The arrival of the iftar (fast-breaking) hour is announced by a cannon shot from the municipality in the Reyhanlı district of Hatay. Then, a heavy silence hangs over the city. After the iftar, I visit the houses where Syrian refugees are staying. During the conversation, we drink a dark, carefully skimmed habbil-helli (cardamon) coffee, a specialty in Syria.
Turks and Greeks like their coffees with foam, but Syrians prefer skimmed coffees. Diplomats, journalists and intelligence officers would hold secret talks with Syrian dissidents even several months ago, but meetings are now more transparent and ordinary. They have become a part of daily life. Reyhanlı’s population is about 70,000, and over the last several years, the number of Syrian refugee families has reached 1,500. Despite the ever-increasing refugee influx, residents of Reyhanlı do not find the immigration odd. The main reason for this is that they have close kinship ties with Syrians.
The owner of the house is from the “rescue” unit of the Free Syrian Army (FSA). He ensures coordination between the different levels of the unit. Another is a physician from Deir ez-Zor who tends to the wounded combatants sent to Turkey. Every evening, meetings are held in different homes. They discuss their problems. The houses may be different and the families are different, but they tell similar accounts of oppression. I highlighted the following points during these conversations:
“We have pistols and Kalashnikovs. But we need heavy weapons and Stingers [missiles]. We are currently controlling about 60 percent of Syria. Out of 14 provinces, only three (Damascus, al-Hasakah, and Latakia) are under the government’s control. Yet, the public supports us. We have secured the backing of all Arab tribes. Only the Barri tribe and half of the Hadidi tribe continue to support Bashar [al-Assad]. We control the land. Damascus controls the air. They strike us from the air at will.”
“Since July 24, Aleppo’s neighborhoods that are under our control are being bombarded from the air. More than 300 civilians lost their lives. Aleppo’s neighborhoods stretching from the south to the east, forming a crescent, namely Selahattin, Sikkerin, Seyfi Devli, El Sahur, El Perduz, El Sarhin, El Ensari, Kerim Yesar, and Sohur are controlled by the FSA.”
“This year, schools and universities are not expected to open. Work in agriculture and factories has stopped. Main intercity highways are controlled by Bashar. Other roads are controlled by the FSA. There are many soldiers and commanders in the Syrian army who collaborate with us. We want them to stay with the army and help us from there. Moreover, we don’t mess with Bashar’s soldiers as long as they leave their headquarters and outposts in the cities and regions under our control. ‘You don’t meddle with us and we won’t mess with you,’ they tell us. For instance, we control Idlib and Harem, located opposite of Reyhanlı, but Bashar’s soldiers stay in their barracks.”
“We’d be glad if the Turkish press refers to us as the ‘Free Syrian Army.’” We don’t like to be called ‘mujahid’ as this phrase is being used by al-Qaeda. We don’t want to be confused with, or side with al-Qaeda.”
“There aren’t any al-Qaeda militants among the FSA. Damascus showed about 100 bandits to the foreign press as al-Qaida members. The claim that there are al-Qaeda militants among the Syrians seeking refuge in Turkey is part of Damascus’ dirty propaganda. The aim is to defame the FSA. Now, we fight with the al-Qaeda that Damascus has created and we will destroy it. The claim that there are Chechen warriors among the Free Syrian Army is deliberately disseminated false information. The Muslim Brotherhood (MB) and Salafis are strong among dissidents. But the Free Syrian Army is the strongest.” “TV channels such as Sefa, Wisal, Syria Saab, Syria One, Beyan, Ceşir Hür are with us. We communicate with each other over Facebook and Skype.”
“Minorities are not inclined to be involved in the incidents. We pay respect to their decisions. After Bashar is overthrown, we will not revenge minorities, Alawites and Bashar’s supporters.”
“Before the incidents broke out, Turkmens used to support Bashar. After the incidents broke out, they tried to remain neutral. But Bashar’s army started to accuse them of being ‘[Recep Tayyip] Erdoğan’s supporters.’ Therefore, the Turkmens sided with the dissidents.”
“We seek Syria’s welfare, happiness and integrity. Neither an Alawite state nor a Kurdish one can be established. There is no such serious intention. Even if there is, we won’t allow it. Kurds took the control in the Kurdish dominated cities after Bashar’s troops withdrew. But this is a temporary arrangement during the war.”
“Syria will not be a country with ethnic, sectarian and religious conflicts like Iraq. The sectarian conflicts in Iraq date back 600 years. Iraq is fertile ground for this. But, Syria is not.”
Turkey cannot turn a blind eye to Syria. It cannot just sit and watch the developments. War is not a solution, but it is high time we extend more help to civilians and contribute to the creation of de facto secure zones.
(Hasan Kanbolat is the director of the Ankara-based Center for Middle Eastern Strategic Studies (ORSAM). This article was first published in Turkey's Today's Zaman on August 6, 2012.)