“We kept telling them if you keep supporting the jihadis you will destroy the revolution. That Kuwaiti MP who now talks of moderation was the same one who sent the money to the jihadis,” the businessman said.
In his room, he lit a cigarette and gestured at his surroundings. The room’s luxury stood in contrast to his simple clothes and filthy shoes.
“This room costs 200 euros [US$270] a night. This whole conference could have armed a battalion for months of fighting. [However] I have to find money, otherwise we might lose the lieutenant: I know he wants to leave — not because he’s scared, but because he is running from his debts,” the businessman said.
One afternoon a few days later, the lieutenant, the smuggler and the other commander went out for a walk in the warm sunshine. Children chased pigeons; tourists posed for pictures. Overhead, a plane was coming in to land. The commander pulled the collar of his shirt, speaking into an imaginary microphone: “Air defense! Air defense!”
“Airplane approaching! You could bring it down with a heavy machine gun,” the lieutenant said.
The commander made a finger pistol and took aim — but the two men stopped their macabre game when they realized they were enjoying it too much.
By now, the excitement of being in Istanbul had waned: The three men walked the streets aimlessly and sat for hours in cafes. The lieutenant was adamant that he wanted to leave the war, but every time the people smuggler called, he postponed the trip a few more days. One evening, he admitted that he had tried to leave once before: He had stayed away for 25 days, but found he could not live in the world of peace. He missed the excitement, the combat, the camaraderie.
“While I’m here, I’m laughing and smiling, but I choke with tears every time I remember the men I have left behind — men who fought with me, men who were injured for me,” he said. “I could sell my tanks and artillery for US$4 million and go live in Canada — but people died for these tanks.”
He was sitting in a cafe perched on a hill, with the lights of oil tankers and ferries blinking from the Bosphorus below.
“If I go, they will accuse me of treason — but I am fed up with this life. I cannot attack the regime while I’m being attacked by jihadis from behind,” he said.
The lieutenant left the cafe and there was no news of him for weeks. Nobody knew if he was still in Turkey, or if he had gone with the people smuggler and made his way to Italy.
When he finally called, he sounded relieved and almost cheerful.
“I just couldn’t do it,” he said. “I couldn’t leave, I went back to Syria, to fight.”