published Monday, November 11th, 2013

AP Exclusive: Syria rebels recruit at refugee camp

In this Wednesday, Nov. 6, 2013, photo, a Syrian refugee man rest on a chair at Zaatari refugee camp in Mafraq, Jordan.
In this Wednesday, Nov. 6, 2013, photo, a Syrian refugee man rest on a chair at Zaatari refugee camp in Mafraq, Jordan.
Photo by Associated Press /Chattanooga Times Free Press.

ZAATARI CAMP, Jordan — In a makeshift mosque in a trailer in this sprawling camp for Syrian refugees, a preacher appeals to worshippers to join their countrymen in the fight to topple President Bashar Assad. In another corner of the Zaatari camp, two men draped in the Syrian rebel flag call on refugees through loudspeakers to sign up for military training.

Rebels in the camp freely acknowledge recruiting fighters in the camp in a drive that has increased since the summer, trying to bolster rebel ranks in the face of stepped up offensives by Assad's forces just across the border in southern Syria.

Recruiting is banned in Zaatari, and the rebel activities put Jordanian officials and United Nations' officials running the camp in a delicate position. Wary of further increasing tensions with the government in neighboring Syria, Jordan has sought to keep its support of rebels under the radar, officially denying that any training of anti-Assad fighters takes place on its soil, though both Jordanian and American officials have acknowledged it does.

For the U.N., the recruitment mars what is supposed to be a purely humanitarian mission of helping the streams of Syrians fleeing the 2 ½-year-old civil war, which activists say has killed more than 120,000 people. Zaatari, only 16 kilometers (10 miles) from the Syrian border, is home to more than 100,000 Syrian refugees.

Andrew Harper, head of the Jordan office of the U.N. refugee agency UNHCR, which runs the camp, says he has heard reports of rebel recruitment but has seen no evidence.

"If we see anything on the recruitment or the fighters coming into the camp, we will notify the Jordanian government," he told The Associated Press. "The camp is for the Syrian refugees, not the fighters, and we must ensure that its neutrality and impartiality is kept."

When an AP reporter told him of instances of overt recruitment witnessed by AP in the camp, Harper expressed surprise. "We can't afford to have anybody in the camp, except civilians. But what I'm hearing is seriously alarming."

A Jordanian Cabinet official also expressed surprise when told how overt the recruitment has become. "If anyone is recruited in Zaatari, we will take action because this is a violation of the law," he said. He spoke on condition of anonymity as he wasn't authorized to speak about the issue.

An AP reporter visiting Zaatari found rebels from the Western-backed Free Syrian Army unabashed in talking about their search for new fighters, which they say has brought in dozens of recruits in past months. Other fighters visit the camp often to see family living there and take a short break from the war. There was no sign that rebels from radical Islamic factions, such as the al-Qaida-linked Jabhat al-Nusra operate in Zaatari,

Training does not take place in the camp. Abu Salim, who heads the Free Syrian Army's military council in southern Syria, said a 40-day training camp for rebel fighters is conducted at a location in Jordan or sites in southern Syria. He would not give details on any of the locations.

"Zaatari is an exporter of fighters," said Abu Salim, a former top Syrian army officer. "We see civilians maimed, our homes destroyed and our relatives jailed, tortured or killed, so we react by recruiting and training people to fight the tyrant government back home." He spoke on condition he only be identified by his nom de guerre for fear of reprisals.

Several refugees in Zaatari who have not joined the rebels but with knowledge of their activities said some training takes place at three Jordanian army installations near the border with Syria. The Jordanian army refused to comment.

The camp provides a potentially rich recruiting ground. The refugees are overwhelmingly Sunni Muslims, the majority population in Syria that has been the backbone of the rebellion, and they have almost all fled from rebel-dominated areas bearing the brunt of the Syrian military's crackdown on the uprising.

Abu Abdullah Hourani, a rebel sniper, said recruitment in the camp has increased since August because the FSA needed more fighters to battle against a stepped-up military offensive in southern Syria. He spoke in a Zaatari trailer where he sipped coffee with other rebels who had slipped out of Syria and into the camp for a break of several days from fighting. Their discussion centered on their hatred of Assad's Alawite minority, an offshoot of Shia Islam.

"Shiites want to dominate Syria and Assad is helping them by killing us, the Sunnis," said Hourani, who spoke on condition he be identified only by his nom de guerre for fear of reprisals.

At another Zaatari trailer on a recent Friday, a Muslim cleric urged a group of around 20 worshippers in his sermon to do their duty and "liberate your land from the tyrant Assad."

"You should all join hands in the fight for freedom and democracy," the preacher, who asked to be identified by his nickname Abu Mustafa for security reasons, said, as the worshippers shouted, "God is great."

Afterward, Abu Mustafa passed out a roster for recruits to sign up. He said he gets around 10 recruits a week.

"It's the least I can do for my country," he said.

In another part of the camp, two men who identified themselves as FSA member walked among the lines of tents with a loudspeaker, urging refugees to sign up for training. Women who volunteer get training on first aid to treat wounded fighters and men are trained in "war tactics, including street fighting," said one of the men, identifying himself only by his first name, Ahmed.

The recruitment effort "intensifies when there is a need for fighters back home. If we need someone who knows how to shoot down aircraft and we can't find anybody with such experience, we train the newcomers and dispatch them to Syria," Ahmed said.

Abu Jamal Jedouri, a 31-year-old former Arabic teacher, says he now trains fighters on how to use anti-aircraft rockets at an FSA-run camp in southern Syria. He said he trained 125 fighters recruited from Zaatari over the past four months. He said he trained at least 800 fighters over the past two years, some of them from Zaatari.

"I'm proud of their performance in the battlefield," said Jedouri, also asking to be identified only by his nom de guerre for security reasons.

Mohammad al-Ammar, 28, said he was recruited in Zaatari three months ago. He was already experienced in firearms from his days as an army conscript nine years ago. Last month, he took an FSA "refresher course," he said, adding, "I was also taught how to fire anti-tank and anti-aircraft" weapons.

Yousef Abu Zeid, an 18-year-old refugee, said he was approached several times by rebels in the camp. He declined to join, saying he needs to stay to help his family.

"They told me, 'Come, we have weapons,'" he said.

None of those interviewed by AP would say whether Americans or other Westerners were involved the training.

Jordan has publicly denied that it was hosting rebel training, but top officials have acknowledged previously that the United States and other Western allies are training Syrian fighters on its soil

Last March, U.S. officials said the United States was training Syrian fighters in Jordan with the goal of bolstering the forces battling Assad while at the same time strengthening the hand of moderates among the country's fractured opposition. They said the operation was being run by U.S. intelligence agencies.

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