Amal Hanano and Yakzan Shishakly
A Syrian man from Homs used to run a tiny felafel stand in Reyhanli, Turkey, to support his family. He had fled the violence at home and lived in this Turkish town near the Syrian border.
Since twin car bombings hit the town on May 11, killing over 46 people – including Turkish citizens and Syrian refugees – and wounding over 100, the man has been nowhere to be found. His felafel stand was outside the smoking video frames and chaotic images frantically being shared across social media sites.
Responses to the attack varied. The media focused on the latest episode of violence and its regional repercussions. Ankara condemned the attacks and blamed the Syrian regime. The Assad regime then blamed Turkey for sheltering Syrian rebels. Meanwhile, many Syrians’ eyes were on the screens, looking for loved ones, like the man from Homs, horrified that this safe haven had become as dangerous as the land across the border.
Reyhanli has become a vital hub for aid organisations to funnel emergency humanitarian and medical supplies into Syria’s northern, liberated areas that still suffer from both constant bombardment and extreme shortages of basic necessities such as food, water and medicine. Reyhanli is also a main artery of aid for tens of thousands of displaced Syrians (IDPs) stranded in makeshift, under-served camps along the border. These IDPs settled into a life of misery, reasoning that at least this area was safe. Or so they thought.
For Syrian Americans who provide aid while living abroad, there is a separation of realities between attempting to alleviate the devastating humanitarian crisis on the ground and watching the endless discussions of “red lines” in the media. Analysts and politicians ask: were these lines crossed already? And if they were, what’s next?
Outsiders deal with the question of chemical weapons or the flow of Russian advanced weapons to the regime in the abstract – through the prism of strategic interests. But while they crunch numbers and predict scenarios, we know that an influx of hundreds of thousands of people fleeing the threat of “small scale” chemical weapons attacks will be catastrophic.
Over 5 million Syrians are internally displaced or refugees – almost a quarter of the country’s population. According to Oxfam America’s president, Raymond Offenheiser, Syria’s humanitarian crisis numbers compare to historical crises like Darfur’s. To those who manage IDP camps, each number is an additional mouth to feed, another tent to erect, another child without a school. Each number is a red line to Syrians, a line that has been crossed over and over again.
For many months, experts have warned of the spillover of violence from Syria into neighbouring countries: Lebanon, Jordan, Iraq, Turkey and of course Israel. But Syrians have watched the reverse spillover of violence into their country from all of these countries.
Over the last two weeks, hundreds of Hizbollah militiamen along with Assad regime forces have launched a massive attack on the town of Qusayr, in Homs. These “resistance” fighters seem to have no problem slaughtering civilians and fighters alike. Families in Qusayr have been trapped for days with no access to humanitarian relief and no way to escape. Yet this escalation seems to cross no red line.
Syria has become the regional catastrophe that the president, Bashar Al Assad, promised it would become during the early days of the peaceful uprising. It is the catastrophe Mr Al Assad and his allies constructed out of brutality, a catastrophe exasperated by an impotent political opposition, regional meddling and international silence.
There’s a Syrian joke about a man walking down the street when he saw a banana peel on the pavement. He slapped his hand against his forehead and exclaims: “Wow, that’s a major fall!”
Too much time has been spent predicting the aftermath of Syria’s fall – the acts of revenge, sectarian genocide, religious extremism and warlordism. Predictions without preventions. Meanwhile, hundreds of Syrians perish every single day and the IDP camps swell by the thousands every single week.
Isn’t it time to pick up the peel and save what’s left of Syria instead of foreseeing its fall? Here’s a prediction: what the world is unwilling to pay for now, it will pay for in the future – many times over. Another one: what happened in Reyhanli on May 11 is a sneak preview of future terrorist blasts that will be exported across the region.
The worsening humanitarian crisis must be central to the “Geneva II” talks expected to take place between the regime and the opposition. Aid must flow easily into besieged areas and IDP camps on the borders. Regime air raids must end so these IDPs can return home and begin to repair their towns and communities. And yet, Russia’s veto to the UNSC’s draft resolution to stop the bloodshed in Qusayr and allow immediate relief delivery to the trapped civilians proves the exact opposite is happening.
Every minute that passes is the difference between death and life, torture and freedom, rape and safety, forced exile and home. This is the reality for millions of Syrians. The world has played the waiting game, but if it had acted instead of passively watching, Reyhanli would not have been the victim of the terrorist bombings and the man who makes felafel would not have been a missing refugee. He would have been safe, with his family, in Homs.
Yakzan Shishakly is the director of the largest IDP camp inside Syria, near the village of Atma. He lives in Reyhanli, Turkey. Amal Hanano is a pseudonym for a Syrian American writer