The prospect that Turkish troops might create a safe zone inside Syria has inspired Syrian army defectors, who say that with such protection they would swiftly be able to mount a rebellion and sweep President Bashar al-Assad from power.
Although Ankara says it is reluctant to intervene across the border, Turkish Foreign Ministry officials have told journalists in recent days that Turkey could be willing to create a buffer zone inside Syria if Turkey were inundated by refugees or if there were massacres in Syrian cities.
Such remarks have caused a stir among Syrian army defectors, who have set up a base for a Free Syrian Army among refugee camps and safe houses here in Turkey’s frontier Hatay province.
“If there is such a zone, the regime will not last for a week,” First Lieutenant Colonel Abdullah Yousef, who fled Syria and joined the Free Army on the Turkish side of the frontier, told Reuters in a safe house provided by a Turkish Arab family on the outskirts of Hatay city.
“Our comrades-in-arms are waiting for the zero hour.”
Several hundred Syrian military defectors are thought to have made their way to Turkey’s Hatay province, including dozens who have set up a camp near the border.
The province has a large Sunni Arab population sympathetic to Assad’s opponents, and its mountainous and forested terrain provides good territory to base an insurgency. The defectors say their rebellion will gather far more momentum if they can move safely back into Syrian territory.
“You will find Syrian army defectors growing in their tens of thousands once a buffer zone is set up,” said Yousef, who fought alongside other defecting soldiers in Rastan last month.
That battle was the first prolonged armed confrontation since protests erupted against Assad eight months ago, a sign that Assad’s crackdown on demonstrators could turn into a civil war if his opponents can assemble a full-fledged fighting force.
The defectors have set up their rear base in this Turkish border province, where at least 8,500 Syrian civilian refugees live in camps.
Lieutenant Salem Odeh, a defector from Latakia, said historic and religious ties with Turkey that go back to the Ottoman Empire mean Assad’s opponents - generally wary of outside interference - would accept a Turkish military role.
“I just hope there will be Turkish military intervention. It’s better, and they have longstanding blood ties from old times, and they are closer to the East than West,” he said.
Defecting troops say the number joining their ranks has increased in recent weeks, with more slipping into Turkey despite a beefed up Syrian army presence along large parts of the long 800 km border.
“The defections are increasing day by day and the Turkish army with all its might is not capable of fully controlling the border let alone the Syrian army,” said corporal Abu Khaled, who crossed into Turkey this week after fleeing his post at a checkpoint near Homs.
Syrian rebel troops have received shelter in Sunni Arab villages on the Turkish side of the border. In Turkey, the Free Syrian Army has set up a command centre, where it can coordinate and maintain contact with defectors inside Syria.
Some have been able to cross back to Syria to take part in raids. They are able to bring money across the border, although Turkey does not let them transport arms, several said.
For now, they have enough weapons to engage in their small-scale guerrilla fighting, but if Turkey provides them with a safe haven inside Syria, they are going to need many more guns, said Captain Ayham al-Kurdi, who heads the Abu Fida brigade of the Syrian Free Army.
“We don’t have a base now but if the zone is set up we will be in need of a lot of equipment,” Kurdi said.