Strange bedfellows: Syrian rebels of all stripes welcome at Turkey safe house

Jamil Saeb speaks to his brother, Mohammad Saeb, at their apartment in Antakya, Turkey. They use the apartment as a safe house for rebels entering and exiting Syria. Ghazi Balkiz / NBC News

ANTAKYA, Turkey – As the number of refugees fleeing Syria passes the 2 million mark, one man is doing what he can to help those outside the reach of the UN Refugee Agency: rebels traveling in and out of Syria.

Jamil Saeb, a 37-year-old Syrian and former restaurant owner with a philosopher’s love of analysis and conversation, has opened the doors of his apartment in this small Turkish city near the border and transformed it into a safe haven and salon for anyone going in or out of Syria – regardless of which rebel faction they belong to.

His guests all share just one thing: the goal of ousting President Bashar Assad.

Close quarters 

Sipping Turkish coffee during a recent visit, Saeb answered a constant stream of cellphone calls. Some of those on the phone wanted to send him more “guests” while others wanted him to bring more provisions on his next trip across the border coordinate with the rebels. 

Anyone recommended to Saeb is welcome to stay as long as he wants, free of charge – but the accommodations are beyond modest. The space he shares with his wife, mother and two brothers consists of a mostly bare living room, two tight bedrooms, a small kitchen and one tiny bathroom.

Three thin mattresses lay on the floor of one bedroom. A stack of suitcases is piled up against the wall. One old sofa and a cheap fan sit by the door. An open window overlooks a dimly lit alleyway of Antakya, which has become a staging point for all kinds of people entering and fleeing the conflict. 

On a recent evening, the TV was switched to an Arabic news channel in the living room featuring analysts debating the consequences of a possible U.S.-led strike against Assad’s regime. About 10 men and Saeb’s mother sat watching, debating the news. Saeb smiled and said there were just a few guests at the moment – sometimes they have as many as 20 visitors.

“This morning I had a member of Dawlit al-Islam and a Syrian army officer defector, who is an Alawite,” he said, explaining the motley crew of anti-Assad people he hosts.

Open door, regardless of ideology

Saeb is not the only Syrian in Antakya who opened his doors to rebels, but he is the only one who opens his doors to rebels of all stripes.

He has made a point of welcoming militants from all of the various rebel factions fighting to overthrow Assad – no matter what their background or current affiliation is.

“This is a place for thoughts to meet,” said Saeb, who relishes the exchange of ideas that takes place on his living room floor. “I’ve had mujahedeen, socialists, secularists, Free Syrian Army members, refugees and the down-trodden all stay here.” 

“I don’t help their ideology; I help individuals who are working for a certain cause,” he said, referring to regime change in Syria.

Assad’s Alawite minority sect has dominated the regime for decades – despite making up just about 13 percent of Syria’s population of 23 million. Saeb’s open door policy applies to Alawite army defectors as much as those belonging to the al Qaeda-linked Islamic State in Iraq and Syria (ISIS) – a newly formed group. (ISIS is on the U.S. terror watch list because of its affiliation with al Qaeda.)

One of two bedrooms in Jamil Saeb's apartment in Antakya, Turkey. This room was full of men during a recent visit sitting on the floor, talking on the phone, listening to the radio, but they did not want their photographs taken for security reasons. Ghazi Balkiz / NBC News

He added that his ability to engage with the group allows him to mediate when there are kidnappings – he says he saved three people from being executed by the ISIS.

A duty to ‘do what’s right’

Saeb does not belong to a rebel faction himself, but he is one of the founders of the Syrian National Council or the SNC, a coalition of Syrian opposition groups based in Istanbul, Turkey. The SNC wants to create a civil democratic state that represents and respects all sects and ethnic groups in Syria.

Since the beginning of the revolution, he has been a wanted man in his homeland – state TV regularly showed his photograph during broadcasts, calling him a terrorist. His wife and mother are also wanted for “liaising with him.” 

He says he witnessed the brutality of the Syrian Army when his cousin was killed, along with three of his friends, as Assad forces opened fire on a demonstration in his hometown in June, 2011. He left Syria for Turkey a month later, crossing the border illegally with refugees he was helping.

As he sacrifices any shred of privacy and comfort he might be able to enjoy in his modest home, Saed says he’s just doing his part to help those trying to defeat the Assad regime.

“It is a human duty to try and do what’s right,” he said. “The bright side is that I am helping. I want to die defending something I believe in.”