Reporting from Camp Apaydin, near Antakya, Turkey — There are few signs of a military presence at this remote refugee camp 20 kilometers from Antakya, known in ancient times as Antioch, where the followers of Jesus were first called Christians.
Though the camp is only a few miles from the Syrian border, there are no tanks, firing ranges, or morning drills that are a hallmark of army life.
Yet this inauspicious clustering of tents, container vehicles, and makeshift offices surrounded by barbed wire is the improbable headquarters of the Free Syrian Army and its nominal leaders, Col. Riad Asa'ad and Brig. General Fayez Amr.
Just across the Orontes River dividing Turkey from Syria, political protesters and other ethnic, religious, and ideological opponents of President Bashar al-Assad's murderous regime and deserters from Syria's army are courageously battling to protect their towns and villages from the wrath of Syria's 600,000-man army and to free themselves from Assad's brutal grip.
Many of those fighting claim to be taking orders from the Free Syrian Army based here at Camp Apaydin.
Since early April, Washington, too, has begun focusing its effort to distribute communications equipment and other forms of non-lethal support to rebels who claim allegiance to the FSA, the ostensible military arm of the Syrian National Council, an umbrella group of dissident civilian groups based in Istanbul.
But little is as it seems here in Turkey — including the FSA, which many American officials now consider a more promising alternative to the deeply divided, eternally bickering SNC.
While the "Free Syrian Army" is indisputably Syrian, the disparate forces fighting often isolated battles throughout Syria are by no means a classical guerrilla "army" with an identifiable chain of command; nor can its commanders plausibly be described as "free." Col. Asa'ad and Brig. Gen. Amr, as Turkey's "guests," must abide by their host's restrictions and demands, as even they acknowledge.
Fifteen months into uprising, the FSA, like the civilian leadership to which it supposedly reports, is struggling to overcome not only infighting and inexperience, but to chart its own course independent of Turkey.
Because the resistance lacks an independent base, territory that rebels themselves control, the movement is having trouble gaining the traction and credibility needed inside Syria and with the international community to pose a credible alternative to President Assad. The regime's relentless repression, foreign meddling not only by Turkey, but by Iran, Russia, and other players, as well as the movement's own internal rivalries and contradictions, have hampered the effort.
"The resistance must find a better way to organize itself and unite," said Amr al-Azm, a Syrian dissident who teaches history at Ohio's Shawnee University.
While the opposition's quarrels have been well documented, Turkey's hold on the rebels' is less well known. "The camp is a prison," said Abir Hamoudi, a 28-year-old refugee from Latakia, who has spent nearly a year at Bohshin camp.
When this reporter tried entering Camp Apaydin at the FSA's invitation in early May, Turkish gatekeepers barred the way. And when Col. Asa'ad tried approaching the wire fence to welcome and speak to me, Turkish security surrounded first him, and then Brig. Gen. Amr, steering each towards a building away from the entry gate. Both leaders were questioned about why they had agreed to be interviewed without first informing their hosts, aides told me.
"We are under constant heavy Turkish security surveillance," Brig. Gen. Amr wrote in an email exchange through a translator after the incident. His officers were not permitted to move freely or have weapons for training inside the camp, he said. "We are refugees with heavy restrictions on freedom," he said. "We are permitted to leave only if SNC has scheduled an event and always with heavy Turkish security."
Many Syrian dissidents blame Turkey, too, for what they claim is the Muslim Brotherhood's dominance of the civilian SNC. Because democratic Turkey is ruled by an Islamist government, ties between Ankara and the Muslim Brotherhood are strong.
But the Brotherhood's influence has prompted secular opponents of the Syrian regime — Christians, Kurds, Shiites, Druze and other minorities who fear the Brotherhood's militant Islamic agenda — to remain loyal to President Assad.
Ibrahim Kalin, a senior adviser on Syria to the Turkish prime minister, said that Turkey still saw the plan approved by the United Nations Security Council and spearheaded by former U.N. chief Kofi Annan as "reasonable" and the best hope for ending the violence.
But he acknowledged that Damascus was unwilling to implement it or permit the United Nations to provide humanitarian assistance to the estimated 1 million Syrians in dire need. "Ultimately," he said, "there must be some sort of peaceful transfer of power, because the regime has lost its credibility."
He also urged patience with the Syrian resistance. "They've done well given the short time they've had to organize," Kalin said.
Turkey, in fact, has opened its 910 kilometer-border to some 25,000 Syrian refugees, generously providing food, clothing, shelter, education, and medical care for over a year. Ankara fears not only that the war will intensify, but that the political vacuum will result in growing infiltration of rebel ranks by al-Qaida and other jihadi elements.
Turkish officials said that the tight control over Apaydin and other camps was aimed at protecting Syria's refugees and rebel leaders from such militant infiltration. In mid-May, the Turkish newspaper Milliyet reported that Turkish authorities had foiled a plan to kidnap Col. Asa'ad from the camp.
Despite its limitations — including the infighting between Col. Asa'ad and Brig. Gen. Amr, and weak communications capabilities between the military leadership in Turkey and the rebels inside — Jeffrey White, a former U.S. military intelligence official at the Washington Institute for Near East Policy, urged the U.S. to arm the rebels to pressure, and ultimately break the Assad regime.
"While the FSA headquarters in Turkey doesn't really command formations inside the country, we are seeing the emergence of brigade-level formations and regional military councils inside Syria that may provide enhanced command and control of what has been largely independent local forces," he said. Claiming to have identified at least 21 such "intermediary-level command structures," he said that these organizations could benefit from communications equipment Washington is providing to the opposition.
Some small arms and ammunition are also beginning to flow into Syria, he and others say — more western type assault rifles, including M-16's and shortages of ammunition may have been alleviated for at least some FSA units.
Inside Syria, rebels have been buying and capturing Russian-supplied weapons used by regular Syrian forces — Soviet-era RPG's, AK-47, or Kalashnikovs, and light and medium machineguns. In some places, rebels have destroyed tanks and stopped or pushed back incursions by regular Syrian forces, though their small arms are usually no match for the tanks, mortars, SHILKA's and other heavy weapons being used against them when the regime makes a determined assault.
"They're not going to march on Damascus any time soon," White said of the rebels. "But they are learning to fight and thousands of Syrians still seem willing to join the battle."