Antioch is experiencing one of the warmest summers ever, the Sun making everyday life unbearable. But Antiochian people are more concerned about a possible spill-over of Syrian civil war into the city. While the number of registered Syrian refugees in Turkey rose to 78,000 this week, the traditional market of Antioch was almost empty since there is a remarkable drop in the number of local and international tourists and many shops have already gone bankrupt. How do all these factors taken together influence the psychology of the local people and how do they react to the increasing number and visibility of the refugees?
Social tensions in Antioch, regular and relatively peaceful host to Alawites and Sunnis, have risen since the eruption of the Syrian conflict, reaching an unprecedented level since early July, when the fighting intensified. The visibility of Syrian refugees has created discontent among the local people but especially the Alawites, not only because of Al-Qaeda’s role in diminishing the legitimacy of the Syrian opposition and the reminder of bearded Libyan fighters in Antioch, but also for fear of an Islamist takeover of power in Syria. Further, some political parties in Turkey took to protesting at the Syrian refugees last month, to delegitimize the AKP government’s Syria policy and politicize Alawite discontent.
Spending 15 days in Antioch, whoever I talked to told me another rumour about the Syrian refugees and the growing tension between sectarian groups. The overall tendency of the rumours was to assert that these Syrian refugees will threaten the very existence of the Alawites. They either have arms or are trying to find some, given the uncertain future of the Syrian conflict. In turn, some say, many local people including Sunnis who oppose the fall of Assad have started to buy arms to protect themselves. Such problems surfaced also in some public hospitals in Antioch as refugees claimed Turkish doctors mistreated them or did not tend to Sunni or bearded refugees or rebels. Despite Turkish officials denial of such reports, a local correspondent of a daily newspaper told me in conversation that certain Turkish officials had asked the press not to report “sectarian incidents” in Antioch, in order not to intensify the tension.
Some local notables have urged people to calm down. But this may not be enough to prevent sectarian incidents since it would only take one major sectarian incident increasing fears and revisiting past traumas to kindle conflict among Sunnis, Alawites and refugees. This fact also reflects a deeper and covert divide in Turkish society in terms of Sunni-Alawite relations. A famous professor of religious studies, Hayreddin Karaman, recently published some articles on Syrian Alawites, criticizing them from the dominant Sunni Orthodox perspective. Although these articles were not aimed at Turkish Alawites, such writings cannot help. Hayreddin Karaman is quite popular, especially among the conservative AKP supporters. Such Sunni Orthodox perspectives will only further undermine the social cohesion of Turkish society that is already divided along ethnic and sectarian lines.
Unlike Tripoli, where heavy fighting has broken out between the Sunnis and the Alawites, thankfully, Antioch has escaped this so far. But given the sensitive make-up of the Antiochian population, we should not be surprised if journalists report violent sectarian incidents from Antioch.