Abu Dhabi, UAEThursday 23 May 2019

Inside the Turkish Arabic speaking town that Syrian refugees dare not enter

At first glance, this Turkish Arabic-speaking town is a welcoming place. But Syrian refugees fleeing the devastating conflict across the border won’t dare enter. We report from Samandag.
A Syrian family in Istanbul. Millions have fled Syria with Turkey hosting many of these people. Kerem Uzel for The National
A Syrian family in Istanbul. Millions have fled Syria with Turkey hosting many of these people. Kerem Uzel for The National

The war in Syria has subjected Turkey’s border regions to terrorist attacks and demographic upheaval on an historic scale, but on the face of it there’s a welcoming feeling to Samandag, a bustling town of 45,000 on the shores of the eastern Mediterranean.

On a wall by the town’s beachside boardwalk, graffiti proclaims how “Syrians are our brothers”, a sentiment in sharp contrast to the burning of refugees’ cars and businesses sometimes seen elsewhere in Turkey’s south. Arabic is the language of the street, in a town that colloquially goes by its Arabic name, Suedeyeh, rather than its official title.

“We used to trade in the everyday items with Syrians – tea, coffee, sugar, fruit,” says a manager at a shoreside restaurant who asked not to be named. “They [Syrians] would come here for the beach and the food.”

But walking through Samandag’s streets or along the shore that stretches to Syria’s Latakia province, 15 kilometres south, something feels out of kilter. Absent are the groups of Syrian teenagers hanging out by shawarma stands or clustered together chatting and clutching school books. The Arabic shop signs so prevalent in nearby Antakya or Reyhanli are absent in Samandag; locals seem reluctant to speak to a foreign journalist.

Incredibly, in more than five years, Syrian refugees have also refused to settle in Samandag, and few have visited.

Almost all of the three million Syrians who have fled for the safety of Turkey are Sunni Muslims. According to locals, about 500,000 have ended up in Hatay’s towns and villages, pushing the number of Arabs in the province up from 34 to 47 per cent, according to a report from the Washington Institute in August.

The residents of Samandag are Alawite Arabs, as is the leadership of the Syrian regime responsible for the violence that has driven the mass exodus. Now the war in Syria has led to a state whereby today there are as many Sunni Arabs as Alawites, upending Hatay’s delicate demographic balance.

The tension and sense of suspicion this has caused in Samandag is barely concealed. “Why did they leave their country? If your country is in trouble and there were bombs and shootings and protests would you run, or want to protect it? Every person who loves his country would stay,” Mithat Nehir, mayor of Samandag, says of the refugees.

When asked about reports that refugees were forced out of the town in September 2012, Nehir, who represents the CHP (Republican People’s Party) , a party opposed to the Turkish government’s support for Syrian rebels, says that never happened. “People go to where they are most comfortable, and the Syrian refugees went to Antakya and other towns because they feel comfortable there,” he says. “It’s their choice, their reasoning to go there and not come here.”

The violence in Syria means Samandag has suffered an economic crisis. For generations, the town was dependent on the economic and communal ties between communities on opposite sides of the imposing Kiliç mountain that divides Turkey from its troubled neighbour to the south. The war has cut those relationships clean.

“There’s a 60 per cent decline in economic activity here,” says Nehir. “Hatay was the gate to the Middle East, to Egypt, the Haj to Mecca, all of it.”

The economic downturn fuelled by the Syria war has allowed for populist elements to clean up. The opposition CHP increased its vote in Samandag by 13 per cent in the general election in 2015, also because of the AKP (Justice and Development Party) government’s support for militias fighting Bashar Al Assad’s regime. Some CHP deputies from Samandag have even visited Assad in Damascus to offer personal support.

For years, and even before the 2011 uprising, Syrian flags and images of Bashar Al Assad and his deceased father and former president, Hafez, could be seen on the streets of Samandag and in other Alawite districts of Hatay province. For reasons of language, many Alawites in Hatay chose to cross the border to Latakia to attend university, where family members were already living. The war ended these practices.

Families fleeing air strikes and mass murder in Syria with misgivings about visiting towns such as Samandag may feel they have good reason to do so. In Mihraç Ural, the Hatay province has produced one of the most feared butchers of the Syrian conflict. An Alawite Turkish citizen who, in the 1970s, sought to fight for Hatay’s return to Syria, Ural is the leader of the so-called Syrian Resistance militia and has lived in exile in Syria for decades.

Since 2011, Ural has drawn Turkish Alawites to fight for the defence of the Syrian regime and he is thought to have been behind one of Turkey’s worst terrorist attacks that killed 52 people in Reyhanli three years ago. As such, many families see themselves as a bulwark against the ISIL and Al Qaeda militants who roam around much of northern Syria, hell-bent on driving their co-religionists from their homes, or worse.

In August 2013, news quickly spread through Hatay’s Alawite communities of an operation by Al Qaeda-linked extremists to take over several Alawite-inhabited towns a short distance over the border. They were beaten back but a year later, the same rebel groups reached within 25km of Samandag. And in June, a third major offensive by militants to seize Syrian Alawite villages bordering Samandag was repelled, but only after a brutal, three-month battle.

These recurring, if failed, offensives by extremists have awoken a long-dormant but deep-seated fear among Alawites in the region. Under Ottoman rule, Shiite Alawites were repeatedly subjected to attempts at conversion to Sunni Islam, and some of the most violent attacks took place in the early 19th century against the Kalbiyya tribe, whose most famous descendants are today’s rulers of Syria – the Assads.

This continued fear drew Alawites in Syria and Hatay away from cosmopolitan life in Beirut, Damascus and Aleppo, and into the mountains along the Mediterranean coast. Up there throughout the 20th century, they lived increasingly parochial and poverty-stricken lives.

When in 1939 the Republic of Hatay voted to join Turkey – a flawed vote by all accounts as the region’s ruling authority, France, turned a blind eye to vote rigging in the hope that handing Hatay over to Ankara would convince it to turn against Hitler – the new border turned families and neighbours into foreigners.

In the decades that followed, Alawite communities remained isolated and fearful that the Sunni majority in Anatolia and Syria, who they believed saw them as infidels, would one day again attempt to convert or slaughter them. For many, Syria’s popular uprising in 2011 meant that day had finally arrived.

Guided by ethnic kinship as well as the reality of today’s events, many people in Samandag believe that Syrian president Bashar Al Assad must be supported at any cost.

Experts say that, in the main, Alawites see themselves as more secular and tolerant than historical and current Sunni political figures in Syria and Turkey. As a result, Alawites both in Syria and Hatay province believe that a government run by a religious minority would maintain a level of balance that protects all citizens. What’s more, state policies during the 1950s and 60s saw Sunni Turks from other parts of Turkey resettled in mountain areas of Hatay province, contributing to a feeling of besiegement among locals.

Today, the threats seen by Alawite communities continue to mount: a government that claims to represent them has thrown its lot in with rebel groups determined to occupy Alawite towns a short distance away in Syria, while refugees continue to surge into Hatay province.

With no let up to the warring in Syria apparent in the near or even medium future, for Alawites in this historic, tormented region, the future looks very much like the past: one coloured and moulded by fear.


Stephen Starr is a journalist and author who has lived in Syria and Turkey since 2007.

Updated: December 15, 2016 04:00 AM