MAFRAQ, Jordan — The Syrian refugees were a portrait of desperation, clawing their way into packed buses headed to the border. Panicked mothers begged for help, as their wailing toddlers were forced through open windows. Men threw fists at each other, and soldiers in riot gear pushed forward, with truncheons and tear gas, to disperse rock-throwing youth.
But these refugees were not fleeing Syria.
They were going home — leaving the overcrowded, windblown Zaatari refugee camp and returning to their villages in Syria.
On many days in the past month, more refugees returned to Syria than entered Jordan, where an estimated 500,000 have sought refuge since the conflict began.
In the Zaatari camp, home to 140,000 displaced Syrians, many said they were heading back because they feared that the rebels were losing and that any day, forces loyal to President Bashar al-Assad would seize control of the last safe zones along the Syria-Jordan border and leave them stranded on the wrong side.
The reverse exodus comes as Syrian fighters and refugees in northern Jordan exude a thrumming panic that the tides of war are turning against them.
In interviews at the Zaatari camp and with a dozen Syrian rebel commanders and fighters passing through Jordan, many said Assad’s forces, aided by foreign fighters from Iran, Lebanon and Iraq, had gained the advantage.
Rebel commanders said their men were subsisting on water, a few pieces of bread, and whatever they could scavenge or beg from markets and fields. Some had been eating grape leaves, they said. They described battalions in which rebel troops were carrying only a few dozen bullets per man into battle. They said that roads they once controlled had been taken by Assad forces.
The refugees also described a grim life in the camps, especially as the heat of summer builds.
“We would rather die in dignity back home than beg in Jordan,” said Mohammed al-Ghanem, who was set to return to his home village of Al Shajareh with his five children after spending the last of his $2,000 in life savings over the past four months in the camp.
“We are seeing high numbers of Syrians returning home in recent days,” said Andrew Harper, the representative for the U.N. High Commissioner for Refugees in Jordan.
In the past month, Harper said, 500 Syrians on average would enter Jordan each day as 250 returned home. “We don’t recommend it. The situation in the camps is dire, but the situation in Syria is worse,” he said.
Harper said there were days when returnees to Syria greatly outnumbered those seeking refuge in Jordan. On Wednesday, for example, more than 3,000 Syrians boarded buses at the Zaatari refugee camp.
On Thursday and Friday, though, the numbers of Syrians going home dropped to zero, as Assad’s troops engaged in heavy shelling around border towns — which increased dread in the camps that it would be difficult to get home.
News that President Obama promised to provide rebels with light arms — and that Saudi Arabia, Qatar and Libya would send antitank and antiaircraft weapons — was greeted here with skepticism.
“Why did they wait until now, when we have almost lost?” said Abu Mohammed al-Naimi, a former brigadier general in the Syrian army who defected and now commands a Free Syrian Army battalion.
In addition to the new U.S. aid promised to the rebels, the Obama administration has long been assisting the opposition with logistical and intelligence support, as well as training. CIA officers have been working with allies in Jordan and Turkey for more than six months, helping with instruction on skills ranging from securing chemical weapon stockpiles to using advanced antitank weapons, according to a senior Middle Eastern government official familiar with the operation.
Rebel fighters regularly slip across the border for training sessions that last from a few days to two weeks, before returning to Syria to rejoin the fighting, said the official, who insisted that both his name and nationality be withheld because of the secrecy surrounding the operation. The role of U.S. personnel in the program has included supervising contract employees and foreign nationals who conduct the bulk of the instruction, as well as some hands-on training, the official said.
Ahmed al-Saeed, an 18-year-old from the border village of Jasem, said he was encouraged to enlist with the Free Syrian Army along with his three cousins after hearing reports that fighters from the Lebanese Shiite Hezbollah movement had reached the outskirts of the southern city of Daraa earlier this month.
“Foreign fighters are invading our homes and are trying to kill the revolution,” Saeed said shortly before fighting his way onto a bus for the border. “Now it is time to defend our lands and our honor.”
Some Syrian refugees say they are answering a call to jihad issued by prominent Sunni clerics across the Middle East to wage holy war against the Shiite fighters entering Syria.
“Hezbollah and Iranian fighters are going house to house raping women, murdering children and destroying mosques,” said Ahmed al-Zoubi, one of several camp residents who said they aim to join Islamist rebel forces upon their return. “It is our duty as Syrians and Muslims to defend our homeland.”
Rumors of rapes and other atrocities in southern Syria could not be confirmed.
The young men returning to fight hope they can push back the Assad forces and the foreign fighters. They say they naturally fear retribution if Assad ultimately wins but would be ashamed to explain to their families why they didn’t return to fight when foreigners came to their lands.
With rebels sustaining a string of losses at the hands of Assad and Hezbollah forces, many anxious refugees say they are heading back to their homeland while opposition forces can still safeguard their return and before the tide of the conflict shifts in Damascus’s favor.
Many are returning not knowing whether their home or village still stands.
“But we will rather die in our homeland than wander the Earth as refugees,” Um Samar al-Hariri, 42, a resident of the southern village of Itlaa, said before boarding a bus with her six children.
Joby Warrick in Washington contributed to this report.