Lauren E. Bohn / NBC News Contributor
Downtown Antakya, a southern Turkish city near the border of Syria, has felt the effects of the crisis In Syria. As U.S. President Barack Obama inches closer to authorization for military strikes against Syria, and Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan pushes for regime change, many residents here worry that the conflict will spread across the border.
ANTAKYA, Turkey – On a recent sweltering day in a market maze of fragrant spices and “Hello Kitty” back-to-school supplies, Turks in this southern border town expressed anger over possible United States military strikes against neighboring war-torn Syria.
“This is no good for us, it’s not good for Turkey,” said Nabeel, a jewelry-shop owner, as two of his customers nodded vigorously in agreement. “We will be dragged into this war. We already have been dragged in.” (Amid ongoing tensions, Nabeel and others interviewed for this story have requested that their last names be withheld).
As President Barack Obama trudges closer to authorization for military action against the Syrian regime of President Bashar Assad, residents of Turkish border towns worry about how the unrest next door will further upend their lives. Already, Syrian refugees have flooded into their region, creating tensions with locals.
More than 2 million refugees have fled Syria into neighboring countries since civil war began there in March 2011, and that number could double -‑ or even triple -‑ by the end of this year, according to United Nations estimates. The United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) has registered about 450,000 Syrian refugees in Turkey alone. Some are living in refugee camps, but more than half are attempting to integrate into border towns, the UNHCR said.
On Wednesday, ministers from refugee-hosting nations, including Turkey, Iraq, Jordan, and Lebanon, met with UNHCR representatives in Geneva to attempt to generate greater international support for dealing with the refugee exodus, which they say is straining their resources.
That sentiment is particularly strong in towns such as Antakya.
“The border has disappeared, and you don’t know if you’re in Turkey or Syria,” says Mehmet, who owns a string of bakeries in Antakya and in the border town of Reyhanli, where Syrian refugees now outnumber Turks two to one. “I don’t think our towns can handle more.”
Border residents complain about the effects of Syria’s refugee crisis on daily life. They grumble that rental prices for housing have risen, and some claim that wages have dropped as a result of refugees accepting lower compensation.
“All the rich Syrians fly to Istanbul. We get the poor Syrians in the border areas,” said Ahmed, a local business executive who works in the textile industry. “They drain our economy and threaten our security.”
Adding to tensions, opposition fighters have moved back and forth across the Turkish border with relative ease, stoking fear among some Turks that Assad’s forces could retaliate. Twin car bombs in Reyhanli last May, which killed 51 and were blamed on people working with the Syrian regime, exacerbated these fears.
“If Obama strikes, Reyhanli will happen again,” says Ahmed. “It might never end.”
Despite concerns about the refugee newcomers, residents of the Hatay province, where Antakya is located, boast of their region’s rich multicultural fabric. Antakya is known as biblical Antioch, often deemed the “Cradle of Christianity” where Jesus’ apostles spent time. Around 1 million Alawites (of Arab ethnicity) are believed to live here; they are closely related to Syria’s Alawites, the offshoot Shia Islamic minority from which Assad hails. Turkey’s Alevi community – an Islamic sect that makes up around a tenth of the country’s population, which is majority Sunni Muslim – also shares loose cultural and ethnic ties with Alawites here and across the border.
But while different ethnic-religious groups have peacefully lived side by side for years in Turkey, some fear the country’s Syria policy may provoke sectarian tensions within the country. Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan has forcefully advocated overthrowing Assad, a position that offends Turkish Alawites such as Ali Yeral, the president of the Alawite Association in Hatay. He calls the uprising in Syria “an imperialistic geopolitical battle the West and the Sunni Gulf waged against the Shia world” and claims Erdogan is officially sponsoring terrorism by supporting the amorphous Syrian opposition.
“My warning to the West is simple,” he says, sitting in his office, stroking onyx prayer beads. “The snake you're feeding will bite you.”
Saner Cagaptay, director of the Washington Institute’s Turkish Research Program, explains that Turkish Alevis have historically defined themselves as a minority group persecuted by the majority Sunnis. In that sense, Alevis may increasingly align with Syria’s ruling Alawites against Syria’s largely Sunni uprising, Cagaptay says, adding, "What happens in Syria doesn’t just stay in Syria.”
Murat Gencogullari, the head of Erdogan’s ruling Justice and Development (AK) party branch in Antakya, says he’s confident impending foreign intervention will stop the bloodshed in Syria, and counsels Turks not to worry. “This is just a short period of time,” he says. “It will pass…people just need to be patient.”
Servet Mullaoglu, an Alevi and the head of Antakya’s Republican People's Party (CHP) -– the AKP’s main political opposition -– says patience is a privilege the country can’t afford.
“The camps are at full capacity, how can we accept more?” he said. “Turkey, the world…they’re miscalculating Syria. These camps will be here forever. This war will not end any time soon, not for Syria, and not for Turkey.”