It was a hot summer’s night of 2011, when I sat on a balcony with my family in my birthplace near the Syrian-Turkish border: Antakya, Hatay. My cousin’s relatives from Syria were visiting her. These guests were wealthy Christians that had a very modern air, as they sat comfortably in their light clothing, appropriate for the heat of the summer, engaging in conversations in Arabic and French. I asked them about the situation in Syria, because the conflict had been going on for a couple of months already. How had it affected them personally?
“We are not from the parts where the clashes are happening. We are from another town; it’s peaceful where we live”.
Later on, I was told that the majority of Syrians were not bothered much by the civil war in their country at that time- many of them went on casual shopping trips to Turkey and back, just as they always had…
Antakya, also known by its Greek name Antioch or Antiochia, is an ancient metropolis that is often admired as a symbol for the possibility of peaceful co-existence in the Middle East. Home to Orthodox Christians, Jews, Sunnis, Druze, and Alawites, the city takes pride in its Hellenistic past, displayed in various museums and mosaics around the city center, accompanied by the call for prayer in the central mosque. It also takes great care of its greatest local treasure: the Church of Saint Peter. In Acts 11:26, the Bible says: “And the disciples were called Christians first in Antioch”.
Saint Peter’s church, also called Saint Pierre’s church, is considered to be the oldest in the world by some. It is carved into a mountain and a rocky channel in the very back was perhaps meant as an escape for these early Christians – at the time of the church’s establishment, Christianity was persecuted. The other end of the channel may have already been Syrian territory. My mother told me that the tough boys in her youth were testing their braveness by climbing inside it. Today, the channel is closed.
A year and a half after my last visit to Antakya, the political situation across the border has changed immensely. It is a confusing matter to try to attain a balanced view on the situation in Syria. Videos show atrocities committed by both, the Syrian Army and members of the rebel forces. The moderate voices of oppositional Syrians get lost, as foreign national interests and radical dogmas take advantage of the power vacuum, while Assad denies that a genuine grass-roots opposition even exists. A bloody regime bombs its own population and is challenged by violent forces with an increasingly radical face, exploited by all sides and backed by more than suspicious parties. Observers are impeded by unreliable information and biased sources, and it is difficult to hold a position, when neither option for Syria’s future seems promising.
The people of Hatay witness the horror of the civil war on their doorstep and are worried. They have always been proud of their cosmopolitan hometown of peaceful religious and ethnic co-existence, but now report that the atmosphere of their once tolerant province changed. Aside from the suffering economy, many feel harassed by the warriors that are said to fight in Syria during the day, and spend the night in Antakya. Local sources claim that Turkey trains rebels to send them across the border – among them jihadists. The population of Antakya has started campaigns like “I want my Antakya back”, complaining about government policies that take advantage of Hatay as a host for warriors.
Interestingly, Alawite Arabs, who form the majority in Hatay, hold strong loyalties with the internationally condemned Syrian president Bashar Al-Assad. Threatened by the rise of religious fundamentalism among some of the members of the opposition, many of these liberal democrats and Kemalists prefer Assad’s rule out of a fear of what Syria’s and their own future might hold, if a Sunni majority, taken advantage of by jihadist groups, gets in power. Existing political loyalties for Turkish parties find their expression in transnational solidarities in the Syrian context. Antakya’s population feels threatened by the increasing politically religious face of the revolutionaries, and fears for the secular regime in Syria, as though secularism was a sufficient guarantor for democracy. Bashar and Asma Assad are seen as a modern couple and enjoy an almost iconic status among supporters.
Another politically dissident voice that opposes Turkish Prime Minister Erdogan’s enthusiastic support for the Free Syrian Army is the anti-imperialist left in Turkey. The support for the FSA by the United States and other members of the international community is seen as an imperialist intervention into Syrian affairs. Assad, who himself uses similar terminology, is seen as a fighter against imperial powers that have elsewhere destructed the Middle East for their own interests. These people too hold that a post-Assad Syria would be devastating to the region. The uncertainty of the future and the possibility of sectarian wars, stirred up by ideologically driven loyalties, backed by hawkish foreign powers, in the case of a regime fall, motivate many to pick Assad as the lesser evil.
It is impossible to have a clear-cut overview of the civil war, as its parties, loyalties, interests, ideologies, and alliances blur. This comes to show that a black-and-white conflict narrative may be useful in the world of politics, but is flawed in terms of human rights. It is a frustrating situation, when parties articulate valid criticisms of their incoherent opponents at times, and yet commit horrid crimes and shine with hypocrisy, inadequacy, and violence in return. The puzzling discovery that, for instance, people who consider themselves democratic may support a tyrant regime becomes a bit more understandable, when things are put in a more complex context. The voice of the Syrian people who are truly committed to democratic change and a peaceful future must be heard, but instead, the wider social implications of unquestioned support for either side are left unconsidered.
The situation in Syria next door left its marks on Antakya. Beyond one’s own political opinion, it becomes clear that, in between disagreements over national integrity and foreign interest, secularism and political Islam, national unity and minority rights, people in Hatay are worried for the uncertain fate of their Syrian relatives and neighbors, and fear for their own home.