Turkey’s border towns want Syria truce

Turks living near the border want to see fighting end as refugees stream in and local businesses suffer.

Ahmad Yaldiz , Hacipasa resident
Turks like Ahmad Yaldiz who live along the border can witness the fighting in Syria [Matthew Casse/Al Jazeera]

Antakya, Turkey – “When the bombs explode you feel like it’s happening right next to you,” said Ahmad Yaldiz as he prepared to lift a 90-kilogram sack stuffed with cotton on to a truck.

Yaldiz isn’t Syrian, and says he has not he been to Syria recently, but he’s experiencing the conflict raging inside Syria from his Turkish border town of Hacipasa.

“It’s like watching a movie,” he said, pointing to where townspeople observed fighter planes fly over the mountainous landscape inside Syria just a few hundred metres away from where we stood.

Within eyesight of Hacipasa are villages across the border like Salqin and other rebel-held areas in Idlib province that have been undergoing heavy bombardment by the Syrian air force in recent weeks.

With the war in Syria dragging on for 19 months, the efforts of UN envoy Lakhdar Brahimi to negotiate a ceasefire between the government and opposition fighters in time for Friday’s Eid holiday are being welcomed by Turks along the border with Syria.  

In recent weeks, shells and other munitions have reportedly been fired from inside Syria and landed over the border in areas not far from Hacipasa.

After an incident earlier this month when a Syrian shell killed five Turkish civilians in Akcakale, some hours east along the border, the Turkish government ordered the Syrian military to stay 10 kilometres away from the shared border.

But this buffer zone, said Yaldiz, “doesn’t make a difference. We still feel the bombs [on the other side of the border], and they frighten our children.”

‘Zero neighbours’

In a small resort town near Samandag on the Mediterranean Sea, cats scrounge for scraps in a restaurant that the manager said would otherwise be filled with people.

Mehmet Karragedek says he’s upset to see ‘Muslims killing Muslims’ [Matthew Cassel/Al Jazeera]

“We used to have tourism from Syria, Lebanon, Jordan, even Americans, and Germans,” said the manager, who asked that his name not be published.

He criticised Turkish Foreign Minister Ahmet Davutoglu’s “zero problems” policy with Turkey’s neighbours from a few years earlier. “Now we have zero neighbours, they all hate us,” he said.

Soon after the uprising against President Bashar al-Assad started in Syria, Turkey began to play a key role in supporting armed opposition groups, and has aided refugees fleeing the violence. Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan has repeatedly called for Assad step down from office.

But now, with the number of refugees in the country’s camps exceeding 100,000, with another 40,000 or more living in towns and cities, Turkey seems more eager to find an end to the conflict, even if that means Assad staying in power.

Increasing Turkish opposition – especially in areas along the 900km border with Syria – to Erdogan’s heavy involvement in the conflict is likely to be the main reason behind the government’s rethink of its policy.

Driving further along the border, the road ahead disappears behind the hills near the town of Kilis, home to Turkey’s largest refugee camp for Syrians, located just adjacent to a main border crossing into Syria.

When asked if men being dropped off near the border were returning home, a driver said: “Are you kidding me? They’re just going in to see their families and bring them some things and coming back out.”

Cars with Syrian license plates speed into Turkey every few minutes, each one overflowing with suitcases and bags full of personal possessions. With each trip, a bigger part of their life is resettled into Turkey.

“I’m upset to see Muslims killing Muslims, it shouldn’t happen like this,” said Mehmet Karragedek behind the counter of his crowded newsstand in Kelis. 

Karragedek said he and others in town were glad to welcome the thousands of refugees and willing to support them, but added that it made him upset to see so many people forced to leave their homes with nothing.

“Before the war Syrians came over as tourists to buy carpets, olive oil, and other products,” Karragedek said. But now, he said, they’re too poor to buy anything of value as they search for shelter and essential items to take of their families.

Businesses impacted

Less than an hour away on a street lined with factories in Gaziantep, one of Turkey’s most populated cities, textile factory owner Sahin Yavuzatmaca described how businesses are feeling the impact.

Syrian traders, he said, would come to Gaziantep to buy goods. Aleppo, Syria’s financial centre, is only two hours away, and in recent years trade had increased between Syrians and Turks on either side of the border.

Since the war started, he said, trade with Syria has all but stopped. Buyers from countries like Jordan and Iraq, who would pass through Syria by land on the way to Turkey, have also stopped coming.

“Now the only Syrians who come here are about 10-15 each day looking for work,” Yavuzatmaca said.

In Altinozu, not far from Hacipasa, butchers sat on the street enjoying a cup of tea after finishing the day’s work.

One of the butchers, Jaber, who declined to give his last name, told Al Jazeera he was worried the war could spill over to diverse areas like Hatay province if the fighting doesn’t end soon.

Jaber, a Christian, pointed to his colleagues, “This one is Alawite, these two are Sunni.

“We have no problems with each other, but other people [in Turkey] might if the war continues.” He added that he thinks it’s best for regional stability if the Syrian regime were to remain in power.

“Nobody supports anyone in the war. We just want it to end.”

Source: Al Jazeera