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“This is my office,” says Ivan Nielsen as he sits in a busy teahouse in Istanbul’s Beyoglu district sipping a double espresso and a chilled Turkish soda water. Denmark’s special envoy to the Syrian opposition eschews the meeting rooms of his nation’s consulate. “It’s often about the informal, the continuous engagement; it’s about the activists rather than just the officials,” he says of his role. “You can’t apply traditional diplomatic methods to this job.”

Istanbul’s diplomatic climate is anything but traditional. As Syria’s civil war has deepened, Turkey’s commercial centre has become host to the raw politics that surrounds the conflict. As home to Syria’s official opposition headquarters and the network of delegations in its orbit, the city has assumed a foreign-policy intensity – and relevance – not seen since Turkey’s first president Mustafa Kemal Atatürk deemed Ankara’s leafy Çankaya quarter as the new Turkish Republic’s diplomatic centre in 1923. The city wears it well. Everyone from aid workers to activists and Free Syrian Army commanders liaise here – carrying out their business against its frenetic, camouflaging urban backdrop – in tea gardens, meyhane taverns, hotels and (once in a while) grand Ottoman-era consulates.

This environment – and the realpolitik of Syria’s conflict – demands a new, more fluid approach from diplomats stationed here. They are self-styled rovers facilitating a fragile, disparate moderate opposition in exile. “It’s about the strength on which you can build relationships,” says Nielsen, a lawyer by training who served in Afghanistan since joining the Danish Foreign Service in 2008. “We must be there in the middle of it all – politically [we must] be present, available, informal. For instance, I frequently just drop by, as a friend might do, instead of setting up meetings. Travel is constant. I just returned from Jordan and Lebanon but I’ll be heading to [the Turkish southern city of] Gaziantep next week. That’s the nature of the Syrian conflict: it’s characterised by needing a broader regional, international reading.”

With foreign embassies in Damascus shuttered, diplomats working on Syria spend their time piecing together the complex picture on the ground through research and connecting with the Syrian diaspora – whether they’re itinerant contacts passing through the city or activists here in exile. “What we’re dealing with is so splintered,” says Tarek Chazli, an Italian diplomat of Syrian origin who recently moved here after a six-month period on the Syrian border in Gaziantep. “For instance, there are an estimated 1,000 brigades in Syria’s armed opposition. So it’s about study, about observation, about flexibility. One moment you might be pushing boxes of aid around a warehouse, the next you’ll be in formal political negotiations.”

While Chazli says he was initially loath to up sticks from his location so close to Syria, he admits Istanbul’s unique demographic, atmosphere, stability and logistical advantage provide a very effective platform for his work. “There is nowhere that compares,” he says. “You have a transport hub here, of course, but you have an increasing Arab community. There are many Syrians but also a community from the Gulf, from Iraq. [Istanbul] increasingly has a foothold in the Middle East.”

Turkey has nurtured an ambition to become a powerful regional mediator. When the Syrian crisis began the then minister of foreign affairs, Ahmet Davutoglu, attempted to act as a broker of peace between western powers, the opposition forces and the regime. When this failed, the country threw its full and open support behind Syria’s opposition.

“It was a radical change in Turkish foreign-policy approach,” says Sinan Ülgen, chairman of the Istanbul-based Center for Economics and Foreign Policy Studies (Edam). “Turkey openly backed an opposition with the intention of regime change. On Iran, for instance, Turkey has never had a policy of supporting the opposition.”

Ülgen believes the troubled outcome of the Syrian revolution – and the failure of the opposition on the ground – has left Turkey with a domestic and foreign-policy challenge. “This policy was at the start unpopular and it remains unpopular,” he says.

Turkey’s support for the Syrian opposition extends to offering them a home. Founded in Doha, and after a fleeting stint in Cairo, the National Coalition of Syrian Revolution and Opposition Forces (Etilaf) moved to Istanbul. Though security is tight at its HQ out near the airport, its unassuming building is a discreet set-up for a revolutionary outfit. Despite this, the location has facilitated the opposition’s strategy. “Turkey is a democracy. It understands really what we’re aiming for,” says its new president Hadi Al Bahra, a US-educated engineer and businessman who owned IT and entertainment companies in Syria before the revolution began. “We have complete freedom of communication. Really, I cannot find enough words to thank Turkey for what it has provided to us Syrians.”

However, it is clear his coalition is a grateful but reluctant guest of the Turkish state. “I was working in the field, in my country, among my people [but] I was compelled to leave after my detention,” says Noura Al Amir, Etilaf’s vice-president, who was detained for six months in regime prisons in Homs and Damascus before she took the decision to leave for Turkey. Despite her location she says she has not lost touch with her people’s struggle. “Our relationship is interactive. As an activist it’s an opportunity for me to bridge the gap between the revolutionaries inside of Syria and the political opposition in Turkey. I lived their misery, their struggles, their hardships. I am very able to represent them fully.”

President Al Bahra is adamant that, despite the challenges, his aim is to return the National Coalition to Syrian soil. This is a six-month strategy to re-enter liberated territory and set up various structured organisations there – a presence that will put more pressure on the regime. “It needs a lot of preparation with our forces, with existing groups of the Free Syrian Army,” he says. “The current situation has changed our position somewhat but still we can do it successfully. Our main challenge now is Islamic State [formerly Isis] – we need to face this danger.”

Increasingly, diplomats stationed here are tasked with helping the civil society leaders in Syria who could make a transition like this possible. Charles King, who leads an eight-strong Syria office from the solid grandeur of the sandstone British consulate overlooking the Golden Horn, says a large part of his work is providing assistance and training to bodies such as the Free Syrian Police Force in liberated areas. “It’s about support for community actors, for local councils. It’s about helping communities hang on in the face of Isis and the regime,” he says. “The worsening security is making safe passage and access for our contacts even more difficult but they are demonstrating incredible resilience.”

At times, Turkey’s most cosmopolitan city can feel awkwardly detached from all this. Yet the Syrian reality feels less remote at the headquarters of Akut, a Turkish volunteer-run search-and-rescue association located in a new suburb on Istanbul’s Asian shores. Here, a specialist training programme is underway to equip Syrian civil-defence workers with the skills needed to rescue civilians from collapsed structures caused by regime shelling. In the late afternoon, men in brown uniforms – mainly from areas around Aleppo and Idlib in northwest Syria – run with stretchers while others drill away at concrete with power tools.

Many of the Syrians on the programme have taken great risk crossing checkpoints and borders to be here and will run a gauntlet to get home again. There are an estimated 40 barrel bomb attacks each day in Aleppo alone, often aimed at civil-defence trucks and stations. “It’s the most challenging environment on the planet right now,” says Dundar Sahin, Akut’s director and a specialist who has worked in earthquake disasters in places such as Haiti and Pakistan. “These people are doing an active search and rescue in a war zone. They’re not only fighting with time and the collapsed structures: they’re fighting with bombs and sniper fire. It’s a different world.”

It is a different world indeed. Yet Istanbul with its diversity, complexity, grit and energy does a good job of bridging the gap.

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