Wassim dreams of life before the war. A 30-year-old finance major turned foot soldier in Syria’s civil war, Wassim once fought to topple Syrian President Bashar al-Assad, “dreaming of a million opportunities for a new Syria.”
But the former fighter in the opposition Free Syrian Army was forced to flee Syria six months ago, when fighters of the Islamic State routed his unit in the eastern Syrian city of Deir al Zor.
“These days, I dream of what we had before this terribleness began,” said the stocky, soft-spoken Wassim, who now lives in a sparsely furnished apartment in central Istanbul.
The first tremors of revolt shook first Syria four years ago this month, when mass street demonstrators erupted against Assad’s rule. The conflict has since morphed into a sectarian war with heavy foreign involvement, costing more than 220,000 lives, the UN estimates.
“Call it an anniversary if you like, but the war today is not the same war as in 2011,” said Wassim, who asked that his last name be withheld. “Today, the Islamic State has draped its flag over the revolution. Now the color of resistance is black.”
Sitting in the courtyard of a 15th-century tomb one mild winter afternoon in Istanbul, Wassim recalled the early days of the conflict, when he served in Syria’s national army, passing along intelligence to Syria’s lightly equipped rebels.
The contours of that conflict were vastly different from Syria’s war today. As armed resistance to Assad grew in early 2012, the United States talked openly of regime change, anticipating Assad’s downfall.
Recep Tayyip Erdogan, then Turkey’s prime minister and now its president, suggested that Turkey’s military might establish a buffer zone across northern Syria, if the number of refugees on Turkish soil surpassed a “psychological limit”
“I thought, ‘the world won’t ignore our struggle’,” said Wassim. “I was wrong.”
A US-led coalition launches daily airstrikes on Syrian territory, but it is targeting ISIL fighters, not the Assad regime. The number of Syrian refugees on Turkish soil has surpassed 1.6 million
, but Ankara has long shelved plans for a military incursion into Syria.
On the streets of Istanbul, nearly 300,000 Syrians now seek employment, food and shelter, according to Amnesty International
“If you spend one day in Istanbul, you’ll see how our war is no longer in Syria. Our war is one of survival here,” said Sasha al-Aloul, a Syrian journalist who moved from Damascus to Istanbul eight months ago.
The city’s historical peninsula, where he and Wassim share a small, two bedroom apartment, maps out the suffering of Syria’s refugees, says al Aloul.
In contrast to Wassim and al Aloul’s comparative affluence, destitute refugee families huddle in the shells of half-demolished buildings in the nearby district of Süleymaniye, tarps stretched over broken windows against the rain and snow.
A short bus ride in the opposite direction is the Aksaray district, where crowds of Syrians hand over their savings to smugglers, hoping to secure a perilous sea journey to Greece and Italy.
“More than anything else, Syrians cried for dignity when they rose up in 2011,” said Aloul. “Looking at Istanbul, I see more disparity, less dignity than ever.”
Wassim looks hopefully towards a group of Syrians who have thrived in Istanbul, opening radio stations, restaurant chains, and export firms. In late 2014, the Istanbul Chamber of Commerce announced that 860 Syrians businesses were registered in the city. Half, it said, had been registered in 2014.
The former combatant hopes to join that new wave, highlighting his finance degree in his search for an accounting job.
From the first day, we have called our uprising a revolution. But an uprising needs an ideology and clear leadership to become a revolution. I am disgusted to say this, but the only people who have these things are the Islamists.
Late last year, Ankara granted Syrians the right to legally seek work in Turkey. Syrians can also apply for a seat in Turkey’s public universities without taking the arduous entrance exams that Turkish nationals must pass.
But language barriers remain, and Turkey’s national unemployment figures has climbed into the double digits since the start of 2015.
Still, Wassim dismisses the idea of travelling to Europe, and fears returning to Syria.
In early 2013, he defected from the Syrian military, joining a the Free Syrian Army militia in his hometown of Deir al Zor.
In August of that year, a gas attack believed to have been carried out by the Syrian regime killed hundreds of civilians in the Damascus suburb of Ghouta. Wassim believes that Western countries’ decision to not intervene after the chemical attack gave additional momentum to armed groups. Shortly afterwards, Wassim’s brigade pledged support for the better-equipped Jabhat al-Nusra, al-Qaeda’s affiliate in Syria.
In 2014, Al Nusra was routed by ISIL fighters, which turned on Deir al Zor after its sweeping advance across northern Iraq earlier in the summer.
Wassim said he was imprisoned by ISIL, and claims to have been tortured while in captivity. His wife, Zaynab, later secured his release through an Iraqi relative, who recently joined ISIL.
“Would our daughter never even remember her father’s face? I was haunted by this idea for weeks,” said Zaynab, who spoke over Skype from the Turkish city of Gaziantep, where she and the couple’s daughter currently reside.
Pacing the narrow confines of his kitchen one recent evening, Wassim doubted that Syria’s opposition could regain its formerly moderate spirit after the rise of the Islamic State.
“From the first day, we have called our uprising a revolution. But an uprising needs an ideology and clear leadership to become a revolution. I am disgusted to say this, but the only people who have these things are the Islamists,” he said.
Without a side to support in Syria, the former fighter turned back to the more urgent questions of Istanbul’s cash-starved Syrians.
Conceding that armed revolution isn’t ideal job experience for an aspiring accountant, he nonetheless voiced optimism about his job prospects. “After this last year of my life”, he said, “I think I can survive what comes next”.