Dear Praying Friends,
Hello. The article out of the New Yorker Magazine below was sent by a praying sister. It is a very good explanation of the situation in Gaziantep and the region regarding the Syrian conflict.
Gaziantep, a city in southern Turkey some forty miles from the Syrian border, has become a bustling hub at the center of the Middle East’s latest conflict. It’s a destination for spies and refugees, insurgent fighters and rebel leaders, foreign-aid workers and covert jihadists—all enmeshed in Syria’s multisided war.
I recently drove to one of Gaziantep’s upscale neighborhoods, an area of pastel apartment blocks with balconies, and took pictures of American Patriot-missile batteries on a nearby hillside. They were pointed at Syria. The missiles were deployed, last year, to defend against Scuds fired at rebel militias by the government of Bashar al-Assad. (Several Scuds had struck close to the border, and occasional artillery shells landed in Turkey.) Now the fighters of the Islamic State in Iraq and al-Sham, a.k.a. ISIS or ISIL, are also just across the border, less than an hour away. During an inspection visit in October, NATO’s Secretary-General, Jens Stoltenberg, told American troops manning the missiles, “Your mission is more important than ever.”
Until this summer, when ISIS began seizing large portions of Syria and Iraq, Gaziantep—or Antep, as the locals call it—was best known for its baklava. The city’s 1.5 million inhabitants have thrived as Turkey’s economic boom during the past decade brought rapid development to the Anatolian hinterlands. The Forum Mall, which opened last year, has a Popeyes, an Arby’s, a KFC, a McDonald’s, a Burger King, and a Starbucks. In October, “Fury,” with Brad Pitt, played at the cinema. I watched a red Lamborghini as it roared down a wide boulevard.
For years, Turkey maintained cordial relations with Syria—the shared border is five hundred miles long—as part of a “zero problems with neighbors” policy. In 2008, President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan, who was then Prime Minister, welcomed the vacationing Assad family at an Aegean resort. But not long after the Syrian uprising began, in 2011, Erdoğan declared, “It is not heroism to fight against your own people.” He urged Assad to step down, “for the welfare of your country, as well as the region.”
Since then, Turkey has done more than any other nation to harbor Syria’s political and military opposition. Gaziantep is now home to the nascent Syrian Interim Government. Leaders of the Supreme Military Council and rebel commanders of the Free Syrian Army are regular visitors. The United Nations runs aid missions from Gaziantep, as do several other international organizations and a number of businesses.
Gaziantep is particularly important to the United States. Washington closed its Embassy in Damascus in early 2012, and most American aid operations involving Syria are now directed from southern Turkey. The American effort includes three billion dollars in humanitarian assistance, such as food and medical aid, not only to refugees but also to Syrians inside the country. The United States has spent two hundred million dollars on everything from garbage trucks and ambulances to communications gear in order to prop up local councils struggling to provide essential services in rebel-held areas. An additional ninety million dollars has gone to equip armed opposition groups with nonlethal matériel, from trucks to ready-made meals. But there is no U.S. consulate, or even rented diplomatic office space, for American officials in Gaziantep, because of perceived dangers.
For more than two years, Turkey allowed entry to thousands of foreigners, from dozens of countries, who ended up crossing the border to fight alongside the rebels. Young men disembarked at Gaziantep’s little airport and drove down the road to join the war. Some of them were Turks, including lawyers, students, merchants, even government employees. Earlier this year, though, after ISIS began attacking rebel groups and seizing Syrian territory that the rebels had liberated, the Turkish government clamped down; it claims to have deported a thousand would-be European jihadists and put six thousand others on a no-entry list. Even so, during the past two months, hundreds of men—and a few women—have reportedly crossed the frontier to join the jihadists.
This summer, ISIS was widely believed to have penetrated Gaziantep. In October, police, in two separate raids in Gaziantep Province, seized twenty-nine suicide vests, three hundred and thirty pounds of C-4 explosives, grenades and other explosives, and Kalashnikovs. Americans in Gaziantep have been warned that ISIS operatives are tracking the activities of Westerners. U.S. officials remain in the city only a few days, or even a few hours, as they carry out their missions. A senior State Department official who was visiting the city told me that if he came under attack there his only option would be to hide under his hotel bed.
This fall, U.S. officials came to Gaziantep to brief Americans working for nongovernment agencies. The advice was blunt: Keep a low profile. Don’t gather in groups in public places. Don’t wear sports or university insignia that would advertise nationality. Stay away from Starbucks.
“Gaziantep is a workaday city, not a cosmopolitan place, even though it’s prosperous,” a young employee of an American contractor based there told me. “Now it’s been thrust into this weird world spotlight—as if Oklahoma City were suddenly on the front line of some international conflict.”
One morning in late October, I drove from Gaziantep to the border overlooking Kobani, a Syrian town that ISIS has besieged since mid-September. Until then, the place was known mainly for its Ottoman-era train station, as a stop on the Berlin-Baghdad railway. Local lore claims that its name comes from the Germans who built the railway—from Kompanie, for “company,” or Bahn, for “train.” The town that grew around the station, of some forty thousand inhabitants, attracted Armenian Christians escaping genocide in the early nineteen-hundreds, and, later, ethnic Kurds.
Kobani’s railway line became a boundary in the 1916 Sykes-Picot Agreement, with which the British and the French secretly divvied up the Ottoman Empire during the First World War. Eventually, Kobani was allocated to what would become the new state of Syria, and everything to the north went to Turkey. The borders on the map were arbitrary then, and ISIS is determined to destroy them now. By taking Kobani, it could extend its proclaimed Islamic Caliphate right up to the Turkish border. The siege of a once-obscure town didn’t attract much attention until the United States launched its first air strikes, in late September, transforming what had been a footnote in the war into a test of American might against the jihadist onslaught.
On a rocky hilltop on the Turkish side of the border, photographers, journalists, and Syrian refugees often gather to watch as Kurdish fighters battle ISIS for control of the town, a few hundred yards below. I sat next to Hamid Muslim, an eighty-four-year-old Syrian Kurd. His cane lay beside him. The air around us was noisy with the buzz of warplanes, spy planes, and drones, mostly American, punctuated by bursts of automatic rifle fire and mortar explosions.
Hamid pointed with his cane toward the western part of Kobani, where he had lived and run a vegetable shop. “We closed the door and left everything behind,” he said. He had come to see what was still standing. Other refugees passed around an old pair of binoculars to check on their homes. Many were simple cinder-block buildings. The fighting, often house to house, even room to room, had caused vast destruction.
The first U.S. air strike of the day hit just before noon. We could feel its impact up on the hill. A charcoal-colored cloud mushroomed over the town.
Hamid wasn’t impressed. “It doesn’t seem like they’re really striking ISIS,” he said. “If they were, like this”—he picked up a large rock and pounded it repeatedly against a stone on the ground—“then ISIS wouldn’t be there anymore. They’re only hitting empty places—and not very often.”
There were four other air strikes on Kobani that day, as part of Operation Inherent Resolve, as the U.S. effort is officially known. A communiqué from Central Command said, “The destruction of ISIL targets in Syria and Iraq further limits the terrorist group’s ability to project power and conduct operations.”
The air strikes against Kobani—more than two hundred and ninety so far—have been costly: a Tomahawk cruise missile runs about $1.2 million, not including the fuel, crew, and deployment of two American warships in the Persian Gulf and the Red Sea from which they are fired. U.S. warplanes have dropped munitions, including Hellfire missiles, at about a hundred thousand dollars apiece, and Small Diameter Bombs, at thirty thousand apiece.
As for the warplanes, operating a B-1 bomber costs fifty-eight thousand dollars an hour. F-15E fighter bombers exceed thirty-nine thousand dollars an hour. And the new F-22 Raptor, used for the first time in combat against ISIS in Syria, costs three hundred and fifty million dollars—plus sixty-eight thousand dollars an hour in the air.
Central Command reported that the five air strikes that day hit seven vehicles and one building occupied by ISIS. The air strikes were almost certainly hitting a lot of American matériel, too. ISIS’s artillery and tanks—worth hundreds of millions of dollars—were seized from the Iraqi Army, after four of its divisions disintegrated, in June.
By mid-November, the ISIS blitzkrieg against Kobani had stalled. John Allen, the retired four-star Marine general who is the diplomatic head of the U.S.-led coalition of sixty nations, told Milliyet, a Turkish newspaper, that “the situation has largely stabilized” in Kobani, and that “ISIL will find that it is not going to be successful there.” Unlike the Iraqi Army, the Kurds had mostly vintage arms, but they refused to cut and run. ISIS suffered heavy casualties—reportedly more than six hundred fighters, with bodies left rotting on the ground for days. Its communications were also disrupted, its mobility restricted. A top State Department official predicted, “We’ll get rid of ISIL sooner than people expect.”
Yet, as I could see from the hilltop, ISIS still held sections of the depopulated town. It outgunned the Kurdish militia. It adopted new tactics, too. With multimillion-dollar surveillance aircraft circling overhead, its fighters ignited piles of tires, spewing thick plumes of black smoke that obscured their movements. A black ISIS flag billowed in the wind atop a building in the heart of the town.
“Syria is the most complicated war in the Middle East in the last one hundred years,” Anne Patterson, the Assistant Secretary of State in charge of Middle East policy, told me after she returned from Gaziantep. Later, in an e-mail, she added, “The Syria crisis defies simple solutions. But we have an obligation, based on our national-security interests in the region and as leaders of the international community with humanitarian obligations, to help bring it to an end.”
The United States wants a friendly government in Syria. Although Syria has limited natural resources, it has long been at the Middle East’s strategic crossroads. Its borders—with Turkey, Iraq, Jordan, Lebanon, and Israel—give it leverage that Damascus has been able to exploit for political purposes. Syria’s ethnic and religious diversity also makes it vulnerable to exploitation by regional sectarian powers. An end to the war and a political transition in Damascus could have more of an impact in the Middle East than the ouster of Saddam Hussein or the Arab Spring uprisings in Tunisia and Egypt.
“Syria, by itself, is not actually worth much,” Steven Cook, a fellow at the Council on Foreign Relations, said. “But it’s been at the center of every strategic issue: the Arab-Israeli conflict; stability in Iraq, Lebanon, and Jordan; Iran’s influence; and Arab political unity.” He went on, “Since its own war started, Syria has become the vortex. The conflict has every pathology in the region—extremism, foreign fighters, proxy wars, great-power competition, sectarian violence. And now it’s sucking in everyone else on its borders.”
Syria has been the most divisive foreign-policy issue within the Obama Administration. During the President’s first six years in office, he seemed determined to keep a low profile in the Middle East, fulfilling his campaign promises to end the U.S. occupation of Iraq and wind down the war in Afghanistan. In 2012, he resisted intense pressure from a powerful quartet—Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, Defense Secretary Leon Panetta, the C.I.A. director David Petraeus, and the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, Martin Dempsey—to provide arms and training to Syrian rebels.
Disagreements over policy grew so deep that two top Syria specialists at the State Department quit. “To me, it was obvious that that strategy wasn’t working,” Robert Ford, the most recent U.S. Ambassador to Syria, told me. He agreed to stay on through the acrimonious diplomatic talks in Geneva, last January and February, between Assad aides and the opposition. “But then I could no longer defend the policy. It was beginning to stain my personal integrity.”
As recently as August, the President was publicly skeptical of giving the rebels military assistance. With “respect to Syria,” he told the Times, the idea that arming the rebels would have made a crucial difference has “always been a fantasy. This idea that we could provide some light arms or even more sophisticated arms to what was essentially an opposition made up of former doctors, farmers, pharmacists and so forth, and that they were going to be able to battle not only a well-armed state but also a well-armed state backed by Russia, backed by Iran, a battle-hardened Hezbollah, that was never in the cards.”
Frederic C. Hof, a former State Department special adviser on Syria, who resigned in 2012, told me that “Obama has seen Syria as the problem from hell. There’s no magic bullet, and there is no fairy dust, so he has just wanted this problem to disappear from his in-box.”
Obama had authorized humanitarian and nonlethal aid to the Syrian opposition in the spring of 2012. Two dozen Americans are now part of the Syria Transition Assistance Response Team, orSTART. The program is operated primarily by teams rotating in and out of Gaziantep. A State Department official who has worked on aid programs in war zones and natural disasters told me, “This is the toughest assignment I’ve ever had. We’re trying to provide help to brave Syrians to keep their communities running, but we can’t go inside to make sure that it’s working. We’re doing our best in very dangerous circumstances, sometimes remotely.”
More than two hundred thousand Syrians have been killed in the war. More than ten million—almost half the population—have fled the country or been forcibly displaced from their homes. More than half of the refugees are children, according to UNICEF. “The scale of the human tragedy in Syria is among the most brutal of any conflict since the end of the Second World War,” Raul Rosende, who is the deputy U.N. humanitarian-aid coördinator for Syria, told me. Turkey has taken in 1.6 million refugees, including three hundred thousand in Gaziantep; more cross the border every day. At the Arin Mirxan camp, near Kobani, I found more than three thousand people squeezed into four hundred gray tents. Kids, who were idling in dirt alleys, raced over to talk to me through the wire fence; there’s little else to do. It was one of four new camps within a few miles of one another, established since the assault on Kobani.
At least three million Syrian children are no longer in school. “We fear this will be a lost generation, not only because they are not in school but because a lot of the new gangs will turn them into criminals or extremists,” Fawaz Mahmoud, the Syrian Interim Government’s deputy minister of education, told me. “It’s like the ground. Whatever you seed, you will grow. And the ground in Syria is horrible right now.”
For aid workers, the risks are extreme. Abdul-Rahman Peter Kassig, a former Army Ranger who had served in Iraq, returned to the region in 2012, as an emergency medical technician, to help Syrian refugees in Lebanon. In mid-2013, he moved his aid organization, SERA, or Special Emergency Response and Assistance, to Gaziantep. On October 1, 2013, he was abducted byISIS after he drove an ambulance packed with medical supplies across the border en route to Deir Ezzor, in eastern Syria. He was beheaded by ISIS last month. Two other aid workers, David Haines and Alan Henning, both British, were beheaded earlier in the fall. The lone American still reportedly held by ISIS, a woman, is also an aid worker.
American aid has produced ethical dilemmas as well as risks. Aid earmarked for local councils had been going to four northern Syrian provinces—Raqqa, Deir Ezzor, Aleppo, and Idlib—where rebels had taken significant territory from Assad’s forces. This summer, however, ISISseized much of Raqqa and Deir Ezzor.
The losses sparked a debate in Washington, but the aid continued to flow in. “The questions have been: Are we enabling ISIS?” the senior State Department official told me. “Are we giving them sufficient aid that they can use their money to buy more guillotines? And would we starve people without food aid? It’s a tough conversation. It gives you a stomach ache.”
Around ten or fifteen per cent of the three million Syrians living in ISIS territory are surviving on international aid, according to Orhan Mohamad, the executive director of the Assistance Coördination Unit, run by the opposition and headquartered in Gaziantep. “There is the humanitarian concept and the political concept—and they clash with each other,” he said. “If we send food baskets to this area, it helps ISIS politically. But if you judge it by humanitarian values it is keeping a family alive. So it’s guilty-guilty. It is the Devil’s choice.”
The fate of U.S. humanitarian aid to the Syrian opposition mirrors the loss of American military equipment to ISIS. As the jihadists swept through northeastern Syria, they seized fire trucks, garbage trucks, ambulances, generators, water tanks, and rescue equipment that had been provided to local councils. The Islamic State’s takeover also put an end to U.S. stipends to pay for local schoolteachers. “We haven’t had a good day in a long time,” the senior State Department official said.
Administering aid from Gaziantep complicates accountability. Last December, Islamist fighters (not aligned with ISIS) seized warehouses in Atmeh, just inside Syria, containing a million dollars’ worth of American supplies. Washington suspended nonlethal aid to the rebels for six weeks. It also dismissed the Supreme Military Council as its chief conduit of aid to the rebels and selected its own group of a dozen or so Free Syrian Army commanders to channel the matériel.
One day, I drove to the nearest border crossing, at Kilis. The line of eighteen-wheel semis waiting to pass through the big steel gates was five miles long. Most Turkish truckers, once they get across, transfer their goods to Syrian drivers. And then, as one Turkish driver put it, “Who knows?”
The American government requires multiple forms of verification that the goods reach their intended recipients—via G.P.S. devices, pictures from destinations, signed receipts, and third-party reports. But Mohamad estimated that only sixty to seventy per cent of international aid gets to intended recipients. The rest is lost to scams and schemes by warlords, gangs, criminals, truck drivers, and even the needy, who apply for aid from multiple groups and then set up little businesses to sell off the surplus.
“A lot of aid is being sold, both in regime-controlled and opposition-controlled areas,” Assaad Al Achi, who works with the local coördination committees, told me. “You see it all the time on the streets in Idlib and Aleppo—canned food, flour, medical kits. Some still have logos from the World Food Program or Doctors Without Borders.”
U.S. officials downplay the problems, emphasizing the scope of need. “That always happens—stuff leaks out, people sell it,” Patterson said. “Look, you make a decision to give humanitarian aid, and on the broadest possible scale, and that’s what we’ve done here, and we can debate that, but, fundamentally, that’s what has been decided—to give it to anyone who is hungry.”
“It’s a war,” the senior State Department official said. “If some of it leaks to other Syrians, it’s fine. I say, ‘Don’t overreact when something goes wrong.’ ”
The premise of U.S. policy toward Syria is that the rebels need help in continuing to hold territory. The goal is to put sufficient pressure on Assad to eventually get him to meet the opposition at the negotiating table. “No one believes there is a military solution to this problem,” a senior Administration official told me. “We want to rebalance the situation on the ground. It’s not by making them”—the rebels—“militarily stronger, so that they can then march in and take over Damascus. We don’t believe that is how the story will end. We just want to insure that the regime can’t defeat the opposition.”
One evening in Gaziantep, as I was having coffee in the Divan Hotel, a new high-rise, the lobby began to overflow with burly men, their bodyguards, and Turkish secret police. More than two dozen rebel commanders of the Free Syrian Army had shown up, unannounced. Some were in silk suits. A paunchy commander-cum-sheikh wore a religious robe. Another commander wore a sweatsuit and a white Adidas cap; he held an iPhone tightly in his hand.
They were all from Aleppo, Syria’s largest city and commercial center before the war, and they had gathered for an emergency summit because of rising panic about Aleppo’s fate. “Kobani is just one little point of Syria, but Aleppo is the economic center,” Mohammed al Obeid, a captain in the Tawhid Brigade in Deir Ezzor, told me. “It’s sixty per cent of our revolution. If Aleppo is lost, it will be regarded as the biggest loss of the revolution.”
The main threat to Aleppo is not from isis. Syria is the battlefield of two related conflicts. The first pits the Assad regime against rebels who emerged from a domestic popular uprising in 2011. The second pits the original rebels against extremist rivals, many of them non-Syrians, as in Kobani. As the world focussed on ISIS’s advances, the Assad regime escalated its offensive against opposition forces around Aleppo. In the past three years, Assad’s security forces have used most of the arms in their arsenal—missiles and chemical weapons, helicopter gunships and heavy artillery, even gunboats off the coast. They have also been using barrel bombs: do-it-yourself devices, which cost little and are made from oil drums, gas cylinders, or water tanks. Barrel bombs can be filled with all kinds of material: shrapnel fashioned from metal scraps, or nails and nuts and bolts, with chemicals, like chlorine, and nitrate fertilizer as an explosive to deliver payload. They are usually dropped on civilian areas from helicopters. They terrorize those they don’t kill.
If Assad’s forces succeed in encircling Aleppo, cutting off access to the highway to Turkey, the city could be starved into submission, as has happened elsewhere. “Abandoning Aleppo would mean condemning Syria to years of violence,” the French Foreign Minister, Laurent Fabius, warned in an op-ed in the Washington Post last month. “It would mean the death of any political future. It would mean exporting Syria’s chaos to its already vulnerable Iraqi, Lebanese and Jordanian neighbors. It would mean the breakup of the country to be delivered up to increasingly radicalized warlords.”
One of the commanders at the emergency summit in Gaziantep was Sheikh Tawfiq Shahabuddin, who heads the Nureddin Zengi Movement, named for a legendary Syrian ruler during the Crusades. A big man with a beard, Shahabuddin wore a red-and-white kaffiyeh and fingered a set of dark-red prayer beads. “The situation is more dangerous than ever before in Aleppo,” he told me. “We want help from American airpower. We need them”—the U.S. and its allies—“to strike the strategic sites of the regime, not just ISIS. We asked Congress and nations in the coalition to create a no-fly zone.” He added, “Otherwise, our efforts are wasted.”
The Free Syrian Army, which maintains a logistics office in Gaziantep, is not so much an army as it is an often dysfunctional umbrella for an array of militias, each with its own loyalties and commanders. The militias are named for martyrs of an area (the Idlib Martyrs’ Brigade), historic figures (Nureddin Zengi), religious tenets (Tawhid, or the Oneness of God), or political goals (Hazm, or Steadfastness). The F.S.A. was the largest alliance of Syrian rebels, but it has been eclipsed by more radical Islamist factions, such as Jabhat al-Nusra and the Islamic Front. More than a thousand militias, insurgent groups, warlords, and armed gangs are currently competing on the overlapping battlefronts. There’s been a lot of switching teams, too, depending on pay, local victories, and access to arms and ammunition.
At their peak, the rebels numbered more than a hundred thousand fighters, but only thirty to fifty thousand were affiliated with the F.S.A. The rebels have a strategy only in principle, with little operational coördination from town to town, and scant weaponry to defend against Assad’s airpower.
“Slowly, slowly, slowly, F.S.A. factions are being sucked into warlordism,” Achi, of the local coördination committees, said. “The main problem is that F.S.A. brigades were interested in liberating their village neighborhoods. But once they did that they sat and did nothing. They weren’t really interested in doing more.” He went on, “So groups, and even citizens, are becoming much more local about what is happening on their perimeter. Nationalism is completely dying. You’re going down to the smallest form of groupings. People now are going to their pre-civil-war identities—ethnic, sectarian, and so forth.” The F.S.A. is outnumbered by Assad’s security forces and outgunned by ISIS, which has about fifteen thousand fighters in Syria and the enormous benefit of the captured U.S. weaponry.
Before the war, the Syrian Army had three hundred thousand men and women, but its roster has been severely depleted by those who have deserted, defected, or been killed. Assad now relies primarily on his core National Defense Forces, comprising more than fifty thousand personnel; his Air Force; paramilitary thugs, known as shabiha, or “apparitions”; and thousands of fighters from Lebanon’s Hezbollah.
The Pentagon, in an effort to build up allies on the ground, announced plans in September to train a new force of five thousand fighters with more sophisticated arms and tactics. The force is supposed to grow to fifteen thousand during the next three years. But the men have to be thoroughly vetted, so the program is not likely to begin until next year.
The C.I.A. has been running its own covert operation to train Syrian rebels, with support from Gulf countries. The United States has coöperated with Saudi Arabia to fund the training program, just as it did in the eighties to support the mujahideen anti-Soviet resistance in Afghanistan. The program has been personally brokered by the agency’s director, John Brennan, a former station chief in Riyadh, who speaks Arabic and has made several trips to the Gulf to negotiate details. A few hundred rebels have been trained to operate TOW anti-tank missiles. The C.I.A. is reportedly training four hundred fighters each month in secret camps in Jordan and Qatar. Small groups returning to Syria have had some success in the south, around Deraa, where the uprising against Assad began, and in sabotage attempts against the regime’s military.
Haitham Afisi, the deputy chief of staff of the F.S.A., dismisses the new American efforts to aid the rebels. A colonel who defected after thirty years in Assad’s Air Force, he has met with several U.S. officials, including Senator John McCain.
“It’s four or five months before they start, and then another four or five months to train,” he said. “The delay in the new force will allow the regime to advance. We face a real danger of losing the two provinces left, because now we are between ISIS and the regime, and they are gaining ground. So a lot of people will die. A lot of places will be destroyed. And there will be many more refugees this time.” He paused. “We have become just numbers—not people,” he said. “Numbers of dead.”
Syria’s political opposition is also fragmented. The Syrian Opposition Coalition, which has more than a hundred members, sits in Istanbul, and is deeply divided, both politically and by regional sponsorship. (Saudi Arabia and Qatar, in particular, compete for influence.) Local-council activists accuse it of being out of touch with realities on the ground.
The coalition, in turn, elects the Syrian Interim Government, whose Prime Minister and cabinet are headquartered in Gaziantep. This year, they moved into an elegant four-story building, with wraparound balconies, on a leafy boulevard. “It looks like the Embassy of Switzerland!” Bassam Al Kuwatli, a Canadian-Syrian who moved to Gaziantep to help the opposition, said to me. “They should be working out of containers, like they do on gas and oil fields, and not wearing ties. People come from inside Syria, people who hardly have any food, and see all that luxury. It’s costing them politically.”
The interim government’s Prime Minister, Ahmad Tomeh, was first elected in September, 2013, and was dismissed, along with his cabinet, in July, 2014. He was reëlected in October, but only after Saudi-supported coalition members didn’t vote. The coalition also brokers the Prime Minister’s cabinet, which is currently a caretaker body and has involved nasty politicking among the factions.
“Each party wanted a piece of it, so they’ve created a dysfunctional body,” Assaad Al Achi told me. “The minister of culture comes from a democratic background, and the minister of industry comes from the Muslim Brotherhood. They simply won’t talk to each other.” Tomeh is aligned with the Syrian Muslim Brotherhood and with the Qataris, who gave sixty million dollars to keep the interim government functioning. In July, one of its senior officials absconded with ninety thousand dollars allocated for its justice ministry.
“The Syrian opposition has failed, time and time again, to deliver a sustainable form of leadership,” Achi said.
Prime Minister Tomeh, a former dentist and political prisoner, acknowledged as much when we met at his office. “We as the opposition have made our mistakes,” he said. “We have not yet been able to learn the culture and very concept of democracy. One of the major illnesses that hit us after fifty years of dictatorship is that we lost the spirit of teamwork.”
I mentioned that people in his government are often criticized for sitting the war out in Gaziantep or Istanbul, rather than making their way back to Syria to govern in rebel-held areas.
“Oh, definitely our wish is to be inside Syria, but the security circumstances are very harsh,” Tomeh said. “We are always saying to the international community, ‘Before you blame us about why we’re not in Syria, why don’t you help us create a safe zone?’ ”
The opposition has long pressed for a no-fly zone, several miles deep, in northern Syria. The Obama Administration has so far rejected the idea. It would mean a major military operation against the Assad regime, which could be long and costly, even after clearing out radar, command-and-control centers, and forward military positions. (Enforcing the no-fly zones in northern and southern Iraq after the first Gulf War cost the United States billions and, even after several years, did nothing to help the Iraqi opposition topple Saddam Hussein.)
The U.S. has refused to directly fund the interim government until it establishes a presence inside Syria. What concerns Washington is that no consensus opposition leader has yet emerged who can replace Assad. “Two generations of Assad rule have left Syrians without alternative leaders who can help guide them out of this terrible crisis,” a senior U.S. official told me. “There are no Nelson Mandelas, no Lech Walesas.”
One Friday, the beginning of the Muslim weekend, I went to the Original Aleppo Restaurant, a favorite hangout of Syrian refugees in Gaziantep. The pillars are painted pink; the tables are red plastic and chipped. A photograph of Abdullah Faris, the owner’s young son, was hanging on the wall. He was killed by a missile in Aleppo in 2012, as he was talking by cell phone with his father.
The restaurant was filled with men between their late teens and their mid-thirties. Some had fought in Syria; only a few were fighting now.
“The revolution did a good job at first, but now everyone is fighting each other,” Ahmed, a nineteen-year-old barber from Aleppo, said. He wore a brown leather jacket. As he talked, others gathered around. They all had tales of how a rebel militia had disintegrated or been corrupted. Factories in opposition-controlled areas were raided, the goods taken to resell. Businessmen were extorted, effectively paying ransoms up front to avoid being taken hostage.
“The F.S.A. has lost a lot of trust,” Ahmed said. “People who once supported it don’t even know who the real F.S.A. is anymore.”
Many young Syrians who once took to the streets to protest Assad’s rule have lost the will to fight. The men complained that idealism was being replaced by disillusionment with profiteering warlords and petty politics. “The big problem in Aleppo is not weapons,” an opposition official who travels in and out of Syria from Gaziantep said. “For the first time, we don’t have enough fighters, because they’ve left or died, or we weren’t able to recruit. There are enough weapons to liberate the whole city. But there are not enough men.”
I asked the men in the restaurant whom they now supported.
“No one,” Ahmed replied.
His friend Abdul Hamid Jamal, who had fought with the Tawhid Brigade in Aleppo, pulled up the sleeve of his hoodie and showed scars from where he’d been shot in the elbow. Now he’s among a growing number of part-time or occasional fighters.
“A lot of people have lost at least one member of the family—they’re tired of the war,” he said, adding, “They’re less interested in fighting, because of the losses. That hurts the ability to fight either ISIS or the regime.”
I asked Ahmed how long he thought he’d be in Turkey.
“Maybe forever,” he said.
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