A symbol of peaceful co-existence in the Middle East, Antakya is home to Christians, Jews, Sunnis, Druze, and Alawites. Increasingly worried, its people witness the horror of the Syrian war on their doorstep.
On a hot summer’s night of 2011, I sat on a balcony with my family in my birthplace near the Syrian-Turkish border: Antakya, Hatay. We were enjoying the evening with my cousin’s relatives from Syria, who were wealthy Christians from Aleppo. I felt that they had a very modern air around them, as they sat comfortably in their light clothing, appropriate for the heat of the summer, casually conversing in Arabic and French. I was curious to hear about the situation in Syria, since the conflict had been going on for a couple of months already. Seizing the chance to speak with people who were actually from this place that had been in the news for months, I asked how the civil war affected their personal lives.
“We are not from the parts where the clashes are happening. We are from another town; it’s peaceful where we live”.
Afterwards, I learned that many Syrians were not bothered much by the war in their country during that time – especially those from the wealthier population. They kept enjoying their casual shopping trips to Turkey, a habit that they had always maintained.
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The ancient metropolis Antakya, also known by its Greek name Antioch or Antiochia, is often admired as a symbol of peaceful co-existence in the Middle East. Antakya is home to Orthodox Christians, Jews, Sunnis, Druze, and Alawites, and takes pride in its Hellenistic past, which is displayed in various museums and mosaics around the city center, attracting many tourists that enjoy the market place accompanied by the call for prayer that echoes from the central mosque. It also takes great care of its most precious local treasure: the Church of Saint Peter. In Acts 11:26, the Bible says:
“And the disciples were called Christians first in Antioch.”
Many consider the Church of Saint Peter, also called Saint Pierre’s church, to be the oldest in the world. Carved into a mountain, the church has a rocky channel in the very back, which was perhaps meant as an escape for these early Christians, who were still persecuted at the time of the church’s establishment. The other end of the channel was perhaps already 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 has passed since my last visit to Antakya, and the political situation across the border changed dramatically. It is confusing to try and 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 voices of moderate 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. 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. 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. In the recent weeks, Turkish-funded jihadist warriors have entered the Kurdish parts of Syria and attacked the women and men of the YPG (Peoples Defense Union), a Kurdish militant organization in Syrian Kurdistan, in Serê Kaniyê (Ra’s al-‘Ayn) –the heavy clashes between the parties have little to do with the Assad regime, but foreshadow a Turkish assertion of power against the Kurds in Syria in the fear of an increasingly powerful Kurdish entity near the Turkish border.
Increasingly worried, the people of Hatay witness the horror of the civil war on their doorstep. Those who have always been proud of their cosmopolitan hometown of peaceful religious and ethnic co-existence now report that the atmosphere of their once tolerant province has changed to the worse. Aside from the suffering economy, many feel harassed by the warriors that 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 with Al Qaeda ties. The population of Antakya started campaigns like “I want my Antakya back,” to protest government policies that take advantage of Hatay as a host for warriors.
Alawite Arabs, who form the majority in Hatay, hold strong sympathies with the internationally condemned Syrian president Bashar Al-Assad. Threatened by the rise of religious fundamentalism among parts of the rebel forces, many of these liberal democrats and Kemalists prefer Assad’s rule out of fear of what Syria’s and their own future might hold if a Sunni majority, taken advantage of by jihadist groups, seizes power across the border. Existing political loyalties for Turkish parties transcend the border to find their expression in solidarities within the Syrian context. The population in the city of peaceful co-existence 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 dissident political voice that opposes Turkish Prime Minister Erdogan’s enthusiastic support for the Free Syrian Army is the anti-imperialist left in Turkey. The unquestioned 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 portrayed as a fighter that stands up to imperial powers that have elsewhere destructed the Middle East for their own interests. These people too hold that a post-Assad Syria would have a devastating effect on the region. The uncertainty of the future and the possibility of sectarian wars in the case of a regime fall, stirred up by ideologically driven loyalties and backed by hawkish foreign powers, motivate many to pick Assad as the lesser evil.
A clear-cut overview of the civil war is impossible to attain, as its parties, loyalties, interests, ideologies, and alliances blur. This shows that a black-and-white conflict narrative may be useful in the world of politics, but is deeply flawed in terms of human rights. It is a frustrating situation, when the parties articulate valid criticisms of their opponents at times, and yet commit horrid crimes and shine with hypocrisy, inadequacy, and violence in return. The puzzling discovery that, people who consider themselves democratic may support a tyrant regime becomes a bit more understandable, when things are examined in a more complex and specific 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 problematic implications of unquestioned support for either side are left unconsidered.
The situation in Syria next door has left its marks on Antakya. In between disagreements over national integrity and foreign interest, secularism and political Islam, national unity and minority rights, the people of Hatay are worried for the uncertain fate of their Syrian relatives and neighbors, and fear for their own home.
The views expressed in this article are the author’s and do not necessarily reflect those of Your Middle East.
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