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Surviving the flight from Syria

What did life look like for the refugees who escaped to Turkey?

A Syrian refugee hangs clothes on barbed wire at a camp near the border in southeastern Turkey in 2016. Associated Press/Photo by Lefteris Pitarakis (file)

Surviving the flight from Syria

Veteran journalist Seth J. Frantzman writes the kind of first-hand accounts of terror-strewn battlefields that once set apart top American periodicals, before they devolved into political rags. The American-born author lives in Israel, where he is the OpEd editor for The Jerusalem Post and a Middle East analyst covering the region. Jerusalem is an exciting place to live, he says, because “it’s often at the heart of world affairs.” A childhood in Maine, where his parents ran a rural lake lodge and the family lived without electricity, prepared him to take risks and to appreciate the inner strength of people who survive Middle East conflicts. Those survivors people his book, After ISIS: America, Iran and the Struggle for the Middle East, a 2019 WORLD book of the year in the Understanding the World category. Here’s an excerpt, courtesy of Gefen Publishing House. —Mindy Belz

The Turkish border town of Kilis has a small college campus called Kilis 7 Aralik University. On the way back from narghile at an outdoor café, some Turkish female students chatted. Their hair blew in the slightly cool evening air. Then came the “boom,” “boom,” “boom.” The students asked us what it was. “Outgoing artillery,” Muhammad Misto, a Syrian journalist based in Turkey, said. Turkey had brought up T-155 Firtina self-propelled guns in late 2015 and hidden them in a field near the town. These are mobile artillery that look like tanks, with treads and a larger gun on the turret. In February 2016, they fired several 155 mm rounds a night into Syria. It gave the town the feeling of being on the front line. A rocket fired by ISIS from Syria had hit a local school in January, so in many ways the town was on the front.

Kilis was one of the main way stations into Syria during the Syria conflict. At the modern Olea Hotel in central Kilis, people whispered about ISIS spies and networks and PKK terror threat. TV shows blurred images of smoking, part of an Islamist cultural change in traditionally secular Turkey. The minibar didn’t have alcohol. The hotel said it was at full occupancy. “Journalists and intelligence agents,” whispered the night manager.

Refugees came through the town to get away from the fighting. Syrian rebels transited the town to defend areas on the other side of the border. In February 2016, when I arrived, the rebels were still trying to hold. Aleppo. The vicious battle for Aleppo would continue throughout 2016, until the last rebels left the city in December.

ISIS was on one side of the border. A great border wall was being constructed, and massive trucks carrying equally massive concrete segments of wall made their way north and south of the town. They were sealing off the border from ISIS on one side, and toward Afrin, from the YPG.

Because Kilis was a center of aid for refugees, a large presence of organizations had grown up around it. The AFAD, a large Turkish government charity, ran camps near the town. There were around 120,000 Syrian refugees near Kilis, out of a total of some three million in Turkey altogether. At the local AFAD office, a bust of Ataturk stared down on the workers in their neon-orange jackets. A poster showed the drawing of a hand with a Turkish flag helping a Syrian hand sticking out from rubble. The support for refugees overshadowed a larger dilemma unfolding at the border.

Turkey was already contemplating an operation on the other side of the wall, into Afrin Province and into Jarabulus city to clear ISIS and the YPG from the border. Ankara feared the YPG, which it viewed as the same as the PKK, would “link up” with us-backed elements of the Syrian Democratic Forces coming from eastern Syria. Tensions were high.

The concerns along the border near Kilis were a boomerang effect of the rise and fall of ISIS. When ISIS was growing in Syria, it had taken territory and some fighters from the Syrian rebellion. Turkey was not only host to Syrian refugees but also sympathetic to the rebellion. However, as the opposition groups fractured and ISIS grew, it took the wind from the sails of the rebels against the Assad regime. Soon the rebels were fighting not only each other but also ISIS. Volunteers for ISIS passed through Turkey. In October 2015, an ISIS bombing in Ankara killed 109 people. Many of the victims had been engaged in a peace march that opposed Turkey’s war with the PKK. It wasn’t clear whether the ISIS bombing was targeting only Turkey or was part of the broader ISIS war in Syria against the YPG. ISIS also targeted a Kurdish wedding in Turkey in August 2016, killing fifty-seven people. For Turkey, the conflict in Syria was on both sides of the border.

Western policy makers became increasingly concerned that the Syrian rebellion was becoming more fractured and jihadist, and less of a likely alternative force to lead a democratic Syria. When journalists were kidnapped and later beheaded by ISIS, Syria became synonymous with a tragic quagmire of death and killing. Soon some in the West saw the alternative to Assad as just as bad. Turkey didn’t share this view, but it was concerned about the reverberations from ISIS. Early on, it had not taken this threat seriously, preferring to focus on Assad. When the cease-fire with the PKK fell apart, Turkey began to view the Kurdish YPG as a threat equal to that of the PKK. It believed the two organizations were the same.

Syria became synonymous with a tragic quagmire of death and killing.

When the YPG was smaller and under siege in Kobani in 2014 and 2015, Turkey could ignore it. But once the Obama administration began to send small arms to the YPG and to use air strikes to support its war on ISIS, Ankara saw a problem developing. At the same time, the Obama administration’s role in the Geneva process opposing Assad shifted energy toward building the massive coalition against ISIS. Programs run by the C1A to arm rebel groups in Syria were reduced, and the US Congress and commentators began to question whether they had been effective in the first place.

Turkey sought to step into the vacuum. It wanted to bolster the rebels and began working with a plethora of groups, many of which had rear echelons on Turkish soil. These included groups such as Faylaq al-Sham, which became increasingly a client of Turkey. Other groups such as Sultan Murad, Nur ed Din al-Zinki and Ahrar al-Sham had good relations with Ankara. Turkey facilitated the shifting of rebel forces from their salient in Idlib to Kilis and thence on toward Aleppo. Ankara didn’t want Aleppo to fall to the pro-Assad forces. At the same time, it wanted to weaken ISIS on the border and the YPG. This was the context I drove into in the early months of 2016. The war on ISIS had boomeranged and the troubles on the border were growing.

After receiving permission to enter the refugee camp on the border, Mohammed and I drove the short ride down to the border. The border area was a hive of activity, with Syrian families crossing back and forth, trucks with aid going into Syria and journalists hovering around. A large gate framed the road. The crossing was called Bab al-Salam in Arabic. The words “Oncupinar Gumruk Kapisi” were printed above it, a reference to it being a “customs gate.” To the left were a fence and white caravans, marking the refugee camp. The camp had a capacity of thirteen thousand people and was laid out in a planned manner with caravans and community buildings. Syrian women in one of the communal buildings worked in textiles. After getting our “guest” badges and being searched for weapons, we entered the camp. On the concrete walls of the entrance there were murals, Syrian flags, a Quranic verse and photos from the days when the camp was constructed. The camp had recently experimented with two-story living quarters, the first of their kind, according to the locals. The camp also had a school, and kids were learning Turkish. In the same large building housing the textile factory for women, there was an artists’ collective.

In a classroom, men painted photos of bombed-out villages. At the end of a hallway, beyond the room with the painters, was a large room with looms for weaving. A woman in a white head scarf introduced herself as Bushra, a refugee from Syria. She said that in 2012, the Syrian army had bombed her village near Kfar Rambeh in Idlib Province. She fled to Aleppo and then to Turkey. She said most of the refugees had similar stories. They were also almost all Sunni Arabs from northern Syria. Very few Kurds, she estimated only 5 percent of the camp, had come here to stay. “They prefer to move on toward Europe.” It reminded me of Alan Kurdi, the boy who had drowned, and the Kurds I had met on the refugee roads of Eastern Europe.

The refugee camp only provided work for a small number of women. Others chose to go into Kilis to take low-paying jobs in factories. Some stayed at the camp for safety and comfort. “Those here are lucky, really,” said Ayla Cimen, a forty-eight-year-old volunteer who helps run the weaving salon. “They have everything here. At other camps they don’t have everything like we do here.” She was pessimistic about the international community’s ability to help. “They come and look around and don’t come back,” she said of Western NGOs.

The Changing Face of Syria’s Revolution

The Syrians were setting down roots in Turkey. Kids were learning Turkish, and teenagers were integrating into society. But the sounds of war could be heard in the distance. “We hear artillery and conflict at night, and we are afraid,” Bushra said. Many of the women in the camp had husbands, some of whom were still on the other side. “Many of the women who come here are tired of war, and some are psychologically damaged; you can see it on their faces.” The refugee camp had now become a home for many, and life was going on. There were weddings weekly. Seventy-five students from the camp had enrolled at the local university. Politics was never far away from the discussion. In the Turkish narrative on the border, the Syrians were being welcomed and “Turkey and Syria are one,” some said. The Syrians shared concerns about the fate of their villages on the other side. “How did Hezbollah get so strong and take over Syria?” one of the refugees wondered.

One of the men making paintings at the camp was more cynical than Bushra. Named Hassan was disappointed at Turkey’s “cowardice” for not intervening in Syria. He argued that once the Russians had intervened more heavily in 2015, Turkey was left with fewer choices. “Syrians began to feel sympathy for ISIS; they were angry at the world[’s] silence, and that’s crazy,” the man said. “It’s crazy the world would allow this.” He argued that ISIS was creating a new generation of believers in the last years, indoctrinated since childhood. They were ready to fight to the death now. “Maybe America is not interested or has a plan for Syria. In a few years, these kids will grow up and be a danger to the world; they will go everywhere.”

From After ISIS: America, Iran and the Struggle for the Middle East by Seth J. Frantzman. Copyright © 2019. Published by Gefen Publishing House. All rights reserved. Used with permission.

Gefen Publishing House

Seth J. Frantzman Gefen Publishing House

Seth J. Frantzman Seth J. Frantzman has been the op-ed editor and covered Middle East affairs for The Jerusalem Post since 2012 and is the executive director of The Middle East Center for Reporting and Analysis.


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One typo: By "1s1s" you mean mean ISIS?