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After years of desperation, at last there is a glimmer of hope in Syria

10 September 2016

10:29 AM

10 September 2016

10:29 AM

Sat on the dusty ground with the heat of the sun beating down on her, Nur looked exhausted. Arms wrapped around her knees, head bowed. I wondered if she had the energy to even get up again. Next to her was a suitcase and a couple of plastic bags, her whole life packed away. Three young children huddled behind her, their hands clutching at the back of their mothers clothes. Tiny, frail young lives who have witnessed conflict and terrors unimaginable. The eldest, a girl, looked up at me as I approached. Big eyes set in a hollow face stared out and through me without a flicker of emotion. 

It was a scene I had witnessed a thousand times before while covering the migrant marches across Europe. Families by the side of the road looking for the energy to take another step towards Germany, Sweden or the UK. Children unable to play as they had lost their innocence. Mothers and fathers who didn’t know how to offer them hope. But this time it was different. Instead of fleeing Syria, this family was doing something unimaginable, they were heading back home; whatever home might now be.

Just over two weeks ago the Turkish military launched an offensive dubbed ‘Operation Euphrates Shield’, the country’s first foray into the ground in Syria. Turkey had decided the time was ripe to push Isis forces away from its border with Syria and to curb the ground being gained by Kurdish forces that it so fears. It teamed up with the anti President Assad, Free Syrian Army, and within 48 hours took control of a chunk of land Isis had controlled, including the city of Jarablus, Nur’s home. 

‘I am going back,’ Nur said to me as a smile split her face in two. ‘My husband is getting the papers and then we go home.’ She gestured towards a metal blue door meters away and threw her hands in the air in thanks. She was sitting outside the check point at Karkamis on the Turkish-Syrian border and home was in sight. Nur and her family were not the only ones making the journey that day. More than 300 others passed through the border all looking to return.  Her husband returned with their documentation and moments later they and their children left Turkey.

With the hour more arrived at the border, all with their lives stuffed into suitcases or bags. I asked one man called Ibrahaim why he was going back. It’s only been two weeks since Jarablus was liberated, I pointed out to him. How did he know it was safe? ‘I don’t,’ he told me. ‘But if I don’t go now, when will I?’ Ibrahaim had been in Turkey for three and half years, one of almost three million refugees being hosted by the country. I asked him if he was with family. ‘No,’ he said and sighed. ‘I had to leave without them when Isis came.; He paused and then the tears came. Not tears of sadness, but of joy. He choked them back and with a cracked voice managed to tell me he had found out that morning his family in Jarablus was still alive. ‘Today I see them,; he said before rushing to the door. 

Another man who didn’t give his name was on his way to Manbij, a city further south in an area not yet reached by the Turkish and FSA coalition. I told him that was there the coalition was heading next, not to liberate it from Isis but to take it from the YPG, Kurdish militia forces. ‘I know,’ he said. ‘But this is my chance to see home again and I will take it.’ This was a man who was essentially walking back to the next battlefront, a man who knew he may not survive; but years of being a refugee had taken its toll and he would take the chance.

Located around 18 miles west of the Euphrates River, Manbij was recently taken by YPG forces from Isis, backed by the US. The US sees the Kurdish militia as an ally and has said time and time again it’s the only effective force on the ground in the fight against Isis. So Turkey’s ground offensive is potentially a game-changer. In two weeks the operation has cleared Isis from dozens of cities, towns and villages. The turnaround has been so quick it begs the question: why hasn’t Turkey put boots on the ground before now? And did they really clear Isis through might, or through more direct channels?

Turkey has been accused of helping Isis in the past – a claim the country’s president has denied and one that landed several journalists from a paper which published the allegations in jail. For more than a year some of Turkey’s border areas have been under regular bombardment from shells, some from Isis. The mayor of the border city of Kilis has criticised the lack of help given to people there, while some locals have accused the government of caring more for Syrian refugees than for Turks. But despite that, Turkey seemed reluctant to engage on the ground with troops. So what’s changed? 

Kurdish forces have steadily been gaining territory from Isis backed from the air by the US. The YPG now control a chunk of Syria straddling the Turkish border in the east and in the west. Slowly the two fronts have been moving towards each other as they battled Isis and won ground. The idea that those two fronts could meet has terrified Turkey. If they did, it would mean Kurds controlling hundreds of miles of the border with Turkey. It fears that would embolden Kurdish forces in its own territory, forces in direct conflict with the Turkish military in the south east of the country.

But this poses a bigger question. If Turkey supports the FSA push further south into Syria, its forces will come into direct contact with the YPG. The YPG is an ally of the US, as is Turkey. So where does that leave the US in this conflict? Washington has told the YPG that its forces must retreat back east of the Euphrates River, which means giving up Manbij. Indeed the US Defense Secretary, Ash Carter, says they already have, but Turkey is singing a different tune, as is the FSA. If the two meet in direct conflict it will be a big test for the US and who it really backs.

And this is the complication with Syria. There are so many players on the ground and internationally with their fingers in the pot, and allies are not always forged for long. The shifting dynamics of this conflict change sometimes daily, with world leaders pointing the blame at each other for its longevity. Boris Johnson, the Foreign Secretary, recently made a comment that really stopped a lot of people I know – people who have covered the war – in their tracks. He said the conflict had raged for longer than the Second World War. Yes, longer. But still there seems no end in sight. 

Russia and the US have agreed a ceasefire to begin on Monday, as Muslims will be celebrating the festival of Eid. But ceasefires have been agreed before and been broken. Whether this one will be different is as US Secretary of State, John Kerry, said, will be ‘dependent on people’s choices.’ Just because these two countries have been able to thrash out a deal, there are many others who may not subscribe to it. What is needed desperately is time to allow convoys of medical aid and food in to those areas besieged and to find a way to make a lasting peace.

The cheers and tears I witnessed on the Syrian border this week as men, women and children went home, is something to champion. Many didn’t know what awaited them, if their homes still existed, some if their families they had left behind were still alive. But after years of desperation, constantly on the move and through countries which put up fences, they finally had a glimmer of hope and they were grasping at it with both hands. Ibrahaim, Nur, her children and the others, all wanted one thing. To go home and be safe. Now who wouldn’t fight for that?

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