenched his teeth. Finally, Hussein Masry, jumped up from his seat. He lifted his sky blue polo shirt, revealing pale horizontal scars that extended across his back. “They are all with the regime, the Alawite dogs!” he yelled. “I was 12 years old when they did this to me with a metal cable. Twelve years old! I have suffered a lot because of them, I did and my son did. They electrocuted him in his private parts.” His son, Mustafa Masry, 19, looked down at his hands as his father spoke. The Masrys, like most of the camps residents, are Sunnis from the northwestern Syrian governorate of Idlib. They are from the village of Jisr al-Shughour, and their clan is well-known for its opposition to the ruling regime.
“Sectarian war, that’s our future,” said another man, as the rest quietly nodded and Hussein returned to his seat.
“We don’t need weapons, we need a no-fly zone to encourage more defections,” Samer continued.
“Most of us have served in the military. We have training,” the elder Masry said, ignoring Samer.
“I swear to God, if my brother says he is with the regime, I will kill him,” said Nihad Hashari, 45, another former resident of Jisr al-Shoughour. “We are waiting for war,” he added. “Only a coup will save us from sectarian war.”
“Is it possible that there isn’t an honorable Alawi officer to put a bullet in Bashar’s head?” Masry asked. (See TIME’s video “Displaced Iraqis Vulnerable in Syria.”)
Few Syrians in the refugee camps in Turkey, it seems, are hopeful of a peaceful solution to this crisis. The Syrian uprising against Assad’s authoritarian Baathist rule has surpassed the seven-month mark, with no clear end in sight. It has slipped into a cyclical stalemate of almost daily deaths — mainly of protesters but increasingly of security forces as well — and funerals that become protests, quelled with brute force by the state, producing further deaths. Assad continues to speak about forming committees to study the implementation of reforms, the protesters continue taking to the streets and calling for his execution. Things are becoming more, not less, polarized as views on both sides harden and the seams that have kept Syria’s multi-ethnic, multi-sectarian patchwork society together threaten to fray.
Some of the refugees here in this camp say they want Libya-style NATO military intervention. Others are adamantly against it, echoing the divisions of the wider fragmented Syrian political opposition groups. Although the Syrian National Council (SNC) was recently formed with the view to uniting the disparate groups under its umbrella, it has raised as many suspicions as it has hopes. Some think it has an Islamist skew; others say it has no real presence on the ground in Syria, and is just a vehicle for exiles to attend conferences and claim a role in the revolution. Its nominal head and spokesperson Burhan Ghalioun, a Paris-based academic at the Sorbonne, while initially welcomed by many, has seen his star dim as criticism of his perceived inaccessibility has increased. The SNC is yet to clearly present its plans for a new Syria or how to get there, beyond vague calls for “international protection” but not “international intervention,” and other such terms. It has stressed that the uprising should remain peaceful, but as the death toll climbs past 3,000, that may become harder to contain. It wants to instigate a campaign of civil disobedience, calling on Syrians to adhere to a nationwide strike on Wednesday.
Measures like that aren’t enough for many of the men in Yayladagi who say they want to fight in Syria. Some of their attitude can be put down to bluster, but their deep animosity toward the regime cannot be downplayed. For some refugees, the military option is simply the best strategic choice. “We are occupied in Syria by the regime and its security forces,” said Marwan Salim, 37, a lawyer from Jisr al-Shughour, who was walking outside his tent, past lines of laundry strung up between trees. “The only way to remove an occupier is through resistance. The regime won’t fall without armed resistance.”
As Jihad, 38, sat on a plastic chair outside his white tent, his mother smoked a cigarette on a thin mattress nearby, while his sister in law fried eggplants in a pot balanced on two cinderblocks hemming in a small log fire. His four young children played nearby. On June 4, he fled from a village in Idlib he declined to name after learning that he was wanted for weapons possession. He did not dispute the claim. “We need to change things, that is clear,” he said. “You get slapped once, twice, then what? We need weapons.”
Jihad pinned little hope on the Free Syrian Army, a group of defectors whose leadership is headquartered in a Turkish refugee camp. (Media have not been allowed into the military camp.) “We can’t wait for more soldiers to defect,” Jihad said. “We need armed civilians.” Unlike Iraq and Libya, for example, where most men own guns, the Assads ensured that Syrian society was not weaponized. There are reports — difficult to verify — of weapons smuggling across Syria’s borders with Lebanon, Iraq and Jordan, but little beyond that.
The Free Syrian Army has said that its primary role is to defend civilians, but it doesn’t want them joining its ranks. “There are many civilians who have received military training during their compulsory service,” said First Lieutenant Mohammad Abdel-Razak Tlass, a defector and one of more than half a dozen young officers commanding an undisclosed number of conscripts who have defected and are stationed in and around Rastan. That city, halfway between Hama and Homs, has emerged as a key center for the Free Syrian Army. It is also the hometown of Tlass’ relative, the former defense minister Mustafa Tlass, a regime stalwart. The civilians “have asked to volunteer with us,” Tlass said, speaking to TIME by phone. “We rejected their requests outright because we don’t have the means. The only thing we need is support; either financial, moral or weapons.” The soldiers have only the light weapons they fled with, Tlass said, and are restocking their ammunition by over-running loyalist checkpoints and commandeering their supplies.
It’s unclear how large — or how effective — a force these defectors constitute. Tlass said that Rastan’s “Khalid bin al Walid brigade” of defectors doesn’t request permission from the Free Syrian Army’s leadership in Turkey ahead of its operations, but coordinates with other groups in its vicinity. Presumably, the other “brigades” act similarly. It remains to be seen whether this bottom-up strategy will succeed against Assad’s relatively cohesive security forces.
In the meantime, some civilians — like Mohammad Saif, 29, a refugee in Yayladagi who was shot in the leg at a protest — are itching to get into the fight. “I faced a bullet with a bare chest I won’t do that again,” he says. “God willing, I will fight with a weapon, like the Libyans. How come the world helped them? Are we worth less than Libyans?”
By Rania Abouzeid / Antakya