Photo of Inci Altinok (left) and her friend by freelance photographer Sebastian Rich.
ANTAKYA, Turkey — It’s late Monday night, and we’re walking down a cobblestone street in the oldest part of this centuries-old city. This is Antakya — known in ancient times as Antioch — and it’s just 15 miles from the Syrian border. Business thrived here in recent years, as Syrian shoppers flocked over the border for the consumer goods they couldn’t get at home. But no longer.
“This Syria war has been very bad for us economically,” said Ferit Guler, owner of a small tobacco and chocolate shop where we’d stopped for some roasted nuts. “There are no more Syrian tourists, and even tourists from Istanbul and other places in Turkey are afraid to come here.”
The only Syrians flocking over the border into Turkey now are refugees from the bloody civil war that’s claimed more than 35,000 Syrian lives, and driven an estimated 500,000 more from their homes. Some 150,000 of them have fled to Turkey, where they’ve been given shelter in camps — or have rented apartments in Turkish towns. Turkey is also letting activists protesting Syrian President Bashar al-Assad and resistance fighters take shelter here.
Shop owner Guler acknowledged Turkey had a humanitarian obligation to house and care for the refugees. But he and fellow members of the Allawi sect — the same offshoot of Shia Islam as the Allawites that dominate President Bashar al-Assad’s regime — feel threatened by the influx of angry Sunni Muslim refugees. “The refugees cause lots of problems here,” he said. “And they say after they return home to kill Assad and all the Allawis there, they’ll come back here to kill Allawis here, too.”
We’ve come to the Turkish-Syrian border region to take stock of the impact the 20-month-old conflict is having on Syria’s neighbors. Lebanon and Jordan, with their shaky economies and political systems, seem the most threatened. But after just 24 hours in Turkey, it’s apparent that the Syrian civil war is sowing instability even in this strong and self-confident country.
That was clear in Istanbul, some 700 miles and a world away from the border. The one-time capital of the Ottoman Empire is now a sparkling cosmopolitan city straddling Europe and Asia. On a crisp autumn Sunday, tens of thousands were running in the Istanbul Marathon, while the less athletically inclined strolled and shopped. But while there aren’t any Syrian refugees to speak of in their midst, the carnage in Syria wasn’t far from their minds either.
Photo of Mehmet Argun by freelance photographer Sebastian Rich.
“What is happening there gives us great pain. Every day, 100, 200 people are being killed,” said Mehmet Argun, as he fished from Galata Bridge. “I am angry with Assad. He is killing, beating his own people. He is ruining his whole country.” Argun is proud of the role the Turkish government is taking, housing the refugees. “We are a people that likes helping people.”
But fellow fisherman Mikail Aslan faulted the rest of the world for not doing more to help the refugees — or end the conflict. “The Turkish government is helping these people as much as possible,” he said, “but this is not something that Turkey can do alone. The whole world has to try to stop this war.” He went on to warn darkly, “If the world doesn’t come together to stop this, there will be war not only in Syria but the Middle East and everywhere.”
Others we spoke to expressed the same sense of weariness about the refugee burden. “I actually wish we would stop them now. But at the same time, if these people have been treated so badly, since we are Muslim, we need to help them,” said Inci Altinok, out for a walk with her friend. “Turkey is like a mother, like a father, helping everyone. Turkey is very strong. But other countries in the world have to help Turkey as well. It’s not fair.”
The Turks we spoke to saw no military solution to the conflict. Turkey boasts the second largest army in NATO after the United States. But we heard no call for Turkey to step in militarily — despite the recent killing of five Turkish civilians in a border town hit by a Syrian shell. “If war came, Turkey would finish off Syria in 18 minutes. If we even spit on Syria, they would drown,” Altinok said proudly. “But Turkey should never get into a war with Syria.”
Nearly everyone expressed confidence that Assad would fall in the end. “We have seen what has happened to other dictators, in Tunisia, in Egypt,” said fisherman Mehmet Argun. “He will also go in the end,” What isn’t clear to Turks is how long they will have to pay a price before he does.