Syria in Exile

Over Eid al-Adha in September 2015 the Turkish-Syrian border opened to allow around 50,000 Syrians to cross to spend the holiday with their families. It had been closed for nine months. Some travelled from Aleppo, Idlib and even Hama; others from Turkey’s Hatay, Kilis and Gaziantep provinces. They passed en masse through the crossing points of Bab al-Salama and Bab al-Hawa and dispersed to the towns and villages of northern Syria and the relative safety of south-eastern Turkey. For those 50,000, it was a rare hiatus in the otherwise unremitting civil war. Ten days later they returned and the border closed, slicing a people in two once again.

War is complex and fraught, opening rifts in families and communities and leading to people being left behind. Sometimes the causes are practical or circumstantial: grandparents too old to move remain in Damascus as their children and grandchildren depart; siblings become separated in flight and finish up in different countries or even continents. But all too often politics makes its way insidiously into relationships that might otherwise be defined by more binding, familial values. ‘Whatever is going on in Aleppo, crossing the border is worse,’ says Mahmoud, a Syrian journalist and activist now living in Turkey.

The civil war has not only provoked physical separation but has hardened borders where before they may have been soft and navigable. These go deeper than marks on a map, the many lines of control of regime vs opposition vs Daesh. They are religious and cultural in nature too, mirroring Syria’s longstanding Islamic and Christian traditions. These invisible divisions, the consequences of five years of bitter and unresolved enmity, are in themselves a form of hidden violence and mental suffering. Moreover, they stand in contradiction to the ideals of freedom, justice and dignity for which the Syrian revolution began.

My work as an employee of Adam Smith International is part of a cross-border effort to bolster the structures of government in opposition Syria and thereby make the case that moderate, fair civilian government can succeed. In this undertaking I work alongside dozens of highly impressive young Syrian men and women. Backed by the UK, US and other European governments, we channel advice and funding to councils, the police, health services and education providers. The intention in the short term is to maintain a modicum of structure and stability for people living in terrible circumstances. But in a wider sense, we are offering an alternative to the dictatorship against which the revolution erupted and the extremism into which it has declined.

Turkey serves as temporary home to over two and a half million Syrians out of an astonishing 11 million who have left their homes. The daily sequence of barrel bombs, Russian air strikes, shifting front lines and assassinations has put constant pressure on this number. In January and February alone a further 130,000 people have fled the combined Russian, Iranian and regime onslaught.

Most Syrians are concentrated in Turkey’s south-east, in the rapidly modernising towns of Gaziantep, Adana, Antakya and Sanliurfa. Close to 400,000, a similar number to that which Europe absorbed in 2015, have made their way to Istanbul. Gaziantep, where I work, a conservative, provincial town known for its kebab and pistachio baklava, is home to 300,000. It seems an unlikely place of exile. A cluster of mainly Seljuk and Ottoman-era mosques and souks around a far older citadel are surrounded by a sprawl of identikit apartment blocks springing out of brown Anatolian hills.

The better that I get to know my Syrian colleagues and friends, the more I find myself in awe of the extraordinary experiences, losses and reconciliations that lie behind their everyday demeanour. I’ve observed my strengthening affinity with the revolution as the moderate causes it champions resonate ever more insistently. Alongside this awakening the contradictions between ideals and reality appear in starker relief. It is through a handful of these characters that I’ve begun to grasp the individual toll the civil war has taken.

Imad was a young paramedic with the Syrian Arab Red Crescent when the revolution began. Despite being professionally neutral at the time, observing the regime shooting protestors first hand, as he did, drove him to activism. ‘For more than eight months, we were visiting Homs every Saturday taking with us some medicine, clothes and cash to distribute. After a few months, the protests started in Damascus but were very risky and very short: about 50 people for less than three minutes was considered an achievement.’

As we talk, Imad’s normally cheerful persona fades and is superseded by an agitated air. The police came looking more often, but by then Imad had gone into hiding. Unable to track him down, they took his little brother out of frustration and revenge, who spent the next 11 months in jail. This finally prompted Imad to flee across the border into Lebanon in 2013. He saw neither his brother nor his mother and father again until they met clandestinely in Beirut for a week late last year. ‘It was so nice to see them after two years, but at the same time it was so hard,’ he says. In Syria, Imad is officially ‘missing’. His parents report him as such every time the regime comes knocking.

Alaa is from Aleppo. A diminutive figure with thick, wiry hair, watery eyes and a nervous air, he’s part of a group I meet in the garden of Topkapi Sarayi, a restaurant with strong Syrian connections on a non-descript Antep street. His extended family has been split down the middle by prior allegiances. Uncles, aunts and cousins, tied by politics and business to the regime’s survival, have remained loyal and chose to persist in the regime-held, western half of the city. He and his parents, appalled by Assad’s brutality in the early chapters of the war, rebelled and fled into exile. They are now scattered across the Middle East.

In the summer of 2015 Mahmoud took me to Olabi Café in Gaziantep, a gathering place for young Syrians known not only for its nargileh and punchy, cardamom-infused espresso but for its genesis in Aleppo. The city hosted some of the earliest protests against the regime in 2011 before fighting intensified in 2012. When the owners of the original business left, they simply took it with them, setting up shop again across the border. ‘Antep is like a little Aleppo,’ says Mahmoud, lighting up a cigarette. ‘Many of us have ended up here. People from Idlib go to Hatay and Istanbul is full of Damascenes.’ Olabi Café is one of a number of Gaziantep joints that act as common ground for the Syrian community in exile, a locus for conversation and shared reference.

I had met Mahmoud in Istanbul via The Times’s Turkey correspondent. Tall, languid and with an infectious smile, he featured in a forthcoming documentary about Syrians in Turkey called In Between Nowhere. At the time he had recently spirited away his wife from the regime side of Aleppo into Turkey. ‘It was fated that the girl who I love was still living in the area under regime control. We could not meet.’ Mahmoud’s a wanted man in Aleppo so they held a discreet ceremony with both their families before returning to Turkey. Unable to cross legally, they were forced into making a terrifying dash in the night through no man’s land and under the fence, at risk from trigger-happy border guards or landmines.

He’s now based in Gaziantep and sends money back to his parents and seven siblings in rural Aleppo. Like so many families, they have opted for the safety of the countryside after their house in the city’s Salahaddine district was destroyed by a regime barrel bomb. ‘I caused a lot of anxiety and trouble to my family since I made my decision to participate in demonstrations.’ He’s been arrested twice by the Assad regime and kidnapped three times by armed groups.

The scale of the dislocation visited upon individuals is emblematic of the corrosive and difficult fault lines that increasingly scar Syria’s society. I haven’t met a Syrian yet who isn’t proud of Syria’s plural society, admiring of its history and committed to its territorial integrity. Over an apple nargileh Mahmoud recalls the excitable patriotism of two friends of his, former adolescent fighters for the Free Syrian Army now studying politics in Gaziantep: ‘We must go back! We must rebuild!’

Many elements of Syrian society took part in the initial peaceful uprising against the regime: Sunnis, Shias, Christians, Druze, Yezidis, Alawites and others. ‘We did not have any slogans or sectarian goals,’ says Mahmoud. Christian and Druze friends of Imad also participated in protests beside him. Some members of Orthodox or Catholic denominations went on to join military brigades and fight alongside the Free Syrian Army.

‘Unfortunately, after the war [began] we started to hear the word “minorities”,’ says Imad. Many of the dozen or more communities that have inhabited Syria for centuries, living alongside each other and the majority Sunni Arab population, have faced impossible choices. The Druze community in the country’s south struggles to maintain its neutrality. The Kurds in the north have, at one time or another, opposed almost all the warring parties, taking whichever side they must to enhance their autonomy, and currently acting in concert with the regime. They still provide some protection for Yazidi and Christian groups in territory that they control, and Assyrian Christian militia have often fought alongside them against Daesh.

Many have nonetheless, even if reluctantly, chosen regime stability over the upheaval of revolution. Today Assad’s Syria may offer something approaching a safe haven. The Alawites, of which Assad is one, almost rely on the regime for their existence. They face an armed opposition that voices support for the revolutionary ideal of Syria but which, year on year, adopts more and more of a Salafi slant in its doctrine and ideology. Powerful Islamist and extremist fronts, some backed by Turkey, Saudi Arabia and Qatar, have joined the ranks of the secular brigades that dominated the fighting in 2011 and 2012. The middle ground of the armed opposition in 2016 has a distinctly Islamist flavour. The longer the war persists, the less faith Syria’s minorities seem to have in a country that can really embrace them. In Imad’s words, ‘some [friends] chose to support the government as they thought the regime will protect them from the terrorists’.

The overriding and most lasting effect may be one of homogenisation, the culmination of a trend observable throughout the 20th century as the Levant has gradually been depleted of its non-Muslim minorities. Before the war, Aleppo housed the largest Christian population in Syria, belonging to an intricate array of Greek, Syriac and Armenian Apostolic Orthodox and Melkite, Maronite, Armenian, Syrian and Chaldean Catholic churches. In September last year, the city’s Chaldean Bishop Antonio Audo estimated the number had fallen by over two thirds to not much more than 50,000. In the same month the Melkite Greek Patriarch Gregorios III Laham lamented publicly that chaos and fundamentalism were driving his congregation away and urged people to stay. The last Jews of Aleppo, an old lady and her two daughters, are reported to have left for Israel. There are just 18 Jews left in Damascus of a people resident in the Levant for 2,500 years.

In January I see Mahmoud again, this time in Topkapi Sarayi. ‘The minorities made the right decision to be neutral. They do not support Assad but they do not want the Islamists either. They have a place in the future of Syria. They must remain. Syrians are secular, not Islamist. They have seen the armed groups and Daesh. They do not want that. Ahrar al-Sham and Jaish al-Islam do not represent the resolutions and aspirations of the Syrian people. There will be no Islamism in the Syrian government.’ It’s quite a speech and I want to believe it. But I can’t help thinking that it’s not only the minorities that have reason to be concerned. Many secular Sunni Syrians opposed to Assad are justifiably suspicious of a rising Islamist voice. Beyond statements of ideology, no single party to the conflict has yet been able to prove with any confidence that their vision of the new Syria will really be for all Syrians.

‘When we go back to Syria, after the war, we will see all these places again with our own eyes, places that now only exist by name on a map.’ Mahmoud says he will go back ‘strongly’ to Aleppo, to begin the process of rebuilding his broken land. So too will Imad, to Damascus, as will many millions of Syrians in exile, streaming across borders to reunite with families and past lives.

That chance to return may seem remote, with a state in pieces and trust between all sides near non-existent. The tragic divisions running through the country will persist for some time yet. Nevertheless, the recent cessation of hostilities and opening of humanitarian access allow for a modicum of hope. Encouraging signals are emerging from world capitals and momentum may be building for a wider ceasefire, paving the way in turn for negotiations in Geneva to resume. Syria’s transition and reconstruction will undoubtedly need all the education, experience and passion that returnees can muster. More complex will be adapting to a new society and healing the fractures of the past. It is in this space, perhaps, that the values embodied in the early spirit of the revolution will be most sought after.