Syrian rebels in Turkey keep spirits and hopes up as they wait for tide to turn

Opponents of regime of Bashar al-Assad treat their wounded and launch supply expeditions from neighbouring country

Routed by a brutal conflict and driven from their country, Syrians in Turkey might be expected to be a desperate bunch. But in the border camps and hospitals, defiance far outweighs despair.

In a hospital room in the border city of Antakya, Abdurrahman Kalash, a self-described Salafist imam in his mid-30s who was educated in Egypt, says he can hardly wait to get back to Syria. Two of his fellow fighters lie gravely injured, but Kalash is unbowed. This is not the end, he says, just the end of the beginning.

"We want to go back and join the struggle again," he says. "It might look like a dead end, but we are simply biding our time. The Syrian army has erected many more checkpoints than before, and many [opposition] fighters are currently in Turkey, waiting until we have more weapons."

And he adds: "We also know that there are many more Syrian soldiers who would like to defect, but we tell them to wait a bit longer."

The network of the Syrian opposition in Turkey is well established. In a quiet neighbourhood in this city, the ground floor of a nondescript apartment block now serves as an undercover clinic for Syrian fighters and refugees.

As well as treating patients, it helps smuggle medical supplies into Syria and wounded Syrians into Turkey.

"Using Skype, we are in close contact with the people inside Syria," says Waddah, 38, a pharmacist. "We liaise with the Turkish [military police], tell them where along the border wounded Syrians will cross, and they send an ambulance to take them to a hospital."

Dr Majed, who fled Aleppo in December, nods. "Medical supplies are taken into Syria with the help of the Free Syrian Army [FSA]." Asked if they receive any help from the Syrian National Council, the men laugh. "We do not get anything from them, and we don't expect anything from them either," Waddah says.

Majed pauses. "But it's the only political face we currently have, so we will have to make do with them."

In a nearby village close to the Syrian border, Ahmed, 13, and Hamit, 19, wait for their next supply trip into Syria.

Three sponge mattresses, one of them resting on a rough wooden frame, and a TV are the only furniture in the smoke-filled room; a blanket bearing the logo of the Turkish Red Crescent covers the floor. Stacked under the beds are packages of canned tuna and medical supplies. They do not have much contact with the villagers and pay 150 Turkish lira (£50) a month rent for the room.

"Sometimes there are up to 15 men who sleep here," Hamit says. "Free Syrian Army fighters come here to take a rest before they go back." They also escort Syrian refugees to Turkey.

On 9 May 2011, Ahmed was arrested during a protest rally in Latakia and held in jail for 3½ months where he was beaten regularly. After a transfer to another jail in Damascus, he was able to escape with the help of prison guards, and last December fled to Turkey.

"The Free Syrian Army helped me come here," he says. Now he and Hamit regularly smuggle food and medical supplies to FSA fighters across the border.

"The Turks are not very helpful," he says, frowning. "If they would assist us, our job would not be so hard."


He has been caught once by Turkish military police, who are stationed nearby. "They put me in prison for one day and then handed me over to the refugee camp," he recalls. Ahmed says his mother, who lives in Syria with his father and four siblings, is very afraid for him. "But we can never talk about it on the phone or she would be arrested."

Just two days before this interview, three of their friends were caught and immediately killed by Syrian soldiers, Hamit recounts. Roughly once a week, they trek through the woods to Syria to bring supplies to FSA camps there.

"We saw the [Syrian] military place landmines on [the Syrian side of] the border," Hamit adds. "We know where they are and have so far been able to avoid them." On 12 March, Human Rights Watch (HRW) said the Syrian army had planted hundreds of antipersonnel mines along its borders with Turkey and Lebanon that had already killed and maimed civilians.

Hamit and Ahmed are glued to al-Jazeera coverage of events in Syria. Now and then Hamit gives the defective TV a shove to reset the flickering image. "It's the only Arabic channel we get here," he says, almost apologetically.

When Thamar, a 30-year-old member of the FSA, turns up an hour later, they immediately focus on his laptop and engage in Skype chats enabled by a wireless dongle. Thamar has spent four years in jail for drug offences, and participated in an uprising last year that left eight prisoners dead. He was later released on bail, and joined the armed opposition seven months ago.

He insists that no weapons are stored in Turkey. "The Turkish authorities would not allow it," he says. "I only took up weapons against Assad, not against the Turkish government."

Rejecting any notions of a slowing revolution, he argues that only a lack of weaponry has made the armed opposition look weak from the outside. "But we are decided to topple Assad, and there are many of us, up to 1,500 fighters in some places."

Asked if he worried about growing violence in Syria, he shakes his head. "The Free Syrian Army only defends, never attacks. We aim to protect Syrian civilians against the military."

On the border crossing between Turkey and Syria in Yayladagi, a businessman who wished to remain anonymous is angry that the armed opposition in Syria does not admit to its own wrongdoings and argues that sectarian tension in Syria has already reached a tipping point.

"Only a year ago we used to be ashamed to ask anyone about their ethnicity in Syria, it was a question that was considered rude. Nowadays sectarian identity has become of vital importance."

Having a Sunni mother and an Alawite father, he says he is now afraid to travel to Aleppo, where he owns a baby clothing store. "I used to go there twice a week," he says. "But now I send everything by cargo, because I am afraid to travel there."

In a public letter to the Syrian National Council on 20 March, HRW denounced serious human rights abuses committed by the armed opposition, including torture, kidnapping and executions, some of which had been directed against members of other sects, mainly Shia and Alawite.

Contrary to this, Thamar from the FSA wants to believe sectarian tension will cease once the president, Bashar al-Assad, is gone. "All the men who carry arms in Syria will hand them in once the revolution is over. We won't end up like Libya."


Constanze Letsch in Antakya

The GuardianTramp

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