Traveling Along the Turkish-Syrian Border

From March 7th to the 16th 2014 I traveled throughout Turkey, including the Syrian border region, with students and young professionals taking a course on the crisis in Syria. We met with refugees, activists, politicians, and a slew of other stakeholders. Upon my return, people asked me how it was and if I had had fun on my trip? The experience was many things but fun wasn’t one of them. While the countryside of eastern Turkey was gorgeous and my colleagues were wonderful, I met too many orphans and too many people whose lives had been ruined by the conflict to call the trip fun. According to UNHCR, 2.5 million people have fled Syria with millions more displaced within the country. A recent UNICEF report has also stated that almost 3 million children have been displaced within the country.

While I had followed the crisis in Syria prior to my trip, I only knew what was presented to me in the media. However, many Syrians believe that the conflict is not properly understood by the outside world, which is caused in large part by a misrepresentation and misunderstanding of the dynamics on the ground by the media.

Towards the end of the trip, the program coordinator presented us with a choice: we could either return home and move on with our lives or we could become advocates of change and try and do something about the horrors we witnessed. I’ve decided to take on this challenge and try to have an impact. However, I’m not a soldier, politician, humanitarian relief worker, or policymaker (yet) and so I’ve decided that presenting the situation on the ground that I witnessed, beyond the view of the media, is a decent start to helping the Syrian people.

Throughout the trip, we asked the people that we encountered what we as Americans could do. The main point that was echoed across the vast array of people we met was that we needed to give fair and adequate media coverage on the conflict. Many Syrians emphasized that the media needed to shift its focus away from religious extremism in Syria. It is not that violent extremism is an unimportant issue, but groups like Jabhat al-Nusra and ISIS are not a fair representation of the revolutionaries fighting against the corrupt and tyrannical Assad regime. They feel that the West is distracted by terrorist groups and losing sight of the fact that the main perpetrator of violence in the country is still the Assad regime. Many of the people asserted that a large number of these extremists, some of whom were released from jail by the Syrian intelligence apparatus, are tacitly supported by the regime as a means to fracture the opposition and present Assad as a more palatable (and secular) alternative to Islamist groups in a post-war Syria, should an agreement be reached. So goes the idiom: “better the devil you know than the devil you don’t.” And to those who think that it may in fact be better to keep Assad in power as a means to stabilize Syria: forget about it. We did not meet a single Syrian who felt that Assad had a place in a post-conflict Syria. I’m sure you can find a few pro-regime Syrians who differ with this assessment, but this seems to be the dominant viewpoint on the ground.

Another issue made clear to us by Syrians is that the current method for distributing humanitarian relief is not working. Aid is funneled from the United Nations Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs (OCHA) through aid agencies on the ground, such as the Syrian Arab Red Crescent. However, some of these agencies have either ties to or are pressured by the regime to deliver aid only to regime-held areas. Syrian forces frequently target aid workers that are independent of the official relief process, and being caught with medical supplies in the wrong place can mean a death sentence. As a result, many areas held by the Syrian opposition are in dire straits with little to no relief reaching them. One assistance organization we met expressed frustration in being unable to obtain sufficient polio vaccines for children because they were not one of the official agencies allowed to operate in Syria. Hopefully this will be changing soon with the UN Security Council unanimously voting to allow humanitarian aid into opposition-held areas.

The final problem that needs to be mentioned is the fighting has affected the children of Syria. While conflict affects many people, the longest-lasting impact will be made on the Syrian youth, some of which can only remember a country that has been torn apart by violence. The moments on my trip of greatest sadness or happiness involved the hundreds of children we met. The sadness comes from just seeing the trauma many of these children have gone through. Whether it was seeing them wandering around in a daze or looking at their drawings of bombs and violence, it was simply heart wrenching. There were some happy moments though and every time our group got children to smile, laugh, and play was a major victory in our eyes. But the fact of the matter is that there’s too much pain, and the violence witnessed by these children will affect them for years to come. Several of the Syrians highlighted that if Americans think there’s a terrorist or extremist problem in Syria now, then they’re going to be in for a very rude awakening ten to twenty years from now if the Syrian conflict remains unresolved. Many of these children will grow up in violence and poverty and will be susceptible to extremist viewpoints and could be easily persuaded to join violent groups in exchange for food and water.

If people should take anything away from this article, it’s that the children of Syria need help. It’s a humanitarian issue and (for any policymakers reading this out there) it’s also a security issue. Who do you think these children will direct their anger towards when the crisis is over? I can’t tell you how many times I was asked by people on the ground, why the West and the US especially, wasn’t doing anything. The Syrians, like anybody else in the world, will remember inaction.

To end this post on somewhat of a high note, I came away with a very important discovery. Superheroes do exist in this world. They’re not men of steel, dark knights, or super-powered mutants, they are Syrians who have made it their mission to save people at great risk of their own lives. Sadly, I can’t heap praise on anyone in particular because naming individuals would be a sure way to get them killed, but to all those who have braved the checkpoints, dodged the patrols and bombs and gunfire just to get some medical supplies in or refugees out, I thank you from the very bottom of my heart.

Photo by Russell Watkins/Department for International Development/ CC BY 2.0 

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