Mohammad Hannon, Associated Press
MAFRAQ, Jordan — In an isolated stretch of Jordanian desert, a heavily guarded, secret compound houses 1,200 senior police and army officers who defected from nearby Syria.
The men live in trailers with fans but no air conditioning, surrounded by barbed wire, and they pass their days browsing the Internet and watching TV for news of Syria's civil war, longing to join the fight — but they are largely unable to leave.
The Jordanian military runs the camp near a site formerly used by the U.S. to train some its forces for the war in Iraq, and the defectors are debriefed by intelligence agents. Access to them is tightly restricted for their own protection. They are even separated from their families, who live outside the camp near the northern border city of Mafraq but can get special police permits to visit.
The defectors in the camp are allowed to communicate with the rebel Free Syrian Army in Jordan and abroad, both in person and through telephone and Internet communications, but do not have what is considered valuable intelligence, according to Jordanian security officials who spoke on condition of anonymity because they are not allowed to make press statements.
The facility is a sign of Jordan's growing role as a quiet supporter of Syria's opposition. But at the same time, Jordan wants to avoid aggravating tensions with its more powerful northern neighbor, fearing that President Bashar Assad may remain in power.
There are more than 160,000 Syrian refugees in Jordan, and their number is increasing by the thousands every day. About 8,000 live in a newly set up camp on the border, while the rest are scattered across Jordan.
Maintaining control over the refugees poses a security threat to the small, tightly controlled kingdom. Jordanian security officials and refugees have said there were pro-Assad "sleeper cells" in Jordan that could act against the refugees.
Jordan has rejected several requests by the Assad government for the extradition of the defectors and has allowed entry to hundreds of Syrian rebels who move freely around the country. It also has helped the refugees by giving them medical treatment.
It is not clear if former Syrian Prime Minister Riad Hijab, the most prominent defector to flee to Jordan, is housed in the desert facility or one elsewhere. Hijab fled under a plan coordinated between the Amman government and the Free Syrian Army.
The Associated Press asked to visit the desert facility but was denied access. However, the AP spoke to two of the camp residents who described the conditions there.
Khaldoun, a 47-year-old former Syrian army brigadier, said there were dozens of trailers housing up to seven men each, with fans stirring the desert air. Armed Jordanian soldiers guard the compound around the clock, he said.
The men spend their days exercising and playing backgammon and chess, and the Jordanians provide them with access to the Internet, TVs, cellphones and computers, said Khaldoun, who insisted on being identified by his first name only, citing concern for the safety of relatives in Syria.
"It's good to be here, away from the tension and war, but this is not what I had hoped for," he told the AP.
"I wanted to be part of the rebel movement fighting to liberate Syria," Khaldoun added. He said he spends most of his day watching TV, exchanging gossip, or browsing the Internet for news on the violence back home.
"It's difficult to watch the war in Syria on TV and the Internet and not be part of it," he added.
Khaldoun defected to Jordan in January at the height of the Assad regime's crackdown on his hometown, the central city of Homs, which became the hub of the uprising that began in March 2011. Hailing from a prominent Sunni Muslim family, he served in the 7th Armored Division for 23 years until his escape.
- Photo gallery: Tornado rips Oklahoma suburb
- Huge tornado hits Oklahoma City suburb, kills...
- Top scandals and controversies of each United...
- Journalists criticize Obama administration,...
- Fly a flag for Cody: Army confirms Utah man...
- Mile-wide tornado churns through Oklahoma...
- Oklahoma, other tornado-hit states brace for...
- Measles surges in UK years after flawed...
- Mitt Romney talks IRS, AP records,... 65
- Associated Press CEO calls records... 23
- White House insists Obama was not... 22
- Journalists push back against Obama... 21
- House chairman sees IRS targeting as... 16
- Republicans try to link IRS scandal,... 12
- Tea party looks to take advantage of... 12
- Supreme Court to weigh in on... 12