Over a kebab dinner in the Turkish city of Iskenderun, Syrian physician and cleric Mahmoud al-Husseini explained why he has not yet visited the Atmeh refugee camp in northern Syria, just 55 miles south from where he now lived. "I'm too famous, I don't want to go to be photographed," he explained.
It sounded like a cop-out. Husseini is the former head of Aleppo's religious endowment, and although he left the country in the summer of 2011, he still boasts wide influence inside Syria. But this influence remained untapped. He says that he considers those who visit the camps to be "revolution celebrities," merely looking for the next photo op with a poor Syrian refugee child. So he avoids getting involved altogether.
Like many Syrians, Husseini has strong yet contradictory opinions on the disaster unfolding across the border. He believes that the Syrian opposition in exile is controlled by foreign agendas and paid off with "political money," and was convinced that the crisis could end with a single threatening "phone call from President Obama." Yet, he also holds that it's not time yet to counter the growing sectarianism within the ranks of the opposition fighters, because "the killing had to stop first."
And his plan to solve the bloody crisis? Forming yet another Syrian opposition group. He claims his exclusive group, the "Building Civilization Movement," is made up of 100 of the most important Syrian political and social figures in the country. He could only give one name, however, out of those elusive hundred. What was their plan? And why would he not announce the names? His answer: "They will be burned." (Figuratively, of course.)
It's a common response in Syria these days. Uncertain about how this bloody, two-year revolt will play out, many Syrians have essentially decided not to decide on their stance toward the conflict. When asked to give their reason, they repeat the same sentence: "I don't want my cards to be burned." Many prominent Syrians are sitting on the fence, waiting for the right moment to get involved -- but only when it is clear their personal interests will be protected.
The "don't burn your cards" saying became a joke between our group of Syrian journalists, writers, and activists as we moved back and forth across the Syrian-Turkish border area in January to meet with rebel fighters, refugees, and politicians. If you do "fill-in-the-blank," we would laugh, then you will burn your cards. This action could be almost anything -- take a picture with a refugee child, announce your true political beliefs, go into Syria, don't go into Syria.
And it's true -- in Syria's high-stakes political climate, certain choices define you: Do you support foreign intervention or not? Do you support arming the rebels or not? Do you support the bloody tactics of the al Qaeda-linked Jabhat al-Nusra or not? Even the distribution of humanitarian aid leads to a slew of questions: Why give money to the refugees when you should be helping people inside? Why help refugees in Jordan's Zaatari camp when you should be helping the displaced people in the camps inside Syria?
Hard-edged questions like these continue to fracture the Syrian opposition. Over the past month, the Syrian Opposition Coalition (SOC), the internationally recognized opposition umbrella group, has been on a roller-coaster ride of statements and counter-statements, bold boycotts and instant reversals of boycotts. The Muslim Brotherhood-dominated Syrian National Council (SNC), the majority bloc within the coalition, has repeatedly undermined the group's plans to break the political stalemate between Assad and the opposition -- revealing personal interests taking precedence over national ones.