Someone Else’s War
Turkey's southeast questions Erdoğan’s policy on Syria
The highways of Hatay province were eerily quiet on a scorching hot Saturday in May. Dotted along the dusty road from Antakya to Reyhanlı were a series of temporary checkpoints set up by the Turkish gendarmerie and manned by armed guards with impenetrable blank faces. As each car passed through, they fastidiously checked the trunk and the driver’s identification documents before allowing it to continue onwards. The checkpoints bunched closer as the town drew nearer, until finally they formed an impasse—a roadblock stretching across the entire junction on the outskirts of the town and prohibiting the traffic from progressing any further. A policeman, nonchalant in sunglasses, strolled over to the passenger window and leaned in to speak, his tone aggressive and accusatory towards the foreign gate-crasher at this patriotic Turkish occasion: “What are you doing in Reyhanlı?”
Just two weeks before, everything had seemed so different here. This small town in Hatay—the southeastern Turkish province that borders one of the most fractious parts of opposition-held Syria—had for two years played the impeccable host to a large community of Syrian refugees and a smattering of NGOs and journalists. Reyhanlı had earned itself a reputation as a tolerant, welcoming place; its residents had overwhelmingly welcomed the thousands of Syrians who escaped the conflict over the border and settled in the town, and a car bomb in February at the nearby Cilvegözü border crossing (known as Bab Al-Hawa on the Syrian side) had done little to dent their goodwill. “It’s amazing, really,” said Fadi Sahloul, the chairman of British NGO Hand in Hand for Syria, in his office on a quiet back street behind the town’s main road. “Nothing that’s going on over the border in Syria has really affected the mood in Reyhanlı. Everyone here just gets on and helps the refugees out where they can.”
But two days after Sahloul’s optimistic appraisal, a brace of car bombs ripped the heart of Reyhanlı apart and brought Turkey’s involvement in the Syrian conflict crashing decisively home. The explosions destroyed the center of the small town, killing dozens and injuring many more, and revealed the fragility that lay beneath Turkey’s apparent social consensus on how best to deal with the spiraling conflict across the border in Syria. Within minutes of the explosions, there were reports that cars with Syrian number plates were being smashed up in Reyhanlı; within days, many of the Syrian refugees who had settled here had returned to their homeland, preferring the nerve-jarring uncertainty of life in a war zone to the febrile atmosphere of Hatay province in the wake of the bombings.
So Recep Tayyip Erdoğan’s visit to Reyhanlı on that baking hot Saturday two weeks after the explosions was always destined to be a tense and highly charged affair, and the roadblocks and surly policemen punctuating the road to the town only confirmed this. The Turkish prime minister must have known what was at stake when he took the microphone in front of the thousands of flag-waving Turks who had packed into the main square to see him speak: not only the relations between the Syrian residents of Hatay and their Turkish hosts, but also those between the various groups that make up Turkish society, cleaved along fractures which seem to have been revealed and prised open by the Syrian conflict.
Like its disintegrating neighbor to the south, Turkey boasts a rich and historical mixture of religions, sects and social groupings. The country’s Sunni majority lives alongside numerous religious minorities, among them the Alawite community, which is largely clustered along the Syrian border in Hatay province, and the often-marginalized Alevi minority. Although constitutionally it is a secular state, Erdoğan and his Justice and Development Party (AKP), which has been in power since 2002, stand accused by many both inside and outside the country of conducting Turkey’s foreign policy according to sectarian, Sunni interests.
In many ways, a decade of growing disquiet about the creeping Islamization of Turkish politics has reached its crescendo in the Syrian crisis. Erdoğan appears to be sponsoring what is overwhelmingly a Sunni uprising in Syria, to the dismay of many people within his own country. He has been ready and willing to host the almost four hundred thousand Syrian refugees who have fled to Turkey since 2011, and has offered financial and logistical support of the rebel brigades who travel freely between northern Syria and Hatay province.
On the surface, Erdoğan’s visit to Reyhanlı was a successful one. The crowds cheered throughout his twenty-minute speech as he reconfirmed his support for the Syrian opposition and his belief that that regime of Bashar Al-Assad would soon be toppled. He appealed for calm in the wake of the bombings and for continuing support for the Syrians who had sought refuge in Turkey, and reaffirmed his belief that agents of the Syrian government were behind the bombings. When he had finished speaking, the crowds put down their standard-issue flags, handed out by AKP volunteers next to the security gates on the fringes of the square, and retreated to the minibuses that were parked and waiting to return them to their hometowns.
Those minibuses were part of a trail of subtle clues that, when pieced together, revealed that the flag-waving crowds in Reyhanlı that day were not residents of the town itself. Tellingly, the majority of the shops in the town were shut, and the streets leading from the roadblock on the edge of town to the main square were deserted and heavy with silence. Erdoğan’s performance and the crowd’s reaction to it seemed, in the context that was left out of the press photos, more like a stage-managed stunt for the cameras than a real reflection of the mood in Turkey in the wake of the bombings.
This kind of political display is no effective way to judge social attitudes in Turkey: if you want to find out what is really going on, ask a taxi driver. There were plenty to ask at the Halab Garage in Antakya on the windswept afternoon after Erdoğan’s speech in Reyhanlı; they were the only people in the vast, echoing forecourt, and they huddled around their lonely yellow cars smoking cigarettes as if clinging to a livelihood that they knew was slipping away from them.
“We’ve had virtually no work for twenty months now,” said one, a middle-aged man with a five o’clock shadow who had known nothing but driving taxis for the whole of his adult life. The side of his cab was marked up with the names of the major Syrian cities, Latakia, Aleppo, Damascus and Homs—once his most popular destinations, now the names that lead the grimmest bulletins on the evening news. At one time, the Halab Garage drivers ran a thriving business, taking customers from Antakya over the border into Syria, and bringing Syrian customers back the other way into Turkey. “We used to do at least a hundred trips every day,” said the driver.
When the fighting first started to flare in the countryside of northern Syria, the taxi drivers carried on with their business regardless. They would cross through checkpoints, both government and opposition, and pay bribes to corrupt officials from the Syrian government when they were forced to do so. Business became steadily harder while the customers grew steadily fewer, but they carried on making their trips. But at the beginning of Ramadan last year, everything came to an abrupt halt. “The Turkish government stopped letting us cross the border,” said the driver, “and they haven’t let us cross again since.” He gestured to the row of offices opposite, all shuttered and forlorn, with a neglected air that suggested that the shutters had not been opened in a very long time. “These were all transport offices until a year ago,” he said. “They all did cross-border trips to Syria, but since last Ramadan every single one of them has closed.”
Now the drivers’ customers, when there are any at all, ask only to be taken to the border crossings at nearby Cilvegözü and Kilis. The lucrative, longer trips they used to do would be impossible now, even if the Turkish government allowed them to start crossing the border again. “Even if the crisis in Syria ended tomorrow, we wouldn’t go back in there for another four or five years,” said the driver. “It’s chaos; there are criminals everywhere and robberies happen all the time. They could easily take our cars and our money.” Yet it is impossible for any of these drivers to leave their floundering businesses and start anew elsewhere; their cars are all rent-to-own, and they must pay off their debts before they can sell them on.
The Syrian crisis has sent economic shockwaves through the towns and villages of Hatay province that can barely be felt in Ankara, where all the decisions about Turkey’s involvement in Syria are made. Like the taxi drivers, the small business owners in the region who rely on moving goods into and out of Syria have suffered from the sporadic and unpredictable border closures and the collapse of the consumer market on the Syrian side of the border. Most pressingly, the influx of Syrian refugees has sent rents in the region soaring; an apartment in Antakya now costs over twice as much per month as it did eighteen months ago. Yet simultaneously, the region is booming in a way that it never did before; many of the Syrian refugees have opened shops and restaurants in their new hometowns, and the hotels are full of journalists and NGO workers. On the outskirts of Antakya, a small and previously sedate town half an hour from the border, a new Hilton hotel is under construction.
But the two faces of Hatay’s economic transformation do not sit easily together. As emotions flared on the night of the Reyhanlı bombings, a pistol shot was fired through the window of a Syrian chicken restaurant in Antakya, making manifest the resentments that have simmered beneath Hatay’s tranquil surface for nearly two years. Over the following days, angry Turkish Alawite protesters—largely supporters of Assad—claimed that the “illegal” Syrians in Turkey were taking generous benefits from the state. “Erdoğan is taking the wrong policy on Syria and we want him out,” said one Alawite protestor in Antakya. “These refugees are only here because they think they can get a better quality of life in Turkey.”
The debate about Syria within Turkey has adopted a sectarian tone since the Reyhanlı attacks: it is the Turkish Alawites who have protested most vociferously against the presence of Syrian refugees in their towns, and the Turkish Sunnis who have continued to support Erdoğan’s policies the most fervently. Yet underneath it all, it is economics and fear that are really fuelling the resentment towards Turkey’s involvement in the Syrian crisis. After the initial outbursts of anger and the fear of revenge attacks subsided, Reyhanlı and Antakya returned to their tense states of stability. But there are some difficult questions that Erdoğan cannot carry on avoiding if he is to continue supporting the Syrian opposition so wholeheartedly. If the situation in Syria worsens and more refugees arrive, where are they going to live and who is going to give them jobs? What can be done to help the businessmen and women of Hatay, who have already lost so much?
As protests of a different nature have swept Turkey in recent weeks, Erdoğan’s focus may have been pulled away from Syria. But these are questions that will not go away. His support for the Syrian opposition, whatever his motivations for it, could yet have far bigger implications for his own future than that of Bashar Al-Assad. In Hatay province, the economic aftershocks of Syria’s conflict seem set to continue for years.