“We have not forgotten Syria”: US envoy pledges to protect refugees


HATAY, Turkey — Family bakery Alaa Aldin could have fallen victim to Syria’s civil war. Instead, he has become a symbol of what US officials describe as the resilience of refugees trying to survive a conflict many fear they have forgotten.

The three brothers Ahmad, Iyad and Bassam Alaa Aldin decided to relocate the company in 2013 to escape the violence that has since rocked their hometown, Idlib. With their wives and children, they crossed the border and opened a gleaming new bakery in the southern Turkish town of Hatay, in a neighborhood now teeming with Syrians and reminiscent of pre-war Damascus. Their 25 employees are also Syrian refugees.

“What this shows for me, and for the world, is that refugees can contribute to a country,” Linda Thomas-Greenfield, the US ambassador to the United Nations, said this week at the bakery, in front of piles of pistachio rolls and baklava dripping with honey.

“The message they heard from me is that we haven’t forgotten about Syria,” she said as the brothers stood nearby.

It was also a pointed message to the Turkish government, which wants to send many of the 3.7 million Syrian refugees back to the country across the border.

In an already strained economy, many Turks blamed refugees for accepting lower wages so they would be hired for the limited number of jobs available in the country. Diehard politicians have long accused Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan of having an open-door policy which they say has allowed “an invasion” of Syrians, Afghans and others fleeing conflict.

Mr. Erdogan has promised to return at least some refugees, and this week he threatened a new military offensive in Syria against Kurdish fighters, in part to clear a safe passage for the return of refugees.

The United States has criticized Turkey’s planned assault, which targets Kurdish fighters in northern Syria in a conflict long before the civil war that began in 2011. On Wednesday, Secretary of State Antony J. Blinken warned that a Turkish incursion would further destabilize the region.

It could also force more Syrians to flee, as could the possible closure of a road the United Nations uses to deliver food, water, medicine and other supplies to millions of people in the province. from Idlib, in northwestern Syria.

Peace talks led by the United States and Russia have been deadlocked for years, underpinning a decade of human devastation and diplomatic disappointments.

After 11 years of war, Syria has become a shining example of what can happen in a conflict with no end in sight, like the one that began 100 days ago in Ukraine.

“The global reach is missing,” said Ammar al-Selmo, a member of the White Helmets, a relief organization that operates in rebel-held areas in Syria, mainly in the northwest of the country.

“There is no action against Syria,” he added, “and I am very sorry to say that this war has moved to Ukraine – the same tactic of war, which is happening in this moment in Ukraine, the same suffering.”

“What happened in Syria is a repeat of what happened later in Ukraine,” al-Selmo said.

Ms Thomas-Greenfield spent two days in Hatay this week and traveled to the Syrian border to assess the potential fallout if the United Nations were forced to end its aid deliveries to Idlib in July, as anticipated many diplomats and aid workers. Already, UN officials are emptying their warehouses to stockpile aid in Syria in case Russia vetoes an annual Security Council measure that would allow deliveries to continue for another year.

Russia, benefactor of President Bashar al-Assad of Syria, has accused international aid deliveries of violating Syria’s sovereignty while supporting extremists in Idlib. In a recent interview, Russia’s Deputy Ambassador to the United Nations, Dmitry Polyanskiy, raised doubts about the continuation of UN deliveries, given that the sticking points on the mission over the past years had not ironed out only in last-minute negotiations with the United States. .

Diplomatic talks between the United States and Russia have all but ceased since Moscow invaded Ukraine in February. But Ms Thomas-Greenfield said she would try to reopen talks with Russian diplomats at the UN to preserve the aid – and to ensure that Moscow does not use it as a bargaining chip with others nations to gain weight in Ukraine.

Mark Cutts, the UN relief coordinator for Syria, said the humanitarian aid operation was the largest in the world, with more than 56,000 truckloads of life-saving supplies delivered since 2014. As many as four million people in Syria – including around 1.7 million living in tents – are receiving supplies that are being delivered to Idlib, the last major rebel enclave in Syria and an area that has also become a haven for al-Qaeda-linked extremists.

“Nobody should have to live in tents for more than a decade,” Mr Cutts said. “And we are already not providing the necessary assistance.”

Ms. Thomas-Greenfield put it more bluntly. Without help, she says, “babies will die.”

On the Turkish side of the border, known as Point Zero, Hatay Deputy Governor Orhan Akturk said the amount of aid appeared to be lower than in the past. The UN mission “should be extended”, he said. “It’s important, given the alternative.”

The United States and Turkey, both NATO members, have formed an uneasy alliance over the past decade as Mr Erdogan has sought to stifle political opposition and free speech, drawing condemnation American. The belief among many Turks that the United States played an obscure role in the failed coup attempt against Mr Erdogan in 2016 has fueled tensions.

Both countries oppose Mr. al-Assad’s grip on power but are bitterly divided over Kurdish fighters in northern Syria. Turkey views them as terrorists, but the United States views them as partners who helped push back the Islamic State.

More recently, Mr Erdogan blocked Sweden and Finland from joining NATO, aligning himself with Russian opposition to expanding the military alliance.

Ms Thomas-Greenfield spoke on Thursday with Sedat Onal, a Turkish deputy foreign minister. A description of the conversation, released by his office, said the two men agreed on the importance of maintaining UN aid in Syria. He also noted US opposition to the upcoming Turkish offensive against the Syrian Kurds.

Human rights advocates have for years accused Mr. Erdogan of expelling refugees, in violation of international law, and relocating them to areas in Syria near the border where Turkish forces have driven out Kurdish fighters.

In an interview later Thursday, Ms Thomas Greenfield said it was “hopeful wishful thinking” for Turkey to try to justify the return of refugees to so-called safe areas where many Syrians have not never lived.

She added, “Refugees will determine if it is safe for them to return.”

Mr Erdogan’s government has already started building around 100,000 brick houses in Idlib for returning refugees and other Syrians in a process Turkish Interior Minister Suleyman Soylu said last Wednesday that it would be voluntary. Mr. Erdogan has also pledged to build schools and hospitals in Syria to encourage refugees to return voluntarily.

“We are not going to leave humanity alone. We are not going to turn our backs on our neighbours,” Soylu said in the Turkish capital Ankara on Wednesday. But, he said, “we know that it is not possible for us to transport another wave of migration”, and he accused Western governments of not offering solutions.

In Hatay, Mohammed Faisal, 67, said he could not return to Syria.

He survived 15 years in prison for speaking out against the Syrian government and another four years of civil war before escaping to Turkey in 2015, where he feels safe.

People still living in Syria are “in a very difficult situation”, said the man, who did not want to be identified by his full name for fear of reprisals.

Without international help, he said, “you can consider these people dead.”

Safak Timur in Istanbul contributed reporting.


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