Justin Vela

Inside Syria with the Free Syrian Army in Ain al-Baida…

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Istanbul-At the beginning of December, I was back on the Syrian-Turkish border, to do a story on couriers for the Free Syrian Army (FSA) that were going back and forth between the two countries, carrying supplies in and secret dispatches and wounded civilians out.

A FSA fighter in Ain al-Baida, Syria. December 2011.

While researching the story I again crossed the border into Syria, guided by a Syrian smuggler. On a hill overlooking the village of Ain al-Baida, I was introduced to a group of FSA fighters who were living in a small outpost across a valley from a Syrian military position.

The sharp pop of gunfire draws little reaction. The soldiers of the Free Syrian Army (FSA) point to a multi-storey house just across the wide valley from their base above the village of Ain al-Baida, about a mile from the Turkish border. “That is where the military is,” says commander Abo Mohammad, who wears a camouflage jacket over civilian clothes and cradles an AK-47.

Read the full article in the Independent 

A FSA fighter points to a bullet hole in a building occupied by rebel fighters in Ain al-Baida, Syria. December 2011.

On the Turkish side of the border I also visited the Reyhanli refugee camp, one of several camps full of Syrians who fled the country. Many  have been there for months and tensions in the camp are high. Upon arriving, I witnessed a fight break out suddenly. A group of Syrian men in their late-twenties accused a Turkish worker of speaking unkindly to some Syrian children. The situation got out of control and the Syrian men pulled up large metal stakes anchoring a tent and went after the Turkish man. Other Syrian men intervened and the situation eventually cooled down.

Inside a camp for Syrian refugees in Reyhanli, Turkey. December 2011.

It is no wonder the Syrians in the camps are frustrated. Only a few days before I witnessed the fight in Reyhanli,  two Syrian men from the camp were sent back to Syria after a translation mistake by a Turkish gendarme, sparking a day of riots.

The two men returned to Syria – Azzam Haj Mahmoud and Omar Mahmoud Asheikh –had arrived in Turkey more than a week ago and were taken to Reyhanli, where some of the more than 8,000 refugees living along the border are based.

Refugees said that after five days the pair were told by camp authorities they had to return to the border to register with a gendarme.

They were driven to the frontier on Saturday and have not been heard from since.

Read the full article in the Independent 

By the time I was able to covertly enter the camp, the two men had returned to Turkey after negotiations between local authorities in Turkey and and officials in Syria’s Idlib province. Before the Syrian regime’s crackdown on opposition protests and ensuing sanctions, there was a thriving trade between Turkey and Syria and officials on both sides of the border worked together closely. Inside the camp, I met Azzam and Omar, who said that they were very happy to be back in Turkey and grateful that the Turks had been able to organize their release.

Turkey is playing a pivotal role in the international efforts to pressure the Syrian regime. The FSA fighters I spoke with in Ain al-Baida were looking to the country to establish a buffer zone inside Syria from which they could fight from, similar to the role the town of Benghazi played in Libya.

The flags of the Turkish Republic and Syrian opposition atop a roof in Ain al-Baida, Syria. December 2011.

The poorly armed fighters challenging Assad’s army believe that only an armed uprising stands a chance of toppling the Syrian regime. “We cannot accept our families and friends being killed,” said a burly fighter wearing camouflage fatigues and grasping an assault rifle. “We will fight Assad by any weapon, by knife, by gun. We will fight.”

Though the FSA claims to be composed of defectors from the Syrian military, this man said he was a civilian volunteer from the town of Jisr al-Shughour, which had been demolished this summer by the Syrian army’s infamous Fourth Armored Division, under the control of the president’s brother, Maher.

Read the full article in Foreign Policy 

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Written by Justin Vela

December 28, 2011 at 3:42 pm

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