“Each returnee needs at least two weeks to become acclimated with our current tactics and needs. It might be up to a month before they can really contribute,” Darawi said.
Repeating a long-standing rebel plea, Darawi said more arms, not men, would give the opposition the final advantage over the Assad regime. But while Jordanian border forces largely turn a blind eye to the mass crossings, they continue to restrict the movement of weapons. Returnees are limited to carrying personal firearms and basic medical supplies, not the heavy artillery and surface-to-air missiles Free Syrian Army officers say they need to topple the government.
“We will not prevent Syrians from their right to return, but under no circumstance will we allow arms-smuggling through our borders,” said a Jordanian military source stationed in the border region.
Even so, optimism about rebel gains has buoyed Syrians who remain in Jordan. In recent weeks, they have launched new coalitions and formed unions for lawyers and civil servants in anticipation of a post-Assad transition phase.
“Syrians are no longer waiting to see when or if the regime will fall. We are looking at the transition period and what we can do to build a new democratic state,” former deputy oil minister Abdo Hussameldin told reporters in the Jordanian capital last week as he announced the formation of the Free National Coalition of Public Sector Workers. “While the regime is destroying homes and buildings, we are focusing on building institutions.”
Recent rebel attacks on the international airport in Damascus and the takeovers of military airstrips have inspired 150 defected Syrian military pilots in Jordan to form the foundation of what they hope will be the Free Syrian Army’s first air squadron, said Lt. Col. Abu Abdullah Mohammed. The pilots say they are set to return once the rebels have captured an air base or airport where they can put their skills to use.
“We had always planned to return to the revolutionary cause should we be called upon,” said Mohammed, who, like many of his former Syrian air force peers, remains in Mafraq. “Now it seems that we have to speed up.”
The recent departures represent a small fraction of the Syrian population in Jordan. But they have left a palpable emptiness in the apartment blocks and houses in Mafraq that, mere weeks ago, were crammed with refugees, many of them hosted by Jordanians.
On a recent day, Jordanian Abdul Rahman Talal, a household appliance importer who supports the Syrian revolutionaries, stood in his carpeted living room and furrowed his brow as he pondered a sound he had not heard in more than 20 months: silence.
Until early December, his home had served as a safe house for 30 Syrian rebels. Then, suddenly, his guests headed for the front lines back home.
“After all the bombings and setbacks, I thought this day would never come,” said Talal, 42, as he picked up a green-striped scarf left behind by one of his guests. “I feel like I have lost an entire tribe.”