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.