The need for supplies was pressing. That morning, at 5 a.m., troops loyal to the Syrian regime had engaged Alaa's men in the northern Syrian hamlet of Jannoudiye, his hometown, which is just north of Jisr al-Shughour and roughly six miles from the Turkish border. The captain said that he'd called the commanders of other larger rebel units nearby, in Idlib and Jabal al-Zawiya to "start something" and divert the security forces' attention in a desperate bid to relieve pressure on his small band of poorly supplied men.
It hadn't even slowed the loyalists down. Alaa spent most of the evening on the phone, receiving updates from his men. The news wasn't good: By 9 p.m., the rebels had retreated and were perilously close to running out of ammunition. Civilians were being used by soldiers loyal to Assad as human shields, marched in front of tanks, he said (a finding corroborated by Human Rights Watch). Entire families, including some of the captain's relatives, had fled into the hills, where they were spending a chilly night. "Jannoudiye has fallen," Alaa said, fingering his red prayer beads.
"Don't lose hope brother," Mokbat said, but he too was becoming increasingly gloomy. Two calls to Mehmet went unanswered. "I don't understand. Where are the mujahideen [holy warriors]? This surprises me a lot. Why are our Arab brothers, Christian and Muslim, still silent?" Mokbat asks.
According to the FSA officers, the claims of foreign fighters in Syria -- eagerly touted by the Assad regime -- are wildly overblown. A lone Libyan had reportedly volunteered to fight with their FSA unit recently, but left after a few days. "He said, ‘You guys are crazy, this is suicide, you don't have weapons'," Mokbat said. "He was right. I wish the revolution would go back, it was better before. We used to shoot into the air, we didn't worry about ammunition. Now we think twice about using each bullet."
Five hours later and Mehmet had yet to return. In fact, he would not come back until a week later -- and empty handed. The problem was trying to secure a road to ferry the supplies without being intercepted by Turkish security. Although Turkey houses the FSA, it "does not allow any weapon to be transferred to Syria in [an] illegal way," a Turkish government official, speaking on condition of anonymity, said. Anyone caught trying will be arrested and the weapons confiscated, he added.
Still, Mehmet was hopeful. "It's dangerous," he told the defectors, "but God willing, the goods will move. Be patient."
"I'm sitting on fire over here!" the captain says. "We must be with our men!"
Some of his men, like Mazin, a 20-something defector with a wispy beard, weren't in Jannoudiye anymore. Mazin said he walked through the hills for three days, helping guide families to the safety of the Turkish border. He was now in the officers' camp, where his mother tended to him. "I thought he was injured when I saw him," his mother says, fussing over her youngest son who has stretched his bare swollen feet out in front of him. "He was limping and walking oddly." Still, Mazin is determined to go back into Syria, even without fresh ammunition. "We'll plant bombs," he says. "We can't just sit here."
That's exactly what many Syrian refugees, defectors and civilian revolutionaries accuse the high-level defectors in the camp of doing -- just sitting there. In the absence of an organized military effort, the burden of securing weapons and funding has fallen to lower-level officers like Alaa, as well as ordinary Syrians like Abdel-Salim, a taxi driver turned thuwar who commands the "Free Syrians," a ragtag bunch of farmers, taxi drivers and other civilians from a string of villages abutting the Turkish border. Abdel-Salim, a 40-year-old with a bushy salt-and-pepper beard and high cheekbones, had crossed the border into southern Turkey to try and secure supplies for his group: 3,000 bullets, to be precise.