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Foreign Dispatch: No Spring For Syria
By FOX News Radio’s Emily Wither on the Turkey-Syria border
“We were killing children and old men. I was thinking I don’t want someone killing anyone from my family.”
Alla used to be a police officer in Idlib, but he defected a month ago. We met outside a military defectors camp in Hatay province near the Syrian border.
“I saw a lot of blood being wasted there and when people looked at me their looks were killing me. I knew I was doing something wrong by staying.”
He stares at his hands while nervously fiddling with his string of prayer beads or misbaha in Arabic. I’m not allowed to photograph him. He explains he still has family in Syria and is afraid they’ll be killed or he’ll be forced to surrender.
There are a lot of people that want to defect, he says, but they don’t know how and are afraid to talk about it in case they are reported to the government.
A short drive away through wide-open fields, in a chaotic housing block Free Syrian Army Commander Musab al-Wawi agrees that the defections will keep growing. He says just a few days ago in the north of Syria four officers defected taking their 150 soldiers with them.
Al-Wawi was once a first lieutenant in the Syrian Air Force before he defected. He says days ago he was fighting government forces in the Aleppo countryside and plans to go back in over the coming days.
He joins the chorus of voices I heard back at the camp saying they’re skeptical that President Assad will end the violence on April 10th in line with a UN-backed ceasefire.
I ask him how he feels about the news that they’re to receive money for salaries and communications equipment from the US, among others. He doesn’t understand what good a cell phone will do when he’s being faced with a tank.
“Weapons!” he shouts. “What we really need is weapons, and if they don’t want to arm us then we need air support to help us on the ground.”
These men are facing a very different reality than the Syrians in suits that courted the media a couple of days ago in Istanbul.
At the second so-called Friends of Syria conference attended by over 80 nations, including US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, the Syrian National Council was officially recognized as the sole representative of the Syrian people.
“We need arms or we would like the international community to interfere directly and take him (Assad) out,” said SNC member Molham al-Drobi.
They didn’t get either, but were promised support and money from the international community.
But a stone’s throw away from the conference, and out of the glare of the world’s media, a group of Syrians had a very different agenda.
Staging a pro-Assad rally they held up signs of their President and accused me of belonging to the “biased media, who lies all the time”.
But back in the south of the country, activist and smuggler Mohmed Rahal says that if President Assad does lay down his weapons next week, it won’t be the end of it.
“The Free Syrian Army will immediately stop fighting the system because there will be no tanks or army to defend themselves against. But the peaceful demonstrations will continue until he goes,” he said.
Rahal left Syria 20 days ago in a journey that he says almost killed him, over mountains and past the Syrian army’s border control. He now acts as a connection to the outside world smuggling everything from cameras to medical supplies back over the border.
A refugee crisis has landed on Turkey’s doorstep with over 20,000 Syrians now on their soil. The authorities are bracing themselves for more.
Over a Turkish tea Suphi Atan, head of the Foreign Ministry’s task force in Hatay Province, proudly shows off how organized the refugee camps are through a PowerPoint presentation on the edge of Yayladagi 1 camp in Antakya.
There are seven camps in this area of Turkey providing everything from meals to schooling for the families that end up here.
The authorities have even organized 25 weddings in the camps, providing clothes and a couple of nights in a hotel so the newlyweds can have a honeymoon.
But Atan says home is never far from their minds.
“Their relatives are still in Syria, and they are watching television every day, every hour,” he said.
But Turkey is clear it doesn’t see them as permanent residents either, refusing to call them refugees and instead saying they’re under temporary protection.
Atan shows me a photograph of the Turkish countryside and points out that half way through a random field is the Syrian border. He says it’s so easy to cross over that the numbers are expected to grow, prompting the authorities to build a mini-city for them.
In the coming days the government is closing all of the camps and relocating the displaced to a container city called Kilis, which will house them all.
“The container city is a dream city. It’s like a holiday camp with their own mall and a house with two rooms,” he explained.
The more permanent-like structures create the impression the Turkish government thinks the Syrians will be here for a while. The city is no doubt an improvement on the current situation, but I am doubtful that Atan will be booking a summer vacation for his family there.
Walking around the camp, an 11-year-old boy explains that he would like to go home, but his cousins have told him that people are shooting at them so he can’t.
His mother is fed up. She knows she can’t go home, but she’s not happy in the camps either and says conditions there are difficult.
But what is incredible is that morale is still high, and whether you’re talking to a smuggler or a mother that’s fled her home they still believe they’ll topple their leader.
It’s hard to comprehend that kind of resolve after a year of protesting that, according to latest UN estimates, has claimed the lives of over 9,000 people.
On my way out of the camp a little girl with a mischievous grin and braids chases me and tugs on my backpack; she then proceeds to proudly serenade me.
But the kids here don’t sing nursery rhymes; they sing songs of the revolution they left behind.
She innocently belts out, “As a gift my dad bought me a machine gun and a Kalashnikov… now I hope to join the Free Syrian Army…”