After Fleeing, Syrian Activists Regroup In Turkey

Dec 2, 2011
Originally published on December 2, 2011 7:55 pm

In a matter of months, Turkey has gone from one of Syria's strongest allies to one of its sharpest critics as the uprising in Syria has been met with a harsh crackdown by President Bashar Assad.

Turkey has become a haven for Syrian refugees, a base for Syrian army defectors and a home for Syria's main political opposition group. And on Friday, U.S. Vice President Biden was in Turkey for talks that included the deteriorating conditions in Syria.

On the streets of Istanbul, Akram Asaf, a 31-year-old lawyer who fled Syria, says he feels safe, but not yet free.

"I can't enjoy anything here, not while people inside Syria are dying," Asaf said. He arrived in Istanbul just a month ago after getting a warning that he was targeted for assassination. At that point, he had been leading the uprising for eight months in Deir Ezzor, one of the most volatile cities in eastern Syria.

He says he's still in contact with Deir Ezzor around the clock, adding that he manages to organize protests and plot strategy with other activists through the Internet. Even during an interview, the phone calls kept coming.

Asaf says that in his home town, the ranks of the Free Syrian Army are growing as more soldiers defect. For months, the Syrian security forces cracked down harshly against mostly peaceful protesters. Now, the opposition includes a growing number of armed men, and the rebels are playing an increasingly important role.

"Nobody did anything to protect the peaceful protests, to guarantee that the protests go on," he said. "We have to protect the protesters in some way."

Army Generals Tip Off Opposition

But even more important, he says, some top army officers in the city are aiding the uprising as informers.

"We are in contact with the Syrian army. They help us by giving us information," Asaf said.

Some sympathetic generals send warnings of operations by the security police, he said. The generals provide intelligence on targeted arrests — which allowed him to operate for months by moving from one safe house to another. But the final warning that he was on a death list forced him to flee.

Asaf is part of a growing community of Syrian activists now operating from Turkey.

Another is Hussam al-Marie, a 28-year-old from Tel Khalek, a town on Syria's border with Lebanon. He too says he is in constant contact with activists back home.

"It's my full-time job now. It's better for us to stay inside [Syria] but we can't do that, we can be killed," he said.

Activists Take New Roles

Marie, like Asaf, has expanded his role in exile. They have joined the Syrian National Council, the largest opposition group that includes exiled dissidents and a new generation of leaders from inside Syria.

The Syrian opposition has been playing a more prominent role, too. Encouraged by the Turks, the opposition group met for the first time with leaders of the Free Syrian Army. They agreed to coordinate actions against the Syrian regime — the rebels agreed to use force only to protect civilians, and to scale back attacks against the government.

Asked if he worries about the uprising becoming more violent, Marie says, "No, I don't think so. It's a peaceful revolution. I think you are talking about the Free Syrian Army. They are from the army — so they swear that they will defend the Syrian people. So they are just doing their job to defend those peaceful protesters."

But the Free Syrian Army seemed to ignore the agreement on Friday, claiming responsibility for an assault on an army intelligence center in northern Syria that killed eight people. Activists reported that at least 20 civilians died in protests across the country, shot by security police.

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Vice President Joe Biden held talks with Turkish leaders today in Ankara. One focus was Syria. With the government there continuing its violent crackdown on protesters, Turkey has become a haven for Syrian refugees and army defectors. It's even home to Syria's main political opposition group.

NPR's Deborah Amos introduces us to two Syrian activists who recently fled to Turkey, where they're continuing their anti-government campaign.

DEBORAH AMOS, BYLINE: On the streets of Istanbul, Turkey, this 31-year-old Syrian lawyer says he feels safe, but not free, not yet.

So, your head is still in Syria?

AKRAM ASAF: (Foreign language spoken)

AMOS: I can't enjoy anything here, not while people inside Syria are dying, Akram Asaf tells me.

He arrived in Istanbul just a month ago, after a warning he was targeted for assassination. He led the uprising for eight months in Deir Ezzor, one of the most volatile cities on Syria's eastern border.

How much are you in contact with Deir Ezzor every day?

ASAF: (Foreign language spoken)

AMOS: Twenty-four hours?

ASAF: (Foreign language spoken)

AMOS: He still organizes protests, strategizes with other activists through the Internet. And even during an interview, the calls kept coming.

(SOUNDBITE OF A RINGING PHONE)

ASAF: Hello, Mahmoud. Mahmoud?

AMOS: Asaf says in Deir Ezzor, the ranks of the Free Syrian Army are growing, as more and more soldiers defect. This rebel force plays an important role.

ASAF: (Through translator) Nobody did anything to protect the peaceful protest. To guarantee that the protests go on, we have to protect the protesters in some way.

AMOS: But even more important, he says, are some top officers in the Syrian army deployed around his city, aiding the uprising as informers.

ASAF: (Through translator) We are in contact with the Syrian army. They help us by giving us information.

AMOS: And these are officers who are still in the army. And they are talking to you, knowing that you are part of the protest movement?

ASAF: (Through translator) Not me specifically, because I was under intense surveillance, but we have people who do this.

AMOS: Asaf says some sympathetic generals send warnings of operations by the security police. They provide intelligence on targeted arrests, which is why he could operate for so many months, moving from safe house to safe house. But the final warning that he was on a death list forced him to flee.

He's part of a growing community of veteran Syrian activists now operating from Turkey.

In another part of Istanbul, we meet Hussam al-Marie, a 28-year-old activist from Tel Khalek, a town on Syria's border with Lebanon. He's in constant contact with activists from his home town.

HUSSAM AL-MARIE: It's my full time job now. It's better for us if we can stay inside. But, you know, we can't do that 'cause we can be killed, simply.

AMOS: Is that why you left?

AL-MARIE: Yeah, of course.

AMOS: Here in Turkey, Hussam al-Marie and Akram Asaf have expanded their roles. They joined the Syrian National Council, the largest opposition group that includes exiled dissidents and this new generation of leaders from inside Syria.

The Syrian opposition has expanded its role, too. Encouraged by the Turks, the opposition group met for the first time with leaders of the Free Syrian Army. They agreed to coordinate actions against the Syrian regime. The rebels agreed to use force only to protect civilians, to scale back attacks against the government. It's an important union, says activist al-Marie.

AL-MARIE: Everything is getting so clear for us.

AMOS: Do you worry that the revolution is becoming a more violent revolution?

AL-MARIE: No, I don't think so. It's peaceful revolution. I think you are talking about the Free Syrian Army. They are from the army, so they swear that they will defend the Syrian people, so they are just doing their job to defend those peaceful protesters.

AMOS: But the Free Syrian Army stepped up attacks today, killing eight in an assault on an army intelligence center in northern Syria. Activists report that 20 Syrian civilians died in protests across the country, shot by security police.

Deborah Amos, NPR News, Beirut. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.