They camp out nightly on the verandah of the central mosque in this Turkish border town, dozens of men huddling under blankets – the most destitute of the more than 700,000 Syrians who’ve sought refuge in Turkey. Some have been in Turkey for more than a year, seeking work so they can send money home.
They yearn to return to their villages and cities inside Syria, even if they’re in ruins from government bombing and shelling. But not if Bashar Assad remains in power.
The men, aged 15 to 36, are a tiny sliver of what is currently the world’s biggest humanitarian catastrophe, but they are one of the main reasons the U.N. opened peace talks in Geneva last week under U.S. and Russian co-sponsorship. As many as 9 million of Syria’s estimated 23 million population are either internally displaced or refugees abroad.
Their tales of family deaths and the destruction that they ascribe to Assad and his military helps explain why a peace deal is not around the corner. Assad partisans inside Syria are as adamant that Assad must stay, saying he stands between them and al Qaida-affiliated groups that are part of the rebel movement.
“How can Bashar Assad lead his people again, after killing children and massacring so many people?” asked a man who identified himself as Homsi, 23, and said he was from the besieged city of Homs. He gently chided a visiting reporter for holding the interview in Turkey. “Don’t care about us. Our situation isn’t so bad compared to those inside the ancient city of Homs,” he said. “Some of them are dying of hunger.”
Three of his brothers were “martyred” by Assad forces, and every Sunni Muslim family in Homs had lost children, he said. “We are ready to fight, even if there is no salary. If we had weapons, we would join the Free Syrian Army,” he said.
No one of the dozen men who joined the conversation took issue with that point.
The men sleeping in the open here are in worse straits than most refugees. They are excluded from Turkish refugee camps because they are single. The jobs they can get as undocumented workers in the fields or factories won’t pay more than 15 Turkish liras ($6.80) a day, not enough for a room, which might cost 350 Liras ($160) a month.
“Most of us don’t have 10 Turkish lira ($4.50) in our pockets. We go to a bakery at night to beg for bread,” said Mohan, 20, who fled here from Kfar Rouma, near Idlib, after two of his brothers were killed in the fighting and there was no one left to feed the family.
“Umm Ahmad,” 36, the mother of six children, aged three months to 16 years, is now living in an unfinished, unheated store front.. She yearns to return to her farm in the Alghab Plain, outside Hama, where she and her husband grew cotton and sugar beets. Her house was destroyed in December 2012, her husband had a heart attack, and regime snipers then made it impossible to work the land, so she fled with her children fled to Reyhanli, where she had a cousin.
The “mother of Ahmad,” as she asked to be called, had heard of the Geneva talks, and said she hoped God would help resolve the issues. “I am ready to go back to Syria and live in a tent,” he said. “The only thing is I don’t wish that he should stay in power. How can we forgive what he has done?”
The Bakkar family, from Kirkat in Hama province, who were about to be evicted from the unfinished house where they’d been living rent-free for about six months, but they had a similar view. They live on food packages provided by a Turkish charity, and electricity donated by the town of Reyhanli. Khalid Bakkar, 38, a former government employee, said he had lost five relatives, one of them in mid-January when he was shot while driving across a back road to avoid a government checkpoint. “I think Geneva will change nothing,” he said. “They want to give power to Iran and keep Bashar as president.”
As far as he was concerned, the only acceptable deal was that “everything related to the Assad family must go.”
The destruction and the killings have permanently scarred a great many Syrians and alienated them from the regime. Others are in a state of shock – or terror – over the seemingly random massacres of civilians who just happened to enter a regime checkpoint at a moment when security personnel decide to grab them. Professional prosecutors and forensic experts who defected from the government on Wednesday revealed the first results of an investigation into one of the biggest such massacres – the deaths of 220 people killed outside Aleppo starting in late January 2012. Their bodies were thrown into the Qwig River.
The gruesome photographs presented at an Istanbul news conference showed that most of the victims had their hands and feet bound, many bore signs of torture, and a number were emaciated, having apparently starved before they were killed. Executions were mostly by hanging or a shot to the head.
The victims were aged 11 to 70, and included five women, whom the investigators said had been raped and tortured before they were killed.
Forensic investigators were able to identify 60 of the corpses, and all appeared to be locals from villages north of Aleppo who were living in opposition-held areas and were going to their jobs, unarmed, in regime-held areas.
“All the victims were civilians,” said Niccolo Figa-Talamanca of the No Peace Without Justice, an advocacy group founded by Emma Bonino, Italy’s current foreign minister, which helped in the investigation.
“They included vegetable sellers who crossed the line of control to purchase and sell vegetables, factory workers who lived in areas not under regime control and worked in areas under control of the regime, shopkeepers and similar professions whose jobs required them to cross the line of control,” he said.
The only motive investigators could deduce was to spread fear. “Throwing the corpses in the river was to terrorize the population,” said Abdulkader Mandou, a human rights attorney, and co-director of the Syrian Institute for Justice, an Aleppo-based group.
In Geneva, meanwhile, negotiations between the Assad regime and the opposition, which seeks its overthrow, were still at an impasse Wednesday. There was no sign of progress in the talks installing a new leadership in Damascus, or in the U.N.’s attempt to deliver food and medicines to some 2,500 people in the besieged old town section of Homs.
“For sure, the results that will be achieved” this week “are not commensurate to the level of the crisis and the expectations of the Syrian people,” Special U.N. Envoy Lakhdar Brahimi told reporters. He compared it to a journey of 1,000 miles. “If we take the first step, that will be very good,” he said.
But he made it clear that he was in close touch with Russia, which has been Syria’s main defender at the U.N. Security Council, and the U.S., which maintains close ties with the Syria opposition. “I hope that they will use their influence with the parties,” he said.
Russia has shown its hand once, literally, according to Western diplomats. That was at the ceremonial opening of the talks in Montreux on Jan. 22, when Syrian Foreign Minister Walid al Moallem delivered a windy speech, with lurid images of the Syrian opposition as cannibals organizing rape camps. Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov showed visible irritation as Moallem spoke and was seen holding out his arm where the Syrian official could see it and tapping his finger on his watch to indicate it was time to stop.
One of the mysteries of the Geneva talks was the inaccessibility and near-silence of the United States delegation. The U.S. is a co-sponsor of the talks, but it has interacted with reporters largely through emails. On Tuesday, Robert Ford, the former U.S. ambassador to Damascus, gave his first interview – to Orient TV, a Syrian opposition channel. It seemed more a confession of ineffectiveness than a statement of determination to act, which may explain why U.S. officials waited a day before releasing a translation to reporters covering the talks.
“We strongly condemn the Syrian regime’s refusal to let humanitarian aid in” to Homs “for weeks and months,” he said. “But our efforts are continuing in coordination with the United Nations, Russia and other international organizations. These discussions are of course taking place here in Geneva, and continue until this moment.”