As news began coming in last weekend of an impending siege around Aleppo, media crews gathered outside the border crossing, south of Kilis in Turkey, ready to document tens of thousands of Syrian refugees fleeing the advancing Assad regime.
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But the Turkish government refused to open the crossing and the television cameras had to make do with pictures of shut gates and occasionally a supply truck driving in or a wailing ambulance, carrying wounded Syrians who were allowed through, driving in. The Turks issued contradictory statements on their sticking to their “open-doors” policy while claiming that there after accepting millions of refugees, there simply was no room left.
On Monday, a slightly built man, wearing a well-cut jacket, fancy tie and polished shoes arrived at the crossing. He introduced himself as a minister of the Syrian National Council and was about to deliver a statement. His Turkish minders ordered him to wait, until the representatives of the loyal Turkish media, angry that he was only going to talk in Arabic, received the text in advance in Turkish. When he was finally allowed to speak, he praised all the Turks had done for the Syrian people. “We don’t want to flee from Syria” he said. “That is what the regime and Russia and Iran want us to do so they can change the demography”.
In a conversation afterwards, Juma al-Bakri insisted on paying more compliments to the Turkish government and blamed the international community for abandoning the Syrian people. “They are now offering us 10 billion dollars in aid money,” he complained. “But the money can’t save us from death.” He got in to his car and sped back to the airport to catch the flight to Istanbul.
“He’s like all the politicians who haven’t been inside Syria in a long time,” said a Syrian doctor who was just leaving the crossing for his temporary home in Kilis derisively. “They only know how to talk and are one of the reasons for our tragedy.”
After two straight days of seeing patients at the clinic across the border, the doctor just wanted to shower and sleep and wouldn’t speak much. “I just carried out six emergency procedures, and I’m a gynecologist,” he said, showing the blood on his trousers. “The Turks say they are taking care that a humanitarian crisis won’t take place on the border but just the last night two old people died from exposure.” He fell asleep in the car until the end of the journey.
There are no agreed figures on the number of Syrians forced to leave their country since the war began nearly five years ago, but relief organizations are speaking now of over 7 million. A third of Syria’s population is in exile. The world usually pays attention only when those refugees try to make their way to Europe but the reality of exile is much more palpable in the Turkish towns near the border.
In Kilis, the population has doubled since the Syrians came. In Reyhanli to the west, 70 percent of the town is now Syrian and most of the signs are now in Arabic. In Gaziantep, the large city an hour from the border, a walk down the street means being surrounded by Syrian beggar-children. In Beirut, the capital of Lebanon where over a million of refugees have also arrived, it’s even worse.
Not all the refugees are penniless. All levels of Syrian society have been transplanted to Gaziantep. Across the city are hundreds of offices of Syrian parties, relief groups, representatives of rebels who Turkey has a complex relationship with. Young men and women fill the local university, aware that they won’t be able to return home to complete their studies. A government in exile. An opposition in exile.
Even the Syrian fast-food chains have opened branches in the bustling Gaziantep shopping centers. On Wednesday, in a branch of Serjieh, a chain offering a mix of fried chicken and shwarma, young men huddled downstairs, families upstairs in the conservative Aleppo fashion. While eating, they were all hunched over their smartphone screens, watching a video that had been uploaded that morning to the web from the phone of a Shi'ite fighter, killed by the rebels north of Aleppo. In the video, the young fighter and his friend, before they were killed, are seen boasting that “we are conquering Aleppo, not the Syrians. There are no Syrians here.”
On Thursday, the Syrian Center for Policy Research published new figures according to which 400,000 people have been killed in the Syrian war and another 70,000 died from hunger and disease caused by the war. Nearly 2 million have been wounded and the average life-expectancy, which was 70 on the eve of the war, has plummeted to 55. Until now, most sources used the United Nations assessment of 250,000 dead, but the UN stopped counting a year and a half ago. The world has lost interest long ago. For a moment it seemed that it may take notice this week, with the siege on Aleppo, once a city of 2 million, Syria’s largest. But that doesn’t seem to be happening.
The forces besieging Aleppo will not try to capture it. Tens of thousands of fighters who have hardened by over four years of fighting for their homes are determined to defend their city and now every corner and rooftop of its ancient alleyways. Even a large and advanced army would emerge from such an urban warfare operation with hundreds, perhaps thousands of casualties. The ill-trained Shi'ite militias who have no experience of such warfare and are unacquainted with the city have little chance.
Abu Firas, a former Syrian army colonel and today a commander in the Shami Front, the largest rebel group fighting in Aleppo, says, “we haven’t seen on the battlefield recently any Syrian soldiers fighting for the regime. All the banners and the bodies of fighters we killed are of foreigners from Lebanon, Iraq, Afghanistan and Pakistan. We have no problem fighting them off, our men are well-trained after all these years of fighting. But they have the Russian airstrikes which make all the difference.”
Even if the forces fighting for President Bashar Assad’s regime cut off the last road leading to Aleppo, and close the last remaining kilometers in the ring of siege, the regime does not have sufficient forces to keep the pressure up for long. The rebels will succeed in breaking a way out and bringing in supplies. The local civil organizations have accumulated enough food for around a quarter of million civilians still in the city, which will last months and are meanwhile practicing growing vegetables on rooftops and digging supply tunnels. Instead of the fuel that cannot reach the city to powers it generators, they are working on alternative energy sources from waste.
Other large civilian areas in Syria, such as the rebel-held East Goutah suburb of Damascus, have withheld siege for years now. Aleppo will not fall. It will be bombarded and exhausted and as long as fighters are willing to remain, it won’t be occupied. But life there will become hell. An even worse hell than that which has existed in Syria for the last five years. And for how long can a nation live in hell?
That is, if there is still a Syrian nation.
In opposition circles, there is talk in recent months that the Assad regime has given up on recapturing most of the Syria’s territory and is now focusing on establishing “Suria al-mufida” - useful Syria. They’ve given up long ago on eastern Syria which is occupied by ISIS. The Kurdish enclaves in the north and the Druze area in the south will be allowed to remain autonomous without regime interference (no-one of course is talking any more of regaining the Golan from Israel). The regime is aiming at capturing and “cleansing” the Damascus and Aleppo districts and deepening its control of Latakia on the Mediterranean coast. That is enough to keep the Assad family regime, as a Russian client-state and an Iranian dependancy.
The regime’s main obstacle to achieving that goal is the rebel groups still controlling large areas of “Useful Syria” which continue to demand either democracy or the rule of Islam. The solution to this is carnage, exile and complete submission.
Last week, the international community’s diplomatic attempts at imposing a political solution totally failed, when the talks on Syria’s future ended in Geneva before they began. The official reason was the refusal of the opposition’s representatives to enter negotiations while Russian planes were bombing their homes back in Aleppo. Even if a ceasefire is announced at some stage, what is doubtful right now while the Russians believe they have the advantage, a “political solution” will be far from enough for a country that has lost a third of its population.
Syria has almost ceased to exist. There are enclaves and fiefdoms and an organized crime family which continues to safeguard its interests in Damascus and on the coast and a government in exile in Turkey and millions of refugees. The resilience of the people of Aleppo in face of the siege will be an indication of whether Syria can rise from the ashes.
On Wednesday evening, opposite the closed border gates, only two lonely television tripods remained of the media scrum earlier in the week. Even the Syrian refugee who had guarded the journalists’ cars for one Turkish lira each had left.