Turkish Border Is Crucial Link in Syrian Conflict

By NEIL MacFARQUHAR  - Published: June 25, 2012
  ANTAKYA, Turkey — The onetime ragtag militias of the Syrian opposition are developing into a more effective fighting force with the help of an increasingly sophisticated network of activists here in southern Turkey that is smuggling crucial supplies across the border, including weapons, communications gear, field hospitals and even salaries for soldiers who defect.

The network reflects an effort to forge an opposition movement linking military, governmental and humanitarian organization.

The undertaking by the opposition here constitutes more than just ferrying much-needed supplies. The larger, more elusive goal is to create cohesion and cooperation between the scattered militias that constitute the Free Syrian Army, as well as whatever local civilian rule has emerged.

There are now 10 military councils inside Syria, activists said, incorporating virtually every important town or rural area in revolt, with the notable exception of Homs, where factional differences continue to stymie unity. Activists working with the Syrian National Council, the main Syrian exile group, issue monthly pay packets, starting at $200 per soldier, with more for officers as well as a stipend for the families of those killed.

The money, said the activists, helps ensure the discipline among the military councils needed to engineer more choreographed attacks on the Syrian military, rather than random acts of sabotage. “Military operations need to become more strategic,” said Hasan Kasem, 31, an activist who fled Aleppo, Syria, in February when he was summoned for military service.

Maj. Gen. Robert Mood, the Norwegian head of the United Nations observers in Syria, told the Security Council last week that the resistance was increasingly effective, a diplomat who was present said.

The general attributed that to more experience, rather than better weapons or increased coordination, but opposition activists disagreed. Mr. Kasem described how military leaders have divided Aleppo and areas west toward the Turkish border into five sectors under an overall military council called the Northern Free Brigades. “The group has changed from a voluntary military group into an actual body, a much more organized military structure,” Mr. Kasem said. “They either had to become an organized army, or become a gang.”

The opposition effort now also involves shipping weapons that can challenge tanks. “It is not a decisive strategy yet, it is just an attempt to tinker with the military balance,” said one member of the Syrian National Council, speaking on the condition of anonymity because weapons smuggling is a secretive issue.

In the Aleppo countryside, each sector sends a representative to an operations room run by the military council, Mr. Kasem said. But activists admit to friction between the military councils and traditional civilian leaders from prominent families who stepped in when the Syrian government evaporated, and who resent being overshadowed.

Some of the humanitarian efforts appear haphazard. In one house near the border, a group of men, their doormat a small gray carpet with the face of President Assad, run something like a mail-order business, handling a wide array of requests from inside Syria: medical supplies, freshly baked bread and fertilizer to construct crude explosives.

Dr. Yazji helped found the Union of Syrian Medical Relief Organizations last January to channel financing from Syrian doctors around the world. From an apartment in the nearby border town of Reyhanli, Turkey, it sponsors an array of projects, including an effort to persuade individual doctors abroad to sponsor a Syrian doctor, donating medicine and a basic salary.

The organization brought 70 activists from Syria and taught them how to transport badly injured patients. It began dispatching field hospitals across the border — about $20,000 in medical equipment in 20 boxes, enough to fill a small pickup truck — that allow doctors to perform rudimentary surgery. There are more permanent projects, like converting a two-story villa in a Syrian border town under rebel control into a 30-bed hospital.

Syrian doctors living here acknowledged some tensions with the Turkish government over the time required for relief supplies to clear customs, as well as the government’s refusal to relax a ban on licensing foreign doctors. Numerous Syrian doctors have opened their own homes to patients with serious wounds. Talal Abdullah, the former humanitarian coordinator in the area for the Syrian National Council, said that at one point he crammed 12 patients into his apartment.

There has also been discord among the Syrians, with Mr. Abdullah, a Christian dentist from Hama, quitting his council post because, he said, the Muslim Brotherhood pushed nonmembers aside. “Their power is that all the money and all the humanitarian aid is in their hands, but we don’t know where it is coming from,” he said.

The Syrian government’s unwavering line is that the insurgency is a foreign operation intended to fragment Syria. American officials and Arab intelligence officers said a small unit of the Central Intelligence Agency was operating here, vetting who gets better arms. But it has not gone inside, the sources said.

At least two activists admitted to knowing about contacts with American advisers over military tactics, but said nothing further. General Mood told the Security Council that his interpreters were able to identify a few foreigners from their accents, but no significant presence, the Council diplomat said.

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