GAZI ANTEP, Turkey — On the second day of a UN-backed diplomatic gathering last week to end the war in Syria from offices in Geneva, Syrian civil society activists huddled in a pale hotel in the Turkish town of Gazi Antep to talk about building peace.
Yet outside the workshop the talk focused on the continuing carnage, bloodshed, and starvation of a Syrian war with no end in sight.
“The situation inside Syria is bad and each day it is getting worse,” said Mahmoud, who asked to use a pseudonym given the security situation inside the Aleppo suburbs where he is living with his family. “People are waiting for the international community to stop this war.”
While Western leaders convene in cities across Europe to talk about the bloodshed in Syria, the pace of devastation on the ground has quickened and the places to which Syrians can safely flee the war enveloping their country have been strangled even further.
Tens of thousands of Syrians are now massed on the Turkish border, trying to escape airstrikes and fighting all around them. If the world is not able to end the war, or even to open its borders to Syrian refugees unconditionally, the very least the world can to do now is fight to create a safe zone for mothers and fathers to flee to with their children. So far, the international community’s dueling priorities have prevented a durable ceasefire and those on the ground say Russian air strikes are making aid even harder to secure.
“They were in their houses,” Mahmoud says of eight family members he says were killed by Russian air strikes in December in his hometown west of Aleppo city. Mahmoud, who was in college when the war began, pulled out his smart phone to show video he says he shot as he ran to look for his relatives in the wake of the strike, the sound of his breath heavy and short. When he gets to where his family’s house stood, the video shows only a hole in the earth.
“Just a huge hole,” he says, from his perch in the Antep hotel as he points to the spot in the video where the house should have been.
“It is very strange how the Russians started killing us,” Mahmoud says. “We didn’t kill them and now they are killing us.”
His story is hardly unusual. Russian air strikes are among the first things you hear when spending any time among Syrians constantly monitoring what is happening to family and friends via What’sApp and Facebook. YouTube videos are played and the carnage people are witnessing is discussed.
The Russians have denied their air strikes are causing such devastation. Responding to comments from German Chancellor Angela Merkel that Russian bombs were forcing civilians to flee their homes, a Kremlin spokesman said that “despite a huge number of such statements, no one up to now has presented a single [piece of] credible evidence as proof of these words.”
But back in southern Turkey no one is questioning what they are seeing on the ground each day. Mahmoud, the twenty-something activist whose face looks wiped clean of youthful exuberance, shared his skepticism about the peace process that began that morning, Like many of his fellow democracy organizers, he expresses a wizened and war-weary pessimism born of crushed expectations and the world’s disinterest in his country’s war.
“I don’t think there will be any resolution during Geneva, especially after five years of war, but for civil society and civilians, if they could just stop the shelling and air strikes that would be great for us,” he says.
His skepticism was well placed. That day, UN Special Envoy for Syra Staffan da Mistura stood outside in the sleeting Geneva winter and announced peace talks would be suspended until February 25. The reality was they barely got started while Syrian President Bashar al-Assad’s regime played for time and the opposition insisted on an end to the air strikes and sieges of rebel-held towns. Assad agreed to neither. Still, Mr. da Mistura insisted the diplomatic pause was “not the end” of the talks.
The Americans agreed. A tweet from the U.S Embassy Syria account read: “#SecKerry: SyriaTalks have not failed. They’ve interrupted while modalities of #HumanitarianAccess & potential ceasefire are worked out.”
Come Thursday, Russia, Iran and the U.S. will be among those countries meeting at the annual Munich Security Conference to forge a way forward for humanitarian aid, even as the Syrian government, backed by Russian forces, scores further gains on the ground. All eyes now go to that Germany meeting to see if some of the fighting can be stopped or slowed enough to allow additional humanitarian relief as the number of displaced grows by the tens of thousands.
For the world’s sake, let’s hope Munich offers a breakthrough on the humanitarian front, or at least a chance for Syrians inside their country to see a break in fighting. Without international action, Syrians will continue to be injured and killed and forced into flight. And the world will watch the number of refugees knocking on its doors in search of an escape from the brutality, hunger, and bombing climb even higher — if they survive.