AP Exclusive: Syria rebels recruit at refugee camp

By Jamal Halaby

Associated Press

Published: Monday, Nov. 11 2013 12:00 a.m. MST

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.

Associated Press writer Karin Laub contributed to this report.

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