Dispatch

No Refuge

Syrians fleeing the massacre back home battle boredom, callous foreign governments, and growing religious rifts.

BOHSIN, Turkey — The dull thud of the Syrian military shells woke me in the Bohsin refuge camp at about three in the morning.

Across the tent, Wasim Sabbagh, a Syrian Christian from the province of Homs, did not stir. But across the Orontes River, which separates Turkey and Syria, people were dying as we slept, in numbers impossible to verify because the Syrian government denies independent observers access to the country. The United Nations says that "well over" 7,500 people have lost their lives during the yearlong uprising.

Life in the refugee camp -- a life spent hoping President Bashar al-Assad will soon fall -- has become routine. Sabbagh's friends compare the different brands of tuna provided to them by Turkish aid workers, watch the pigeons one man keeps in a homemade cage, and, of course, follow the latest horrible news from inside Syria.

For many months, Syrian refugees who work with the Free Syrian Army (FSA) were allowed to go and come as they pleased. But according to refugees and activists, in the past several days -- as Syrian tanks and military vehicles appeared on the border -- Turkish officials have begun more aggressively controlling the refugees. The activists say that they have been warned that those without prior approval to send humanitarian aid across the border would be detained and sent to a camp for troublesome refugees.

"We are afraid," says a refugee from the northern city of Jisr al-Shughour. Initially, he had been relieved when he arrived in Turkey nine months ago, but now he feels trapped and unsure what to do next. "We don't look at [Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip] Erdogan as the whole government. I am not defending Erdogan, but this is the reality. We confirm there is a secret relation between the Turkish security forces and the Syrian security forces."

Like so many of their kin in Syria, the approximately 11,000 Syrian refugees in Turkey are struggling to survive a conflict that has turned increasingly bloody and defined by sectarian loyalties. The refugees' numbers appear likely to grow as Assad's security forces escalate their crackdown. Following the regime's assault on the restive city of Homs, U.N. officials warned that as many as 2,000 Syrians were preparing to flee to Lebanon. And with Syria's northern governorate of Idlib looking like the next arena for a confrontation between Assad and the opposition, Turkey could be in store for another influx of refugees.

The smuggling routes to Turkey are also coming under increased pressure as Assad clamps down on Syria's north. Local smugglers, who bring supplies into Syria and the wounded out, are charging between $500 and $1,000 per person to get journalists into the country. When the Syrian military reinforced the border area, some smugglers disappeared. A local FSA commander says he does not need more journalists -- he needs guns.

Sabbagh, like many caught up in this war, wants to know why the world hasn't done more to end Syrians' suffering.

"Why is the international community silent? Do the Syrian people have tails?" Sabbagh says. One day, he bent over and suddenly vomited on the side of the road. The cause, most likely, is a mixture of stress and cold.

Sabbagh's camp of 1,700 people is all Sunni except for himself, he says. The refugees know the international community is wary of regional sectarian conflict, but incorporating Syria's minority groups into the revolution is easier said than done.

"The regime is using the Alawite people to kill the other people; it's a normal reaction toward this," Sabbagh says of Sunni-Alawi sectarian violence. "They are killing just because they are Alawites. We have the right to say the Alawites are killing the other people."

Born in the town of Kattinah, Sabbagh fled Syria after intense persecution by the security forces in 2000. He was first persecuted, he says, when he refused to become a junior member of the Baath Party in high school. Later, he was again arrested and accused of starting a religious movement after teaching children English in a church. The persecution continued, he says, after he was conscripted into the military. After a number of years abroad in Lebanon and the United Arab Emirates, he applied for political asylum in the United States.

The Syrian uprising began as Sabbagh's asylum case was under consideration. He flew to Turkey with an aim to travel overland back to Kattinah to be with his family -- but was advised, when he arrived at the border, that he had little chance of arriving in his hometown alive. "I went to Turkey because I don't trust the Lebanese ... and also the Syrian security forces have a long arm in Lebanon," he says.

Frustrations run high. The refugees openly acknowledged the failure of the opposition to unite, and they laugh at Col. Riad al-Asaad, the defector who claims to head the FSA from another Turkish refugee camp because he is controlled by the Turkish government and unable to actually lead fighters.

"They are just sitting and doing nothing," a refugee says of Asaad and the other defected officers in Turkey who claim to lead the FSA. "They can't do anything because they are not allowed."

The disparity between the fractious opposition-in-exile and the reality on the ground also provokes resentment in the refugee camps. As members of the Syrian National Council (SNC), which is intended to be a political umbrella group for Syria's opposition, hold conferences at luxury hotels in Istanbul, one FSA commander I know goes to great lengths to sneak a single box of bullets across the border under fire.

The same refugee who criticized the FSA blames the Syrian regime for sowing the seeds of division plaguing Syria's sundry opposition groups. "You are in prison all your life; you can't eat until you have permission to do it. One day you come out and find yourself the one controlling the people inside the prison," he said. "[H]ow can these people be real leaders for such a critical situation?"

The influx of refugees is also putting a strain on Turkey's resources. However, a Turkish diplomatic source based in Turkey's border province of Hatay denied that concerns over handling an increased flow of refugees was preventing Turkey from taking more aggressive action against Assad's regime. "Turkey is ready to admit all the Syrians, to admit all who are in danger, there is no limitation," he says. "We are in the preparation process for a huge camp to host 10,000 refugees."

That's a relief to only some of the Syrian refugees, despite their dismal conditions. The Syrians will soon move to a larger camp about 125 miles away from the border, where their canvas tents -- currently accumulating black mold -- will be replaced by two-room living containers complete with a bathroom and kitchen. The move is forcing the refugees who are working with the FSA to choose between returning to Syria and potentially losing their access to vital supplies gathered in Turkey, and settling in the new camp far from the border -- where they risk losing the ability to cross into Syria.

While the improvements in living conditions will no doubt be appreciated by the Syrians, the Turkish government still refuses to grant them legal status as refugees. Instead, the Syrians are "guests," a loophole that requires less legal responsibility. Offers of assistance from international humanitarian organizations have been rejected by the Turks, even when one camp was flooded and many of the refugees fell ill.

The lukewarm attitude is perhaps due both to a desire to control opposition forces and fears that the sectarianism that has fractured Syrian society will also come to Turkey. Houses in Turkey belonging to Alevis, a minority group similar to the Alawites, were recently marked with crosses by unknown perpetrators. The act of intimidation echoed the 1978 Maras Massacre, during which 105 Alevis were killed by Sunni ultra-nationalists, after their houses were marked in a similar way.

Turkey's interior minister, Idris Naim Sahin, considered both a religious Sunni and nationalist, described the event as "child's play." Meanwhile, Alawites in Antakya, the capital of Hatay Province, held multiple pro-Assad demonstrations and voiced fears for their relatives inside Syria, who they feared would suffer reprisal attacks by anti-Assad groups. They also voiced hostility toward Turkey's ruling Justice and Development Party (AKP), which has emerged as one of the Assad regime's primary international antagonists.

Dogan Bermek, president of the Federation of Alevi Foundations, says there was more religious freedom in Assad's Syria than in Turkey, and that "some people" were trying to create a religious war in both countries.

"Those who are trying to use [the] 'Arab Spring' as a tool for creating an inter-religious clash in Syria, may be attempting to widen their areas of acitvity [sic]," further warned a statement sent out by Bermek's federation.

Not everyone agrees. Louise Abdul-Kareem, 35, is an Alawite actress from the Syrian coastal city of Latakia who says that she has supported the opposition from the beginning. She fled Syria in December after constant harassment by security forces, and now lives in Cairo.

Abdul-Kareem estimates that one-third of Alawites support Assad "because they are using the regime," one-third support it "because they believe the story of armed gangs," and the remaining one-third don't believe the Syrian regime's narrative but have been cowed into silence.

More Alawites are being targeted than is being reported due to the media blackout, Abdul-Kareem claims. "The regime doesn't protect the minorities; it's another lie," she says.

Sabbagh agrees. Kattinah, his hometown, has been closely guarded by the Syrian military for months to ensure the Christians there do not show support for the opposition.

"It's a little bit complicated because of Christians themselves," Sabbagh says. "There will be no civil war, but [post-Assad Syria] will not be so easy and stable."

Sabbagh expects there to be some sectarian violence against Christians following Assad's fall -- including, he says, church bombings. It's a fear shared by many Christian religious leaders, who have thrown their weight behind Assad. Maronite Patriarch Beshara al-Rai, for example, recently warned that the Arab Spring was turning into a winter of "violence, war, destruction and killing," and that Assad's Syria represented "the closest thing to democracy [in the Arab world]."

But despite all these fears, Sabbagh is optimistic that Syrians can hold fast to their history of coexistence. And in this no-man's land, he's a reminder that many continue to confound the religious battle lines that have emerged in Syria.

"We surprised the world with our revolution," he says. "Maybe we will surprise the world with the short time Syria will stay unstable."

MUSTAFA OZER/AFP/Getty Images

Dispatch

China's Top Party School

At Beijing's Central Party School, it's a lot more Communist platforms than keg stands.

BEIJING — Fresh off a successful charm offensive in the United States, Chinese Vice President Xi Jinping will likely be working feverishly -- and clandestinely -- to secure his political future among the various factions and political rivals strolling the halls of power in Beijing. But Xi boasts one credential no other Chinese official has on his resume.

Last autumn, Xi presided over a graduation ceremony at the Central Party School of the Chinese Communist Party's Central Committee, the supreme ideological training ground for party cadres and a prerequisite for any official interested in joining the elite political ranks of China's ruling class. Indeed, in a country where party loyalty trumps even patriotism -- the embalmed corpse of Chairman Mao Zedong is wrapped in a Communist Party flag, not that of the People's Republic of China -- Xi could not hope to attain China's top post without having first proved his political purity, exemplified by his selection as president of the Central Party School in 2007. Xi followed in the footsteps of Hu Jintao, the man he will presumably succeed come October, who held the same position at the school before he became president of China a decade ago.

Housed in a heavily guarded, unmarked compound far from Tiananmen Square and most of Beijing's government buildings, the Central Party School is both think tank and indoctrination center, "a furnace to foster the spirit of party members," according to a state media report. It is a place where Chinese officials debate and form policies that address China's most pressing and sensitive issues while remaining safely within the confines of politically correct thought. "The ultimate work the Central Party School does is create a fit-for-purpose overarching value system and a body of ideas which serve to justify the Communist Party's monopoly on power," says Kerry Brown, head of the Asia Program at Chatham House, a London-based think tank that has hosted members of the Central Party School.

What happens within its walls has a direct impact on political decision-making and thus the daily lives of 1.3 billion Chinese, not to mention the world. Often, top leaders choose the school as a forum for introducing new policy concepts, which then trickle down through the state bureaucracy and media as part of the government's "opinion guidance" mechanism. The Central Party School sits at the top of a vast network of party schools around the country, which train lower-level officials. Although the school devotes considerable energy to manufacturing palatable concepts, it's not just a propaganda factory.

As China has moved away from traditional communist dogma toward a state-managed capitalist economy and its ensuing social complexities, the school has become a laboratory for testing new methods and foreign strategies and deciphering how they can be incorporated into official policy and instructed to the rising stars of the Communist Party. "The goal is to suck up an idea, defang it, and legitimize it for Chinese circumstances in a way that's not threatening to the party," says Brown. Within the party's internal discourse on political reform, topics like rule of law, religious tolerance, and civil society, particularly the role of nongovernmental organizations, are discussed at length at the school, which has published texts in support of these concepts, though strictly in accordance with Chinese characteristics.

Each year, around 1,500 midlevel and top-ranking officials come from throughout China to spend several months living on the leafy grounds, where they study the theories of Marxist-Leninism, Mao, and former leader Deng Xiaoping. Other subjects include "scientific socialism," party history, diplomatic etiquette, ethnic and religious minorities, and the increasingly relevant "public health and social crisis," topic of a course first offered after the 2003 SARS outbreak. Over 61,000 officials have gone through the school's training program over the past 30 years. According to a report in Chinese media, students must also watch documentaries decrying the evils of corruption and sing revolutionary songs. Think Boy Scout camp for cadres, with party dogma replacing archery.

Students range in age from 20-somethings obtaining postgraduate degrees to middle-aged cadres and party officials, who sleep and learn separately according to their prefectural or provincial rank. Each year, new students take placement exams to determine their level of party knowledge, though professors say lessons have become much more advanced because many older students now come laden with graduate degrees compared with the middle-school education most common 30 years ago.

Students also get to rate their professors, who can be demoted or suspended if their scores are too low. But power remains firmly in the hands of school officials, who ensure that students follow the rules. Provincial governors, ministry bureaucrats, and county-level party bosses may mingle in cafeterias and play tennis after class, but they all have to wake up promptly at 7:30 a.m., when orderlies arrive to clean the rooms -- and ensure no one has overslept. Nobody wants too many tardies because how students perform in class can dramatically advance -- or doom -- their careers. Staff members from the party's Organization Department regularly sit in on political lectures to scout for the best students, who they can recommend for promotions. Likewise, big egos and troublemakers are swiftly punished. According to one article in the Chinese media, one student was banned from lectures after misbehaving. "His political future virtually came to an end after the event," reported a professor.

Xi's political future is tied to his role as the school's president, and it appears he has avoided making any mistakes either within or beyond its high walls. Whether he has altered the curriculum is yet to be seen, but if his predecessor indeed set a precedent, the school will continue to evolve with the times. The school emerged as a center of relatively liberal ideas on political reform and other controversial areas in the final years of Hu's leadership of the school in the early 2000s, according to Alice Lyman Miller, a research fellow at the Hoover Institution. Those who study the school and its place in China's political ecosystem say the school provides a relatively free atmosphere to debate the issues of the day -- at least compared with the heavily censored marketplace of ideas offered up by the state media. Professors, students, and outside scholars with knowledge of the school say this tolerance is vital to allowing the party to grapple with sensitive issues like HIV/AIDS and public fury over corruption that can lead to unrest.

According to a report published last year in China Daily, participants are encouraged to cast off a lifetime of hidebound, self-censoring habits. "Teachers told us there were no taboos in their teaching, and officials can debate on almost any sensitive issues," one student said.

"Officials might be discreet in talking to strangers or in public," Wu Zhongmin, a social justice professor, told the paper, "but their internal discussion in class is unbounded."

So does that mean professors can teach the benefits of true democracy and students can advocate for authentic autonomy for Tibet? Not quite. An article about the school on an official Chinese government web portal reveals that party orthodoxy is still an essential element of school lessons. "All lectures should be given in the framework of the rules and policies of the Party," it states, and professors must "have a sense of propriety" in how they teach. That self-censorship goes for their charges as well. "Some students still fear expressing their thoughts in class," the article reported, referencing one former student who acknowledged the presence of party officials watching and listening.

Just how far faculty and students can go is an open question because, like so much of the Chinese Communist Party's inner workings, the details of the school are cloaked in secrecy. Even when outsiders are permitted inside, they are monitored closely. In 2010, the school offered foreign reporters a heavily staged tour, complete with a peek into a lecture on innovation, a gym packed with officials playing ping-pong, and a dorm where CNN was accessible in the rooms. The journalists were showed a bookstore stocked with leadership textbooks, including the lessons of Bruce Lee and U.S. President Barack Obama. The tour was meant to show that the Communist Party and its internal organs were zealously embracing transparency as if it were a recently discovered lost chapter from Karl Marx's Das Kapital. "Our party has nothing to hide," the school's vice president, Chen Baosheng, told the visiting reporters.

Such transparency has its limits. Minders closely accompanied the foreign journalists. Unscripted meetings with faculty members, as with most government officials, are notoriously difficult to arrange. Repeated requests to interview the school's professors and students in recent weeks were declined as being "not convenient" because of Xi's U.S. visit. Professors who appear on television do so under pseudonyms and not under the auspices of the school, one scholar with personal knowledge of those instructions told me. Few Chinese -- and even fewer foreigners -- have a clue what occurs behind its walls, which is just how the party likes it: debating itself, in secret.

That aura of mystery is reinforced by heavily armed members of the People's Armed Police, who prowl the grounds, guarding the numerous checkpoints and preventing outsiders from entering not just the campus but individual buildings. Even the drivers and secretaries of officials are prohibited from entering. While a few select foreign dignitaries, like former U.S. Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld and Treasury Secretary Timothy Geithner, have given speeches there, the school bars most foreigners -- save for a select coterie of top international scholars seen as sympathetic to the party.

Even those invited to the school can find the welcome mat suddenly yanked away. When Tony Brooks, a Cambridge University doctoral student, arrived for a prearranged meeting, the professor who had invited him appeared stunned by the sight of his face when they met outside the campus. The man, it turns out, had assumed Brooks was Chinese. "If I had written my email in English I never would have gotten a response," he said. Once inside, Brooks saw armed guards standing sentry outside every office door. "I got the impression this was definitely a place outsiders were not encouraged to visit," he says. After arriving at the professor's office, Brooks was told to wait while his contact asked permission from a supervisor to go ahead with the meeting. It was not to be. "Suddenly, he ran back into the office and said we were leaving immediately."

The veil that cloaks the Central Party School and its nationwide political training institutions exists not just to prevent foreign voyeurs from discovering how the party thinks and operates but also to stop those within the system from straying off script. The pressure to hide in the shadows of party unity is growing as the Chinese government prepares to shuffle power later this year. Yet those in the party school system who want to see greater reforms and authentic efforts to cleanse the political ranks of corruption and greed are not all staying silent. Although the signs of succession at the very top clearly point to Xi, some school officials are voicing their misgivings over his expected selection, portraying him as a corrupt princeling content to abet China's current political-economic complex. "This generation of leaders has been tepid and a disappointment," said one party school insider. "They have not been able to solve the country's problems, and I have even less hope about Xi Jinping and his posse."

FREDERIC J. BROWN/AFP/Getty Images