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The Syrian conflict is coming to an ugly end. Will anyone dare return home?

The Syria that emerges from seven years of conflict will look nothing like the country it was before. For the foreseeable future, Syria will remain a broken shell of a nation.
Gorentas, Turkey. Amina Abdulwahab has lost three sons and her family farm to the Syrian war. When she arrived in Turkey in 2011, escaping a regime offensive on her hometown of Jisr ash Shughur, she expected the fighting to last only a few weeks. After 7 years, she now believes she will never go home. (Photograph by Adnan R. Khan)

There’s very little Amina Abdulwahab remembers about her life before the Syrian war began. The 77-year-old says she has wiped all those happy memories from her mind. They are too painful.

But she remembers clearly what happened on June 10, 2011. It was a warm, clear day. The farm fields north of Jisr ash-Shugur, straddling the Orontes river, were lush and green with growth. She remembers it well because when her son came running to her, she was out looking over her ancestral land, thinking no matter what happened further south, she would never leave.

Her son, though, had different ideas. For six months, street protests around Syria against President Bashar al-Assad had been building in number and ferocity. In response, the regime had unleashed fury, using the full force of the Syrian army to kill unarmed civilians. From her home in Jisr ash-Shugur, Abdulwahab had heard the sounds of bombs and gunfire in the distance, and the stories of men, women and children captured by regime forces, tortured and murdered. She had three sons. All of them had joined the protests.

But on June 10, confronting the regime was the last thing on her youngest son’s mind. Khalid, 37, had come to warn his mother. The regime army was on the move, and Jisr ash-Shugur was in its sights. A few days earlier, rebels had stormed a military hospital in the town, killing a number of regime soldiers, and the army wanted revenge.

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Even before the killings, Jisr ash-Shugur’s civilians had begun to flee northeast toward the Turkish border. The word was spreading that Turkey had sided with the protesters and was allowing Syrians passage into the country. When I arrived at the border in early June that year, thousands of Syrians had already crossed over, housed in hastily constructed refugee camps. Hundreds more, mostly men, were camped out in olive groves on the Syrian side of the border, unwilling to abandon their country entirely and hoping the violence would pass quickly.

When Abdulwahab arrived at the border on June 11 and crossed over into Turkey, she was of the same mind. “I thought it would be one or two weeks, a month maybe,” she tells me. Seven years later, Abdulwahab is still in Turkey, in the same rundown village on a hillside overlooking the Syrian border. Gorentas, along with other villages dotting the Turkish countryside—Guvecci, Uluyol—were some of the first safe havens to which civilians fled at the start of the war.

Over the years, many have moved on, to nearby Antakya and other cities throughout Turkey. Millions have left the region entirely—for Europe and beyond, risking treacherous smuggling journeys by sea. Thousands have died seeking sanctuary, their bodies swallowed up by the Mediterranean. Hundreds of thousands have perished inside Syria, swallowed up by the maelstrom of its war.

But as 2019 approaches, the brutality of the Syrian war has left the rebels in disarray. Regime gains over the past two years, with Russian backing, have broken the back of the revolution. With ISIS now mostly defeated, U.S. interest in the war has waned, while leaders in Europe, struggling to contain an outbreak of right-wing authoritarianism, are searching, along with Turkey, for ways to declare the war over and send refugees home.

The war, of course, is not over yet, but the international community is starting to act as if it is. At an Oct. 27 summit in Istanbul, the leaders of Germany, France, Russia and Turkey announced the establishment of a constitutional committee that will, in theory, oversee the drafting of a new—and presumably more democratic—Syrian constitution. Reconstruction is fast becoming the holy grail for governments, like Turkey’s, that hope to cash in on rebuilding Syria’s shattered cities. To massage public opinion, Turkey’s government-controlled media has shifted its narrative, highlighting Syrians who are, reportedly, voluntarily returning to their homes.

But while the political class clamours for an endgame—what former U.S. president Jimmy Carter calls an “ugly peace,” including the rehabilitation of Assad—those who have lived through the trauma aren’t so eager to move on. For them, an ugly peace that includes the regime is no peace at all.

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Still, the war may well come to some kind of conclusion in 2019, though it will certainly not be the neat and tidy resolution Western leaders are hoping for. The Syria that emerges from seven years of conflict will look nothing like the country it was before. Communities have been shattered, the population denuded, and there is little hope that those who fled will be convinced to return home in significant numbers. Syria, for the foreseeable future, will remain a broken shell of a nation.

Back in 2011, Gorentas and its surrounding villages seemed like a good option to many Syrians fleeing the war, especially those living in Idlib. The border between Turkey and Syria had, for decades, been fluid. Like so many other borders around the world, it represented a political reality, not a social or economic one. Villages like Guvecci and Gorentas mixed with Syrian villages a few kilometres away, bound together through family bonds and shared geography.

Abdulwahab was born in Gorentas but left when she two months old. She still has extended family in the village. Much of her clan, conservative Muslims eking out a meagre existence in a vehemently secular Turkey, moved to Syria for the relative religious freedoms it offered. That was before President Recep Tayyip Erdogan and his Islamist-leaning AK Party took the reins of power in 2002, and before the tensions between marginalized Sunni Muslims in Syria and their own secular government intensified.

The irony is not lost on Abdulwahab: “My family left Turkey because the Turkish government was worried religious people were terrorists. They are still afraid of us. And now we’ve fled Syria because Assad thinks all Sunni Muslims are terrorists.”

It’s a bit of an exaggeration, but not completely off the mark. Under the AK Party, religious freedoms have been expanded in Turkey, though in recent years, a wave of terrorist attacks attributed to ISIS, including the deadly shooting spree at the Reina nightclub that killed 39, has raised fears of extremism again.

As the war has dragged on, Turkey has stepped up its efforts to prevent more refugees from entering its territory. After the massive influx from 2011 to 2015, the flow has slowed to a trickle. Turkey has erected a concrete border wall, three metres high and hundreds of kilometres long, topped with heat-sensing cameras and barbed wire. According to multiple reports, Turkish border guards have been authorized to shoot anyone attempting to cross the border illegally.

Abdulwahab says she lost one of her sons this way in late September when he tried to cross the border to visit her. Her two other sons, including Khalid, died fighting the Syrian regime.

Meanwhile, on the Syrian side of the border, there is a tiny grain of truth to the Assad regime’s claim that the rebels are terrorists. The Syrian opposition has devolved into a factionalized mess over the course of the war, with secularists losing power to Islamists and their most extreme iteration, Salafi jihadists.

Western nations and the regime itself are largely to blame: inaction during the early months of the Syrian uprising allowed radical elements and their backers—Saudi Arabia, the UAE, Turkey—to take over a movement that had, in the beginning, been led by young, secular activists. The Assad regime poured fuel on the flames by releasing hundreds of radical jihadists so it could brand the opposition as terrorists.

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Abdulwahab and her family, like the vast majority of Syrians, fall somewhere in the middle of the ideological spectrum, neither secularist nor Islamist, devout Muslims but not enamoured with the idea of political Islam. But the Turkish government—and certainly the Assad regime—see them differently. When the Syrian uprising turned violent, Abdulwahab’s sons all joined the Ahrar al-Sham, considered some of the more hardline Islamists in the Syrian war’s vast array of rebel groups. Their choice had nothing to do with ideology, she says. The Ahrar al-Sham was backed by Turkey and Qatar and rose to be one of the most powerful groups fighting the regime. It attracted some extremists to its ranks, even some fighting with al-Qaeda-linked jihadists and, on occasion, members of ISIS, but it was also made up of large numbers of moderates who saw it as the best chance for the revolution.

In August, the Ahrar al-Sham, under Turkish direction, joined forces with other more moderate rebel groups to form the National Liberation Front (NLF), in preparation for a final showdown between the regime and rebel forces. In September, a deal brokered by Russia and Turkey prevented an all-out regime assault on Idlib province, the rebels’ last stronghold. The crux of the deal rested on Turkey’s ability to convince the NLF, numbering around 40,000, to evacuate a 15-to-20-km demilitarized zone around Idlib. Turkey also promised that it would force hard-core jihadists in the Hayat Tahrir al-Sham (HTS) alliance, whose numbers are estimated to be around 30,000, including 10,000 foreign fighters, to also leave.

It was a bold move on Turkey’s part but, according to Ahmed Abazeid, a former spokesperson for the Syrian opposition, it had no choice. The alternative, he says, would have been a regime offensive, backed by Russian air power, and all the horror that would have followed.

“Turkey cannot afford another all-out war in Idlib,” he says. “It cannot afford another refugee influx, especially now that all the terrorist elements in the Syrian war are concentrated in Idlib. If they spill over into Turkey, there will be trouble.”

The deal seemed to be holding until early November. NLF fighters successfully pressured HTS jihadists to pull heavy weapons out of the demilitarized zone. Their fighters also left some areas, with a few holdouts, largely from the most radical of foreign fighters.

But then fighting between rebel forces and the regime sparked up again in Idlib’s northeast, putting the entire deal at risk. Fighters from Ahrar al-Sham who recently returned to Turkey from Syria tell me the resumption of fighting was bound to happen because the HTS was merely using the deal to give itself time to regroup.

The best Turkey can hope for now, Abazeid says, is to split the jihadists into those who want to accept a negotiated end to the war and those, primarily foreign fighters, who will fight to the death.

Turkey’s main interests, beyond preventing another refugee crisis and keeping jihadists out of Turkey, are to make sure the Kurds in northern Syria, whom they consider terrorists and an existential threat to Turkey, do not succeed in carving out an autonomous territory, and that the Syrian regime does not regain its full authoritarian status but is instead forced to concede to some form of democratic reforms.

Syrian children play in a farm field in Reyhanli with Turkey’s newly-constructed border wall in the background.(Adnan R. Khan)

For Abdulwahab and dozens of other Syrian refugees scattered around villages near the border with Idlib who spoke to Maclean’s, none of those high-level discussions mean very much. Despite the Turkish government’s recent media blitz claiming Syrians are voluntarily going home (the most recent from a pro-government news agency claimed 60,000 have returned so far), it appears the vast majority remain skeptical about the prospects of peace.

“Certainly there is a zone in the north that has been established, with the help of Turkey, that has a local administration and relative security,” says Ilter Turan, professor emeritus in the political science department at Istanbul Bilgi University. “People who have land there, or homes, may be enticed to go back. But there is no certainty that the security will last.”

Indeed, the most logical outcome, even if some kind of political solution is reached, is a low-level insurgency that will continue to dog Syria for years. Human rights groups have pointed to just such a likelihood in their criticism of Turkey’s push to send Syrians home, through either enticement or, in some reported cases, intimidation. On the other side of the coin are Syrians who have been offered citizenship, primarily those with skills and money—teachers, doctors, businessmen—whom Turkey desperately needs.

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It’s a cynical approach, Abazeid says, that places self-interest ahead of humanitarianism: “Once again, it is the poorest of the poor who will suffer the most,” he says. “People who have a university degree can submit it to the Turkish government and receive citizenship. If you don’t, you are not welcome.”

Abdulwahab, despite being born in Turkey, doesn’t qualify for citizenship because both her parents were Syrian nationals at the time of her birth. And as a poor farmer with an elementary-school education, she doubts the Turkish government will offer her citizenship. She has family in Syria still—a daughter just across the border—but she refuses to go back as long as the Assad regime remains in power.

She would like to make one last visit though, she says, to visit the graves of her three sons. From Gorentas, it would be a 15-minute drive, but because the border there is sealed, she has been told she will have to drive to the official border crossing in Reyhanli then loop back to Jisr ash-Shugur’s countryside, a 150-km journey that she says will take her six or seven hours. At her age, she has neither the energy nor the money to make that kind of trip.

And after seven years in exile, trapped in the purgatory of a war she never expected to last as long as it has, Abdulwahab says she has very little hope of belonging anywhere. For her, Syria may be a stone’s throw away but it has become a world—and a lifetime—apart.