Rebels with a cause: Payback, Israel and a post-Assad Syria

In an exclusive, The Jerusalem Post talks to Syrian refugees on the Turkish border. They insist their belief in God will make them victorious over Assad and envision a Turkey-like Islamic regime in Syria.

Syrian refugees spend time in their makeshift tents (photo credit: Reuters)
Syrian refugees spend time in their makeshift tents
(photo credit: Reuters)
GAZIANTEP, Turkey – Scores of displaced refugees outside the small town of Kilis along the Syria-Turkey border discussed in late September their desire to oust President Bashar Assad, Israel’s role in the unfolding conflict and a post-Assad Syria.
As part of The Jerusalem Post’s ongoing coverage of the Syrian civil war, the viewpoints of Syrian refugees play a front-and-center role. (Many of those mentioned in this report cannot be identified because of possible retaliation against family members in Syria.) “We hope to pull the regime down,” said Ziad, whose body was riddled with bullet wounds. Two Syrian men served as his human crutches; he cannot walk without their help.
Ziad lost family members in the conflict.
The regime’s security apparatus arrested him for hoisting a “revolutionary flag” against Assad’s regime. He explained that he was tortured by the Shabiha – Assad’s sadistic street thugs – who “hit his limbs with a hammer.” He showed his disfigured index finger, the top part having been sliced off during his imprisonment.
Ziad is affiliated with the Free Syrian Army. Despite the enormous toll of war on his body – and the destruction of his family and existence – he remains remarkably confident. “The rebels are stronger. They have something to fight for. I do not care if they cut my hands, fingers. Other people will fight against them.”
He added, “We believe in God and we will in the end.”
In a rare conversation with a number of Syrian women, one young woman, who is Palestinian and married to a Syrian man, said, “Until now no country has helped the Syrian people. Assad should be executed.” A Syrian man described her as a “refugee twice,” in a clear reference to her family’s displacement from the Palestinian dispute with Israel.
Perhaps one of the most neglected media stories is the human cost on Palestinians living in Syria. Assad’s regime has killed nearly 2,000 such refugees.
The group of refugees put the blame for their condition squarely on the Assad regime and its allies – Iran, Hezbollah, China and Russia. Said Ziad, “Hezbollah is worried about holy places in Syria, and they feel their existence relates to the existence of the regime.”
The role of Israel surfaced at two points during the interviews. A young refugee in his early 20s said the international community seeks the removal of Assad’s chemical weapons “for the sake of Israel.” A middle-aged refugee who worked as a farmer before he fled to Turkey said the “final solution is in the hands of Israel and the US – the main powers.”
The outlines of a newly reorganized Syria without the Assad regime controlling the levers of state power surfaced during the interviews. A refugee in his early 30s said, “We hope to have a regime like the Turkish government.
It can be Islamic and have freedom, and the kids can live a free life.”
However, the notion of brutal payback toward Assad loyalists hovered over the discussion. “Anyone who is supporting the regime, whether Alawite or Sunni, cannot live there,” said the refugee in his early 30s.
He stressed that “before the revolution” the diverse groups of ethnic and religious Syrians were living together.
There were “no differences between Alawites and Christians, no problems before.”
Though he rejects coexistence with the Assad loyalists who have blood on their hands, he believes that pre-revolution coexistence among the multireligious and diverse ethnic groups can be restored.
“We can live with Alawites who did not kill,” said the refugee in his early 20s. A third male refugee in his mid- 30s commented that the regime tries “to establish the sectarian conflict between us.”
One refugee, Hassan, weighed in on the role of Hezbollah. He said Assad’s regime “used Hezbollah in Syria to turn it into a sectarian” war. He called on the international community to “not support the FSA, but make a balance between the FSA and regime.” His request spelled military support.
Many of the refugees called for the international community to provide lethal aid to the FSA, to counter the regime’s large arsenal of weapons and fighter jets.
Ziad, the refugee tortured by the regime, asked why the international community didn’t “ask him [Assad] to get rid of chemical weapons at the beginning of the revolution?” The plight of Syrian refugees is expected to get progressively worse in 2014. Reuters quoted officials from the UN humanitarian agency OCHA as saying, “The most likely scenario was perceived to be continuation and escalation of the conflict, with increased fragmentation, disruption of essential services and further erosion of coping mechanisms.”
There are currently over 2 million refugees scattered across Egypt, Lebanon, Iraq, Turkey and Jordan. Refugees are also streaming into Bulgaria. Within the borders of Syria, there are 4 million displaced Syrians.
The UN predicts an additional 2 million Syrians will flee their country in 2014, and 2.25 million will become displaced internally in Syria. Taken together, the total displacement of 4 million Syrians next year will likely create deeper sectarian divisions and hostilities between Sunni Syrians and the Assad regime, whose inner circle is largely dominated by Alawites.
Turkey, which has absorbed 500,000 Syrian refugees since the outbreak of the conflict in 2011, is now clamping down on the refugee influx. Sky News reported on Monday that Turkey has begun to construct a two-meter wall along its border with Syria “to stem border security and smuggling problems.” According to Sky, a government official said, “We haven’t had border security problems in Nusaybin so far, but in that area it’s extremely easy for people to cross illegally. It’s almost like there is no border.”
A refugee in his late 20s complained bitterly about the conditions of the homeless Syrians, saying he “does not see how a responsible Turkish government can see us and sleep.”
The Turkish authorities are slated to open a new refugee camp in Kilis, but it is unclear when the opening date will be. With winter approaching and temperatures dropping, the refugees are facing grueling conditions.
The implosion of Syrian society has led to refugees spilling over into Israel’s northern territory. The IDF detained Syrians on Tuesday who sought to enter Israel because of heavy clashes on the Syrian side of the Golan Heights. Roughly 120 wounded Syrians have received vital healthcare by Israeli medical personnel, including at Ziv Medical Center in Safed.
When asked by a refugee “When will our suffering end?” this reporter’s response was: “I do not have an answer to the question.”Benjamin Weinthal is a reporter for The Jerusalem Post and a fellow at the Foundation for Defense of Democracies.