MAFRAQ, Jordan — Encouraged by what they see as fatal setbacks to the Syrian regime, several thousand of an estimated 250,000 Syrian exiles in Jordan have left in recent weeks to join the rebellion in their homeland.
The exodus has emptied hundreds of the safe houses, apartments and refugee tents that have housed Syrians in Mafraq and other northern Jordanian cities, according to Syrian activists and Jordanian officials. Jordanian security officials, who spoke on the condition of anonymity because they were not authorized to talk on the record, said that as many as 8,000 Syrians have crossed the border back into their home country in the past 10 days.
According to Syrian activists in Syria and Jordan, the sudden returns are a response to a call for reinforcements issued in early December by the rebel military council, the main umbrella organization of army defectors locked in a bloody war of attrition against forces loyal to Syrian President Bashar al-Assad. Activists said the response has been greatest among refugees in Jordan because pro-Assad militias in Lebanon have prevented similar returns from that country and because many Syrians in Turkey have already been involved in the fight.
Syrian rebels said the call for more forces has come as the opposition faces a critical stage in the nearly two-year conflict, with its offensive inching closer to the heart of the capital, Damascus, capturing several military bases and fending off counteroffensives on rebel strongholds in Aleppo, the southern city of Daraa and the Damascus countryside.
“Now, Jordan has become our number one source of manpower,” said Abu Hani Darawi, a Free Syrian Army coordinator whose battalions in Daraa have received the bulk of the returnees from Jordan. “We are now entering the final battles for Syria, and we need every able Syrian to join us.”
The call for recruits has sparked a steady stream of voluntary returnees from Jordan’s Zaatari refugee camp near Mafraq, close to the Syrian border. Jordanian officials are facilitating the repatriation of as many as 150 military-age Syrians every day, according to Interior Ministry statistics.
Ahmed Rifai, a 25-year-old camp resident, said gains by the Free Syrian Army in Daraa prompted him and two of his cousins to request repatriation in a bid to join the rebels.
“We can feel that Bashar’s final days are coming,” Rifai said. “We want to experience liberation day placing our boots on the neck of the regime, not cowering in a refugee camp.”
In addition to former and would-be fighters, activists said the returnees from Jordan include hundreds of doctors, nurses, lawyers and engineers who want to rebuild their homeland even as the conflict continues.
Abu Muuath Hamad, a 44-year-old paramedic, said he fled the central Syrian town of Douma after the regime persecuted him for offering help to alleged protesters. He said he sought refuge in Mafraq for six months, spending his time tending to the injuries and the rehabilitation of hundreds of wounded Free Syrian Army fighters who crossed into Jordan for treatment. On Dec. 10, he was repatriated and returned to Douma, where the rebel group appointed him chief field medic.
“Many of us thought we could make a difference from Jordan, but we were just observers like everyone else,” Hamad said in a phone interview from Douma. “When the whole world turns its back on your homeland, there is only one thing left to do: Go home.”
But even as they welcome the assistance, Syrian rebels play down the potential of new returnees to turn the war’s tide. Many of the exiles have no fighting experience. Others are months removed from the front lines and find themselves lagging in the rapidly intensifying urban warfare.
“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.”