With the escalation of civil warfare in Syria, the flow of refugees heading across the border into Turkey is set to pick up. Some observers in southern Hatay Province, which is the destination for the bulk of the refugees, caution that the influx raises the specter of sectarian tension on the Turkish side of the border.
Over March 10-11, the Syrian military intensified operations in rebel-held areas in the north of Syria, not far from the border with Turkey. After two days of talks with President Bashar al-Assad, United Nations diplomatic trouble-shooter Kofi Annan arrived in Turkey on March 12 for talks with Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdoğan and Foreign Minister Ahmet Davutoglu. Annan said he was “optimistic” about the chances for peace in Syria, but he left Damascus without a cease-fire agreement.
Annan had been scheduled to visit a refugee camp in Hatay, but, as of mid-afternoon on March 12, it remained unclear whether he would have time to do so.
Meanwhile, as the Syrian army continues to pound the northern opposition stronghold of Idib, a town less than 50 kilometers from the Turkish border, refugees continue to flee into Turkey. Prime Minister Erdoğan on March 6 called for the “immediate opening” of humanitarian aid corridors in Syria to provide refugees with a safe route out of the country. Official sources in Ankara put the number of Syrian refugees in Turkey at about 12,000. “Our borders are open. Whoever wants to come can come; whoever wants to return back can go back,” said a Turkish diplomatic source based in Hatay.
The source, who requested anonymity, rebuffed the notion that Turkey was avoiding humanitarian responsibilities by classifying the arriving Syrians as “guests,” instead of granting them official refugee status. The diplomat said the refugees have been given “temporary protection” for the duration of the conflict in Syria.
Many newly arriving Syrians are finding accommodation in tent camps that have been set up in Hatay. What effect, if any, the Syrian “guests” will have on the province’s demographic balance is emerging as a sensitive question.
Once part of Syria, Turkey gained control of Hatay in 1939 following a referendum deemed invalid by Damascus. Although Syria has not officially recognized Hatay as part of Turkey, in recent years the two countries had largely set aside the dispute.
The province’s historical connection to Syria is still seen in its ethnic make-up. Hatay is home to a large number of Alawites, members of the same Shi’a Islam sect as the Assad family. Called Arab Alevis in Turkey (although Alevis are a separate religious group from Alawites), local Alawites in Hatay say they fear friends and family members in Syria are at risk of reprisals at the hands of the largely Sunni opposition forces. To underline that concern, several pro-Assad demonstrations have been held in Antakya, the province’s central city.
Many Arab Alevis in Hatay perceive the Sunni Syrians now in the province as a potential source of instability. Echoing a widespread view among the group, Mehmet Fahraci, an Arab Alevi artist, claims that the current balance of power in Hatay is equal between Sunnis, who dominate the local civil service, and Arab Alevis, who are more influential in the region’s private business sector. He fears that the Sunni Syrian refugees, whom Arab Alevis perceive as religiously devout, will upset the existing social, political and economic balance.
Many of these refugees are living with relatives and friends in border areas, and some are trying to find local work as migrant farm laborers, or in construction. The competition for jobs is another source of irritation for local Arab Alevis, who say that the conflict in Syria has already hurt Hatay’s economy, due to the natural importance of Syrian trade to the province.
Signs of sectarian tension are already evident. On March 1, Alevi houses in Adıyaman, a province northeast of Hatay, were marked with red crosses in the same manner that they were before the 1978 Maraş Massacre, in which more than 100 people were killed by Sunni ultra-nationalists. While the Turkish government tried to play down the Adıyaman incident, Alevis warned that sectarian tensions present inside Syria could spread across the border.
Dogan Bermek, president of the Federation of Alevi Foundations, commented that Alevi communities do not expect a repeat of the massacre, “but some people may certainly try to revitalize what they were trying to do before in this country.”
Local government officials declined to comment, referring questions to Hatay Governor Celalettin Lekesiz, who could not be reached.
None of the Syrians interviewed by a EurasiaNet.org correspondent in Hatay wanted to stay in Turkey. At the same time, they expressed growing skepticism about Turkey’s intentions toward them. “If they gave us refugee status, it would make our case international,” said a refugee named Mohammad Daj al-Deed. “We feel we are a card to play with.”
The Turkish diplomatic source claimed that, soon, many refugees will be moved to a new camp with a 10,000-person capacity in Kilis, a province 125 miles to the north of Hatay. There, they will be housed in two-room container homes complete with a kitchen and bathroom to replace the canvas tents they have lived in for the past year. Many of the interviewed refugees, though, expressed doubt that such a camp will be built.
For now, while extending a welcoming hand to refugees, Turkey does not appear to be planning for a long-term refugee community near its border with Syria. The diplomatic source said that Ankara expects the refugees “to return back to their country.”
“They are not coming from Afghanistan or China or anywhere else,” he said. “They are just coming from the other side of the border. Once everything -- all irregularities and the humanitarian situation -- becomes OK, they will be returning to their country.”
Justin Vela is a freelance reporter based in Istanbul.