Armed, Bearded Syrians Flourish in Southern Turkey

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Reyhanli in southern Turkey, which recently witnessed car bombings that killed more than 50 people, is home to many “bearded” Syrian oppositionists.

The deadly bombings in Reyhanli unleashed a flurry of rumors that “armed, bearded Syrians” had swarmed all over the town. It is no secret that Reyhanli has been hosting not only refugees but also Syrian opposition members who live and get organized there. Last year, I interviewed a general in Reyhanli who had defected from the Syrian army. His house was bustling with fellow opponents of the regime. Back in Reyhanli after the bombings, the swirling rumors compelled me to hunt again for the “bearded” Syrians. And I did track them down.

“Physiotherapy and rehabilitation center”

A secluded building not far away from the town center where the bomb-laden vehicles exploded … A bilingual Turkish-Arabic sign at the entrance says it is a “physiotherapy and rehabilitation center.” Bearded men go in and out, chatting in Arabic. But what they hold in their arms is not guns but crutches. Some are limping, others are in wheelchairs. All are Syrians, and all but one have been wounded in clashes with Syrian President Bashar al-Assad’s forces. They are in Turkey for treatment.

The man in the wheelchair is 37-year-old Imad Ali Khaled from Homs. He wears a rosary of kernels around his neck and holds a cigarette between his fingers. His coal-black eyes radiate grief. He says he came a month ago — by clandestine ways. He describes how he fought in the ranks of the al-Farouq Brigade. The same al-Farouq Brigade whose commander Abu Sakkar is seen cutting out and eating the heart of a Syrian soldier in a terrifying video posted recently on YouTube, and which is being described with a newly coined term — “moderate Salafist.” It is supposedly “moderate” because, unlike other Islamist groups, it does not aspire for a caliphate. I don’t quite get it, but whatever … A bullet pierced Imad’s waist as he fought against the forces of the regime. He can no longer walk. He says he lost five brothers, also in fighting. I’m mechanically taking notes. Imad’s voice suddenly hardens: “Those savages killed my wife and five children. What were they guilty of?” I am petrified.

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A clean-faced lad sits at the next table. He is called Hani el-Agah, also from Homs and only 20 years old. “They massacred my uncle and his two daughters,” he says. “I was doing my military service. I defected straight away and joined the Liwaa al-Haq Brigade.” Liwaa al-Haq is a group that cooperates closely with al-Farouq. They have similar ideologies. As far as I understand, the names of the groups vary according to the figures around which they are organized. This fractured structure of the opposition is one of its main weaknesses.

Hani says he was wounded two months ago in Homs by “Iranian Shiites” fighting alongside Assad’s forces. He has injuries in his foot, abdomen and shoulder. Looking sturdy while he sits, he instantly droops as he stands up.

“They give us light weapons, bullets”

When Hani sits back down in his chair, I gather my courage and bring up the critical question: “They say Turkey is supplying you with weapons. Is that true?” Hani is the first to answer: “The Turks are our brothers. The whole world has abandoned us, but the Turks are helping.” I repeat the question: “Do they give you weapons?” Hani replies, “May god bless them. They give us light weapons, bullets.” I ask how and where the weapons are being delivered. This time a man who introduces himself as Firuz al-Zobhi replies. He has a thin but a deep wound snaking up his arm. He, too, belongs to the al-Farouq Brigade. “The weapons are being delivered at zero point of the border. The Turks who bring them are plainclothes,” he says, adding that the deliveries are made at night. “And where exactly?” I ask. “At various spots along the border,” Firuz says, before he abruptly goes quiet.

I realize my questions are becoming suspicious, even before I could ask whether the Turks bringing the weapons are linked to the state. I try to clear the air: “You admire Erdogan, don’t you?” Instantly, they all give the thumbs up in the style of the late [Prime Minister Necmettin] Erbakan. “We love Erdogan very, very much. Shukran [thank you], Erdogan,” exclaims Hani excitedly.

In Turkey, however, anti-regime fighters like them are often labelled as radical Islamists and many Turks are annoyed by their presence in the country. The government is under fire on the issue. Are they aware of that? “We are not radicals, we only want freedom,” chips in a handsome hazel-haired youth. His name is Muhammed al-Moussa. “Me, for instance, I never touched a gun. I was studying English literature at the university in Homs. It was Jan. 3, 2012. I was on my way home after exams, talking on my cell phone in the street. The next thing I knew, I was lying naked in a hospital. They shot me just like that in the middle of the street. I got something in my brain and I can’t walk properly now. My future is wasted. I have no idea what will become of me now,” he says. Charles Dickens and Emily Bronte are Moussa’s favorite authors, but now he must be reading the Quran a lot.

Suddenly, a mid-aged, and yes, bearded man turns up. His name is Abu Abdo. He says his 14-year-old son joined the rebels in the early days of the uprising and sustained a brain injury in the clashes. The boy can no longer walk either. To relieve his grief, Abdo decided to help Syrians suffering like his son, and eight months ago he set up the physiotherapy center in Reyhanli. “Come in, let me show you around,” he says.

About 50 Syrian fighters receive treatment

I try not to show it, but the sight depresses me further. You have to really stretch your imagination to call the place a physiotherapy center. The equipment is primitive. The plaster spinal column mock-up on the table is the only thing that suggests the place could be a medical facility. The kids, however, are tenaciously doing their exercises. “Whoops! Have they already become ‘the kids’ to you?! And what about the heart-eating man?! You must be impartial,” I find warning myself. About 50 Syrian fighters are said to be receiving treatment here. People who have nowhere to stay in Reyhanli also sleep here — on the floor. There is not even a decent kitchen. Abu Abdo says the place is financed by Syrians. No financial assistance has come from the Turkish government. “You’ve done enough by letting us in,” Abu Abdo says.

Is there anyone from Jabhat al-Nusra among the patients? “How come! They are the strongest among us,” Hani replies. “They are suicide bombers, they are fighting inside [Syria]. Whereas we …” Tears suddenly well up in his eyes. A long silence descends on the room.

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Found in: car bomb, turkey, syrian, reyhanli, islamists
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