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For Syrians Enduring the Harsh Conditions of War, Turkey Acts as Lifeline

November 19, 2012 at 12:00 AM EDT
Syrians continue to cross into Turkey, fleeing from the dangers of what is now a 20-month conflict. For those unable to leave, Turkey has served as a lifeline for basic supplies. Margaret Warner reports from the refugee camps and internally displaced camps, where the struggle to survive remains a constant concern for civilians.

JEFFREY BROWN: And we turn to another deadly conflict in the Middle East, the Syrian civil war. According to one activist group, the battle between government forces and rebels has claimed the lives of more than 37,000 people.

Margaret Warner is on a reporting trip to the region filing stories for our website and our broadcast. Tonight, she gets an inside look at the opposition in Syria and Turkey’s role supporting it.

MARGARET WARNER: It was a reunion six years in the making. Thirty-three-year-old Syrian Oubab Khalil embraced his younger brothers last week on a street corner in the Turkish town of Rehanle, just three miles from the Syrian border.

Oubab left Syria in 2006, after his civil society activities drew a warning from President Bashar al-Assad’s government.

But from his comfortable life in Dallas, he recently engineered his younger brother’s escape. En route to their meeting, he spoke of his mixed feelings at having to meet them in Turkey.

OUBAB KHALIL, Syria: Very excited to see them, but at the same time, I cannot take, like, the back images that we’re meeting in a foreign country, in a neighbor country, not meeting at home.

MARGARET WARNER: And where was this, Majid?

Majid Khalil had been serving compulsory military duty in intelligence until his assignment changed.

MAJID KHALIL,Syria (through translator): We had to flee because the rise of the regime would have forced us to fight against the people. The orders we got were to crush demonstrations by any means possible, even if we had to run them over with cars or shoot them.

MARGARET WARNER: Wajd Khalil, who was teaching French in Latakia, felt he had to flee too.

WAJD KHALIL, Syria (through translator): Because my brother had escaped, they might arrest and torture me to get information about him.

MARGARET WARNER: Through the help of the U.S.- and Canada-based Syrian Support Group, Oubab got his brothers out to Turkey through a network of sympathizers.

Though the rebellion is often described as a conflict between Assad’s ruling Alawite sect and Syria’s majority Sunnis, the escape of the Khalil brothers, who are Alawite, tells a different story.

OUBAB KHALIL: It’s worth mentioning that the whole operation was done by Sunni. There are, like, Sunni people who risk their lives to rescue and make sure there are, like, Alawites — one of them is a defector, soldier defector in the security forces.

MARGARET WARNER: But millions are still trapped as the rebellion rages on. We traveled to the rebel-liberated zone in northwest Syria to see what 20 months of conflict had wrought.

Syrian ground forces have left, but the devastation remains. Residents get by on a makeshift economy, relying on watered-downed petrol dispensed from oil drums and locally grown vegetables for sale on a roundabout.

Many remain defiant. Friday, demonstrators of Haratan, outside Aleppo, site of a four-month battle for control, mocked Assad and called on the Arab world to help them.

But the regime’s bomber jets thunder daily overhead.

SALEH HAWA, Local Administrative Council, Haratan, Syria: When the airplane comes, children start crying and start shouting, and everybody goes to his mother or father. It’s a very, very, very bad feeling for us.

MARGARET WARNER: English teacher Saleh Hawa leads the local administration council of Haratan, a civilian group working to restore basic town services after government forces and officials withdrew.

SALEH HAWA: We had to take care of everything as educated people, as people who started this revolution against this brutal regime. So, we had to take care of electricity. We had to take care of telephones, of streets, of spreading bread.

MARGARET WARNER: The goal, says Hawa, to keep life bearable enough that people will stay.

SALEH HAWA: Without electricity, everybody would leave home. And we have to stay here to resist this brutal on — and this brutal regime.

MARGARET WARNER: For others, staying home isn’t an option. This camp for Syria’s internally displaced was built two months ago by a young Aleppo man named Farouk. We agreed to shield his face.

A Libyan benefactor bought the tents and tarps, but he’s received little assistance since then, aside from daily half-rations of food from a Turkish NGO.

Now, what’s going to happen here if you don’t get more help?

FAROUK, camp manager: I don’t know that. We are working every day. And we don’t know what happens tomorrow. If the food was finished, I don’t know what I can do. But that’s my work. And I’m so happy.

MARGARET WARNER: Why are you happy?

FAROUK: To help these people, because nobody, nobody take care of them.

MARGARET WARNER: But life is hard in the camp, especially with children; 40-year-old Kadiya Al-Darwish and her 11 were barred official entry to Turkey.

Do you have food?

WOMAN (through translator): Today, they gave us only six tiny meals of old bread.

MARGARET WARNER: And are there bathrooms?

WOMAN (through translator): For all the women in the camp, there are only six toilets.

MARGARET WARNER: And have you needed any kind of medical care for your children?

WOMAN (through translator): If a child gets sick, they prescribe medicine for us, but it’s not available.

MARGARET WARNER: One thing the camp does have, a makeshift mosque. Despite the apparent calm, anger bubbles beneath the surface.

MAN (through translator): We have no shelter, no food. There is no heat. Children are cold and getting sick. This is what Bashar and his people did.

MARGARET WARNER: What help they do get comes through Syria’s neighbors. Turkey is a lifeline for civilians and for the fighters of the rebel Free Syrian Army, or FSA. Money, guns and medical supplies all make it through official and unofficial crossings from Turkish border towns like Antakya.

Along this busy shopping street, locals here in Antakya can buy everything from clothing to fast food to cell phones. But just around this corner, down this cobblestone street, is a back alley where you can find a whole underground economy, an underground economy that helps keep the Syrian resistance going.

A Syrian activist calling himself “Abu Joudy” collects donated medical supplies from Turkish pharmacies, everything from bandages to antibiotics.

So do you feel Turkey is allowing this, enabling this?

“ABU JOUDY,” Turkey (through translator): Turkey helps my group. And when we need it, the Turkish government lets the supplies go through the border, even at official border crossings.

MARGARET WARNER: Also being sheltered in Turkey, Syrian attorney Ahmed Hassoun in Antakya. His Free Syrian Lawyers Association is documenting cases of regime atrocities for trial one day. He concedes rebel forces have been accused of abuses too, and says they will be subject to prosecution.

AHMED HASSOUN, President, Syrian Free Lawyers Association (through translator): In the future in Syria, the laws will be applied to all, regardless of their religion, doctrine or position. The Syrian people didn’t rebel against the dictator to bring another one. They rebelled for freedom, democracy, dignity and the application of the law to everyone.

MARGARET WARNER: Yet even this idealistic attorney dismisses talk from the West of a negotiated end to the conflict.

Do you think there’s a peaceful solution to the conflict in Syria?

AHMED HASSOUN (through translator): I don’t think so. Dictators don’t have a midpoint. It’s either they stay or no one else does.

MARGARET WARNER: So, what is it going to take to solve this conflict?

AHMED HASSOUN (through translator): I think the only solution is arming the organized Syrian opposition.

MARGARET WARNER: A prominent commander in that armed opposition is Colonel Abdul-Jabbar Akidi who heads the Aleppo Region Military Council. We were taken to meet him at a secret command center where he decamped after a targeted airstrike against him two weeks ago.

He outlined for us the scope of the territory his unit holds on the ground, hundreds of square miles bordering Turkey.

COL. ABDUL-JABBAR AKIDI, Aleppo Region Military Council (through translator): We are advancing each new day and winning new battles. We have almost full control of the ground, though they are superior in the air.

MARGARET WARNER: He moved his wife to Turkey for safety and is free to travel there when needed.

ABDUL-JABBAR AKIDI (through translator): Turkey is a friend and neighbor. We won’t forget this good stand by Turkey and its people toward the Syrian people. The Syrian people won’t forget any country that provided them with support and won’t forgive any country that helped the Assad regime.

MARGARET WARNER: But Akidi says he needs more from Turkey and the West: a no-fly zone and anti-aircraft weapons for his men to take down fighter jets and helicopters.

ABDUL-JABBAR AKIDI (through translator): We need the world and the international community to stop supporting Bashar al-Assad. But we are determined to overthrow this regime by any means, even if the whole world is standing by his side and supporting it.

MARGARET WARNER: Do you think the whole word is supporting this regime?

ABDUL-JABBAR AKIDI (through translator): Yes, headed by the USA.


ABDUL-JABBAR AKIDI (through translator): Because they are watching Syrian blood being poured out in the streets by this criminal regime. If a cat or a dog were killed in any place in the world, the world would react more than it did to the death of nearly 100,000 Syrians.

MARGARET WARNER: The U.S. government says they’re reluctant to provide anti-aircraft weaponry because of the fear that it will fall into the wrong hands.

ABDUL-JABBAR AKIDI through translator): This is an excuse used by the west. We pledge to the international community that these weapons will be in safe hands, in the hands of specialized officers. There are only a few extremists or jihadists, but the West is directly empowering some of them by not supporting the organized groups.

MARGARET WARNER: Meanwhile, civilian leader Saleh Hawa works hands in glove with Akidi’s FSA unit which protects his town.

SALEH HAWA: We didn’t get anything, any single, — any penny from any people.

MARGARET WARNER: What about from Western governments or NGOs?

SALEH HAWA: Well, we haven’t received anything at all. We are tired now. We are tired now of war. We are tired of shelling every day.

MARGARET WARNER: He’s not sure how long this town can hold out without Western help.

SALEH HAWA: I think not a very long time, not for a long time. Now winter is coming. We have thousands of displaced people who came from Aleppo. We don’t have anything. So I think that our ability to withstand that is very, very, very small.

MARGARET WARNER: Yet, so far, it hasn’t paid to bet against the resilience of the Syrian people. And activists like Oubab and Majid Khalil say they will continue aiding the resistance from outside.

OUBAB KHALIL: I want to reach out to the elements, specifically Alawite, that they don’t have blood on their hands. And we want to make sure that they are on the right side of history. And there are some good people in the regime that they want to cooperate and they want to work with us. And we’re going to reach out to these people.

MARGARET WARNER: Together, they hope all will be welcome in the new Syria they want to build.

JUDY WOODRUFF: In her next report, Margaret looks at the more than 100,000 Syrian refugees who have fled to Turkey.