Malik Balian thinks he has as good an idea as anyone about the number of Syrians in Antakya these days. Since they began to appear last year, he has sold them mobile phones from his busy Turkcell shop in the center of town. They come as refugees to this city near the Turkish border with Syria, but many are revolutionaries too, looking to continue their work for the uprising at home. Revolutionaries need to stay connected, and they come to Balian for SIM cards and USB Internet sticks.
“From 9 in the morning until 12 at night, the Syrians come in and out,” Balian says. He guesses that he’s served 3,000 to date—and that thousands more now live in Antakya and the surrounding border province of Hatay. “There are a lot of Syrians here,” he says.
Like most Antakya residents, Balian is Alawite, hailing from the same religious sect as Syrian President Bashar al-Assad. As in Syria, Turkey’s Alawites—an off-shoot of Shiite Islam—are a minority in a predominately Sunni country, and many express solidarity with Assad. But Balian says he’s one of the good guys, harboring nothing in the way of sectarian concerns.
Sitting in his shop’s basement, where hundreds of chargers and USB cords dangle from hooks on the walls and scores of cell phones await repair, Balian flips through stacks of Turkcell receipts, many bearing the sort of nicknames—Abu Rami, Abu Ramen, Abu Ibrahim—that Syrian activists and rebels use to keep their identities obscured. (Abu translates to “the father of.”) Balian then pages through a six-inch stack of the passport scans he takes to issue his SIM cards. Almost all the passports are Syrian. “I could make millions selling all this information to Alawites in Syria,” Balian says. “But I wouldn’t do it, even if they threatened to cut my head off.”
But not all of Balian’s clients trust that their information is safe. “He gives it all to the Syrian regime,” one of his regular Syrian customers says.
Antakya has become a nerve center for the uprising against Assad. The city buzzes with activists, rebel fighters, and refugees who forgo camps along the border to pile into houses and apartments around town. Syrians of all creeds have joined the uprising, but the bulk are Sunni, while Alawites make up a bastion of Assad support. As the conflict grinds on, the political dialogue in Turkey has become fixated on the idea that sectarian tensions might spread across the border into Hatay—which has resulted in what Ceren Kenar, a Turkish columnist and journalist, calls “a panic among Turkish public opinion.”
Politicians from the Turkish opposition have demonized the refugees—one recently claimed Turkey is training terrorists in the camps—and raised the alarm about coming sectarian unrest. The Turkish press, meanwhile, has been filled with accounts from Hatay residents who say they no longer want the Syrians in town. Syrians have been accused of everything from jumping cabs and restaurant bills to making unwanted advances on Turkish women and sowing Islamic extremism. Rumors of big anti-Syrian protests, meanwhile, have become a constant in Antakya of late.
“The language some people are using now is that Hatay is occupied by a foreign army.”
“The media, the opposition parties—everybody is only speaking about Syria. We don’t have any other agenda,” Kenar says. “Politics has become very polarized around these lines. And the refugee crisis is the new hot-button issue. The language some people are using now is that Hatay is occupied by a foreign army.”
As the Turkish worries mount, meanwhile, Syrians are becoming increasingly wary of their hosts. “We’re very concerned about an extension of the sectarian problem,” says Miral Biroreda, a veteran activist who has been living in Antakya for four months. “This is fertile ground.”
Turkey has been one of the Assad regime’s most vehement critics. As the number of refugees pouring across its borders has surged amid spiraling violence inside Syria—there are now more than 80,000 Syrian refugees in Turkey, according to the foreign ministry—the government in Ankara has pushed to make the refugee issue an international one. Turkey temporarily closed its borders to Syrian refugees this week, saying it was scrambling to put together new camps, while its foreign minister called on the United Nations to establish a buffer zone to safely house the refugees on Syrian soil. (In a rare interview this week, Assad dismissed such a notion, and insisted his army is winning the civil war.)
Refugees are increasingly becoming a domestic issue for Turkey too—one that seems to have put the government in a difficult spot. “It’s a long-standing criticism from the opposition that the Syria policy is creating more problems in Turkey than anything else, and I think it’s resonating,” says David Pollock, a senior fellow at the Washington Institute for Near East Policy. “The government has gotten itself into a corner, in that it’s on one side of the conflict, and it’s not winning. And there’s no end in sight. The refugees are still knocking on the door. The fighting is still going on.”
Some well-known Syrian activists in Antakya say they were summoned to a meeting with local government officials to address the refugee issue Monday night. According to the activists, the officials suggested that all Syrians should leave Antakya and Hatay—either for the refugee camps, or to head deeper into Turkey, away from the border. The officials, they say, painted this as a move for the Syrians’ own good—in the camps they could receive more Turkish support. But the Syrians reacted with defiance. “We understood the message,” says Amin Ahmed Abid, a schoolteacher and activist from the Syrian city of Latakia. “They want to move all Syrian people away from Hatay.”
This account of the meeting was put forward by three Syrians who say they attended—Abid, along with Nasr Adin Ahmah and Abu Mohamed Jablawi—as well as a representative of an international NGO. Abid and the others were convinced the meeting was prompted by Turkey’s struggle to respond to the recent outburst of concerns over refugees in Hatay.
“Syrian people have been here for more than a year, and they never thought about this before,” Abid says. “They don’t have enough space in the camps to accept more people from Syria, and now they want to bring everyone here inside? It doesn’t make any sense.”
It’s unclear whether the Turkish government is considering a push to relocate the refugees or how such a measure would be enforced. “We have no exact information on this topic,” a foreign ministry spokesman said, directing questions about the supposed meeting to the local government in Hatay. At the press office inside the government building, meanwhile, a spokesman for the governor said there was nothing he could say. “You heard what you heard,” he said of the meeting. He then referred questions to Hatay’s director of emergency relief, who referred them back to the foreign ministry.
Many locals, like Balian, insist that any tension is being stirred from the outside, not from the Antakya community that has long welcomed the Syrians as guests. On Tuesday, the governor of Hatay and mayor of Antakya gave a joint news conference that put the same message across. But Ahmah, the local activist, was busy worrying that an already a difficult situation for the Syrians in town was getting worse. Ahmah keeps a house in Antakya for the young activists who tend to turn up without a place to stay—there usually are about 10 living there at a time—that he says he funds largely by “begging my friends for their money,” and contributing his own. Rocks recently crashed through the windows on two consecutive nights. No one saw the culprits, but Ahmah is sure who they were. “Supporters of the regime,” he said.