ISTANBUL - A bitter wind, cold rain, and the first snow of the winter swept Istanbul, a city where Syrians have sought refuge from the war next door. It was also the day it looked likely that Aleppo would fall to Russian, Iranian and Syrian regime forces, the bloodiest moment yet in the merciless conflict that has already lasted for six years.
There are 2.5 million Syrian refugees in Turkey, which has taken the largest share of the Syrian diaspora. Jordan and Lebanon have also become home for these refugees, desperate to escape carnage. The bloodshed in Aleppo received an unusual amount of attention on Tuesday, as headlines noted the rebels' defeat and the unimaginable suffering of the civilians trapped in the rubble of the world’s oldest continuously inhabited city.
“There is no future in Syria,” Abdul Rahman, 33, a Syrian refugee in Istanbul who is from Aleppo, told TRT World on Tuesday evening. “There is no life there anymore.”
Despite this grim outlook, he added, as if by habit, "Hopefully we will return."
Some Syrians in Istanbul are lucky, and others aren’t. Some hold down jobs and have managed to establish their own businesses. Others, usually women, hold babies and beg for change in the street, or sell prayer beads in wealthier parts of the city. Young children, separated from their parents, perhaps permanently, run up to cars at stop lights and try to sell tissues to drivers. A few will come up to strangers, hands out, and just say “Syria” as the reason for their need.
Abdul Rahman is one of the luckier ones. He's employed, and dresses in a suit and tie. He spoke to TRT World in a falafel shop near Taksim Square, where Syrian refugees congregate at night. It’s a place in the heart of the European side of Istanbul, similar in a way to Times Square in New York City, where the homeless are a constant presence. But these Syrians aren’t just without their own homes; they’re without their own country. In their homeland, whole cities have become bloody piles of burning rubble after years of bombardment by regime and rebel forces.
Rahman’s family, although in Aleppo, is fortunate enough to be far from the worst of the fighting, in the relative calm of a regime-ruled neighbourhood. The war has killed as many as half a million people. Assad's army, backed by Russian airstrikes and weaponry, is blamed by activists for most of the deaths, more so than the rebels or Daesh.
He blames the United States for failing to translate words critical of the Syrian regime into support for the revolution there or for the downfall of Assad.
“Syria’s finished. Libya’s finished. Palestine’s finished. Iraq’s finished,” Rahman said, citing other countries in the region that have been wracked by either civil war or foreign occupation, or both.
Over the last year, the Syrian regime, Iranian-backed militias and Russian air power have aimed their bombs and bullets at Syrian rebels. On the ground and from the air, the United States, Turkey and Kurdish peshmerga forces have taken on Daesh. But their focus has now turned away from Daesh strongholds in Syria to taking down Daesh in Mosul, the group’s hub in northern Iraq.
Lost in the shifting geopolitical calculus have been civilian adults and children, like those now living on the streets of Istanbul. Some of the children have lived their entire lives during the civil war, which has claimed as many as 400,000 lives, although estimates vary.
The fall of Aleppo won’t change much for Syrian refugees in Istanbul, no matter how lucky or unlucky they are. But news from the frontlines is a reminder of the nightmare that they have escaped.
“It is the worst feeling. Not just for Aleppo but for humanity,” he said.
Dahan blames Syrian regime leader Bashar al Assad for the war.
“What would you say to Assad, if you could?” I asked Dahan.
“You are an animal. You are worse than an animal. You belong in jail or on the gallows,” he said.
The only way Assad can make amends is by leaving power, Dahan said.
I asked him if it would be alright if I took a picture of his hands, and not his face – the Assad regime, and its allies, do not forget or forgive. Dahan agreed. His wariness about privacy betrayed a measure of hope still left.
“Maybe one day I will go back.”
AUTHOR: Wilson Dizard