Rebel Syrian Soldiers in Turkey Vow to Return Home as Assad Spurns U.N. Ceasefire

Syrian rebel fighters pushed into Turkish camps say they will return to fight despite the Assad regime’s failure to honor a U.N. ceasefire. By Erin Banco and Sophia Jones.

John Cantlie / Getty Images

Refugees in camps on the Turkish border were preparing to return home to bury the dead. They had packed their bags and planned their escape routes. All they needed was a signal to start their journey. But that signal never came. As news broke of a failed United Nations–sanctioned ceasefire, they realized their trip would have to wait.

A troop withdrawal had originally been set to begin at midnight Monday, and Syria’s Foreign Minister Walid Muallem claimed the government had removed military units from several provinces. But the violence continued in the Syrian city of Homs on Tuesday, part of a conflict that has killed more than 9,000 people in the past 13 months.

President Bashar al-Assad demanded written statements from opposition soldiers that they would put down their arms as a condition for his troops to withdraw. This demand, said several Free Syrian Army (FSA) soldiers on the border, was simply impossible to meet.

Hamoud, an FSA soldier living in the Yayladagi refugee camp near Antakya, Turkey, whose last name is being withheld for security purposes, came through the border 10 days ago. He said the FSA would not give in to the regime’s pressures, adding that he plans to return once again and fight after being smuggled across the border.

“I came with my group and I will go back with my group,” he said. “I want to go back to defend the civilians, to defend the Syrian people.”

Ahmed Riad, an FSA captain in Turkey who claims to be the first to defect from the Syrian Armed Forces last May, said eager, able-bodied Syrians are calling him every day, from places as far away as Canada and Denmark, asking to join. The absence of adequate weaponry, however, forces the FSA to turn them away.

Despite the lack of weapons, FSA soldiers are being smuggled back into the country on a weekly basis in hopes that they will get their chance to fight against the regime. And they aren’t the only ones wanting to go back home. Some families are attempting to make the trip as well.

According to several sources within the Reyhanli camp, almost 500 people, traveling in separate groups from Hatay province camps, are planning to go back to Syria on Wednesday. The group includes families, as well as many older citizens.

“In any way [possible] they want to go back. There is a problem now and they want to solve it by joining the FSA. If they go tomorrow they will die as a shahid,” Saher Karjum, a refugee in the Reyhanli camp, said, referring to someone who dies fighting for truth in the name of Islam. “They don’t want to die as a normal person.” Karjum said he plans to go back to Syria with his wife Wednesday and will join the FSA once he has returned.

As hundreds of refugees are heading back into Syria, many are still flowing away from the violence and into Turkish camps. More than 2,500 people entered Turkey on April 5 alone, and more continue to flow through the border each day. As of April 8, there were 24,564 refugees registered in the camps. The Turkish government, which has spent close to $150 million hosting the refugees, recently moved more than 9,000 people to the Kilis camp. Kilis was the site of Monday’s attack by Syrian armed forces, in which two people were killed.

According to officials, Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan plans to meet with Jordanian King Abdullah in Riyadh on Friday to discuss Syria. Erdogan returned from China to respond to the attack, and said Syria had violated Turkey’s sovereignty by firing across the border. Following his statement, sources from within the Kilis camp said Syrian forces had once again fired bullets into the camp. As of late Tuesday night, there were no reported injuries or deaths.

International leaders began a new round of peace talks Tuesday after the failed ceasefire. U.N. Envoy Kofi Annan visited the Yayladagi refugee camp, and U.S. Sens. John McCain and Joe Lieberman traveled to Hatay province and met with members of the Free Syrian Army, as well as refugees.

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The two senators said in a joint statement Tuesday that they were concerned about Assad having an “upper hand” in the conflict, stressing that foreign military intervention and air power is crucial to stopping the killing.

“The international community is failing the people of Syria,” read the statement, which also said the United States is playing a waning role as a world leader for human rights and freedom.

Riad, the FSA captain, said he shared the senators’ sentiments. Sitting in a roomful of FSA members, he shook his head and said the promises of Western countries such as the United States are “just words.”

“The Syrian people are giving their sweat and blood for freedom, not just for the Syrians but for the world,” Riad said. “But what is America doing?”