Thousands of Syrians leave Jordan for the front lines

 

MAFRAQ, Jordan

Encouraged by what they view as fatal setbacks to the Syrian regime, several thousand of an estimated 250,000 Syrian exiles in Jordan have left in recent weeks to join the rebellion in their homeland.

The exodus has emptied hundreds of the safe houses, apartments and refugee tents that housed Syrians in Mafraq and other northern Jordanian cities, according to Syrian activists and Jordanian officials. Jordanian security officials, who spoke on the condition of anonymity because they were not authorized to speak on the record, said as many as 8,000 Syrians have crossed the border back into Syria in the past 10 days alone.

According to Syrian activists in Syria and Jordan, the sudden returns are a response to a call for reinforcements issued in early December by the rebel military council, the main umbrella organization of army defectors locked in a bloody war of attrition against regime forces loyal to Syrian President Bashar al-Assad. Activists said the response has been greatest among refugees in Jordan, because pro-Assad militias in Lebanon have prevented similar returns from that country and many Syrians in Turkey were already involved in the fight.

Syrian rebels said the call for more forces comes as the opposition faces a critical stage in the months-long conflict, with their offensive inching closer to the heart of Damascus, capturing several military bases and fending off counteroffensives on rebel strongholds in Aleppo, the southern city of Daraa and the Damascus countryside.

"Now, Jordan has become our number one source of manpower," said Abu Hani Darawi, a Free Syrian Army coordinator whose battalions in Daraa have received the bulk of the returnees from Jordan. "We are now entering the final battles for Syria, and we need every able Syrian to join us."

The call for recruits has sparked a steady stream of voluntary returnees from Jordan's Zaatari refugee camp, near Mafraq. Jordanian officials are facilitating the repatriation of as many as 150 military-aged Syrians every day, according to Interior Ministry statistics. Ahmed Rifai, a 25-year-old camp resident, said FSA gains in Daraa had prompted him and two of his cousins to request repatriation in a bid to join the rebels.

"We can feel that Bashar's final days are coming," Rifai said. "We want to experience liberation day placing our boots on the neck of the regime, not cowering in a refugee camp."

In addition to former and would-be fighters, activists said the returnees from Jordan include hundreds of doctors, nurses, lawyers and engineers who aspire to rebuild their homeland even as the conflict continues.

Abu Muuath Hamad, a 44-year-old paramedic, said he fled the central Syrian town of Douma after the regime persecuted him for offering assistance to suspected protesters. He said he sought refuge in the Jordanian city of Mafraq for six months, spending his time tending to the injuries and the rehabilitation of the hundreds of wounded FSA fighters who have crossed into Jordan for treatment. On Dec. 10, he was repatriated and returned to Douma, where he was appointed as chief field medic by the FSA.

"Many of us thought we could make a difference from Jordan, but we were just observers like everyone else," Hamad said in a phone interview from Douma. "When the whole world turns its back on your homeland, there is only one thing left to do: Go home."

But even as they welcome the assistance, Syrian rebels play down the potential of new returnees to turn the war's tide. Many of the exiles have no prior fighting experience. Others are months removed from the front lines and find themselves lagging in the rapidly intensifying urban warfare.

"Each returnee needs at least two weeks to become acclimated with our current tactics and needs. It might be up to a month before they can really contribute," Darawi said.

Repeating a long-standing rebel plea, Darawi said more arms, not men, would give the opposition the final advantage over the Assad regime. But while Jordanian border forces largely turn a blind eye to the mass crossings, they continue to restrict the movement of weapons. Returnees are limited to carrying personal firearms and basic medical supplies, not the heavy artillery and surface-to-air missiles FSA officers say they need to topple the regime.

"We will not prevent Syrians from their right to return, but under no circumstance will we allow arms smuggling through our borders," said a Jordanian military source stationed in the border region.

Even so, optimism about rebel gains has buoyed Syrians who remain in Jordan. In recent weeks, they have launched a flurry of new coalitions and formed unions for lawyers and civil servants in anticipation of a post-Assad transition phase.

"Syrians are no longer waiting to see when or if the regime will fall. We are looking at the transition period and what we can do to build a new democratic state," former deputy oil minister Abdo Hussameddin told reporters in the Jordanian capital last week as he announced the formation of the Free National Coalition of Public Sector Workers. "While the regime is destroying homes and buildings, we are focusing on building institutions."

Recent rebel attacks on the international airport in Damascus and the takeovers of other military airstrips have inspired 150 defected Syrian military pilots in Jordan to form the foundation of what they hope to be the FSA's first air force squadron, said Lt. Col. Abu Abdullah Mohammed. The former pilots say they are set to return once rebels have successfully captured an air base or airport where they can put their skills to use.

"We had always planned to return to the revolutionary cause should we be called upon," said Mohammed, who, like many of his former Syrian air force peers, remains in the Jordanian border city of Mafraq. "Now it seems that we have to speed up."

The recent departures represent a small fraction of the Syrian population in Jordan. But they have left a palpable emptiness in the apartment blocks and houses in Mafraq that, mere weeks ago, were crammed with refugees, many of them hosted by Jordanians.

On a recent day, Jordanian Abdul Rahman Talal, a household appliance importer and a supporter of Syrian revolutionaries, stood in his carpeted living room and furrowed his brow as he pondered a sound he had not heard in more than 20 months: silence.

Until early December, his home in this border city had served as a safe house for 30 Syrian rebels. Then, suddenly, his guests headed for the front lines back home.

"After all the bombings and setbacks, I thought this day would never come," said Talal, 42, as he picked up a green-striped Syrian opposition scarf left behind by one of his guests. "I feel like I have lost an entire tribe."

PROMOTED VIDEO
News
ebookA powerful collection of reportage on Egypt’s cycle of awakening and relapse
News
Isis fighters travel in a vehicle as they take part in a military parade along the streets of Syria's northern Raqqa province
i100
Arts and Entertainment
Christian Grey cradles Ana in the Fifty Shades of Grey film
filmFifty Shades of Grey trailer provokes moral outrage in US
Travel
travel
Life and Style
The veteran poverty campaigner Sir Bob Geldof issues a stark challenge to emerging economies at the Melbourne HIV/Aids conference
health
Arts and Entertainment
Benedict Cumberbatch and John Malkovich talk Penguins of Madagascar at Comic-Con
comic-con 2014Cumberbatch fans banned from asking about Sherlock at Comic-Con
Arts and Entertainment
Chris Pratt stars in Guardians of the Galaxy
filmGuardians Of The Galaxy should have taken itself a bit more seriously, writes Geoffrey Macnab
News
Sir Chris Hoy won six Olympic golds - in which four events?
news
Life and Style
People may feel that they're procrastinating by watching TV in the evening
life
Independent
Travel Shop
the manor
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on city breaks Find out more
santorini
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on chic beach resorts Find out more
sardina foodie
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on country retreats Find out more
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Independent Dating
and  

By clicking 'Search' you
are agreeing to our
Terms of Use.

iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

English Teacher

£21804 - £31868 per annum: Randstad Education Chelmsford: Are you a dynamic En...

SAP Data Migration Lead

competitive: Progressive Recruitment: Experienced Lead SAP Data Manager Requir...

Trainee Recruitment Consultants - Banking & Finance

£20000 - £25000 per annum + OTE £40,000: SThree: SThree Group have been well e...

Graduate Recruitment Resourcers - Banking Technologies

£18000 - £25000 per annum + OTE £40,000: SThree: Huxley Associates are looking...

Day In a Page

Backhanders, bribery and abuses of power have soared in China as economy surges

Bribery and abuses of power soar in China

The bribery is fuelled by the surge in China's economy but the rules of corruption are subtle and unspoken, finds Evan Osnos, as he learns the dark arts from a master
Commonwealth Games 2014: Highland terriers stole the show at the opening ceremony

Highland terriers steal the show at opening ceremony

Gillian Orr explores why a dog loved by film stars and presidents is finally having its day
German art world rocked as artists use renowned fat sculpture to distil schnapps

Brewing the fat from artwork angers widow of sculptor

Part of Joseph Beuys' 1982 sculpture 'Fettecke' used to distil schnapps
BBC's The Secret History of Our Streets reveals a fascinating window into Britain's past

BBC takes viewers back down memory lane

The Secret History of Our Streets, which returns with three films looking at Scottish streets, is the inverse of Benefits Street - delivering warmth instead of cynicism
Joe, film review: Nicolas Cage delivers an astonishing performance in low budget drama

Nicolas Cage shines in low-budget drama Joe

Cage plays an ex-con in David Gordon Green's independent drama, which has been adapted from a novel by Larry Brown
How to make your own gourmet ice lollies, granitas, slushy cocktails and frozen yoghurt

Make your own ice lollies and frozen yoghurt

Think outside the cool box for this summer's tempting frozen treats
Ford Fiesta is UK's most popular car of all-time, with sales topping 4.1 million since 1976

Fiesta is UK's most popular car of all-time

Sales have topped 4.1 million since 1976. To celebrate this milestone, four Independent writers recall their Fiestas with pride
10 best reed diffusers

Heaven scent: 10 best reed diffusers

Keep your rooms smelling summery and fresh with one of these subtle but distinctive home fragrances that’ll last you months
Commonwealth Games 2014: Female boxers set to compete for first time

Female boxers set to compete at Commonwealth Games for first time

There’s no favourites and with no headguards anything could happen
Five things we’ve learned so far about Manchester United under Louis van Gaal

Five things we’ve learned so far about United under Van Gaal

It’s impossible to avoid the impression that the Dutch manager is playing to the gallery a little
Screwing your way to the top? Good for Lana Del Rey for helping kill that myth

Screwing your way to the top?

Good for Lana Del Rey for helping kill that myth, says Grace Dent
Will the young Britons fighting in Syria be allowed to return home and resume their lives?

Will Britons fighting in Syria be able to resume their lives?

Tony Blair's Terrorism Act 2006 has made it an offence to take part in military action abroad with a "political, ideological, religious or racial motive"
Beyoncé poses as Rosie the Riveter, the wartime poster girl who became a feminist pin-up

Beyoncé poses as Rosie the Riveter

The wartime poster girl became the ultimate American symbol of female empowerment
The quest to find the perfect pair of earphones: Are custom, 3D printed earbuds the solution?

The quest to find the perfect pair of earphones

Earphones don't fit properly, offer mediocre audio quality and can even be painful. So the quest to design the perfect pair is music to Seth Stevenson's ears
US Army's shooting star: Lt-Col Steven Cole is the man Hollywood calls when it wants to borrow a tank or check a military uniform

Meet the US Army's shooting star

Lt-Col Steven Cole is the man Hollywood calls when it wants to borrow a tank or check a military uniform