Turkey/Syria, Nov 2005: Hatay– Turkey’s southernmost province- has changed dramatically since my visit to the area in late 2005. Near the border town of Reyhanli there is a huge refugee camp for the thousands of Syrian’s who have managed to escape over the nearby border to safety- and other camps scattered throughout the province. Locals complain of unemployment as refugees, most of whom live outside official camps, accept lower wages. They say house prices are rocketing and fear worsening violence.
There is no sign of any let-up in the Syrian war, now in its fourth year, in which at least 140,000 people have been killed and millions made refugees. Fighting is especially intense in and around the city of Aleppo, just 45 km (28 miles) from the Turkish border. In May, twin car bombs killed 43 people and wounded more than 100 in a shopping district in Reyhanli. The government said it suspected Syrian involvement. The open border provides a lifeline for rebel-held areas which has allowed humanitarian aid in and refugees out. But it has also drawn accusations of allowing radical fighters to cross the border unchecked and of burdening a fragile economy with an influx of the displaced.
Hatay, sandwiched between Syria and the Mediterranean Sea- is also demographically unique, containing the country’s largest proportion of Arabs- nearly a third of the province’s population of 1.5 million. As the only province to join Turkey after its establishment in 1923, Hatay is politically unique as well. Hatay is also the only province that mirrors Syria’s key ethnic divides. In addition to ethnic Turks, it is home to Alawite Arabs (co-religionists of the Assad regime), Sunni Arabs, Kurds, Circassians, Armenians, and Arab Christians. Moreover, Hatay’s Alawite and Sunni Arabs are connected to Syrian Alawites and Sunnis through familial and tribal links.
Given its history and demography, Hatay is exposed more directly to developments in Syria than Turkey’s other provinces. If the war across the border becomes explicitly Sunni versus Alawite, their sectarian brethren in Hatay could be pitted against each other, whether in terms of upping the current political tension, sparking violence within Turkey, or joining the fight in Syria.