Gaziantep is going places. Although this is my first visit, I get the impression that it has always been a charming town. Nestled just north of the Syrian border, a few hours from Aleppo, it shares much with Syria’s second city. It too has an imposing medieval citadel greeting visitors from a distance, and ancient souks now peddling inlaid wooden souvenirs for tourists. It shares Aleppo’s reputation for impressive cuisine, specializing particularly in pistachio-based baklava that seems to be sold in every other shop in town. While it is smaller than its southern cousin, with a population of 1.3 million, it boasts a friendly and relaxed atmosphere, typified by the dozens of families strolling daily in the large leafy park that runs along either side of the river that bisects the city centre. Like so many cities in central Turkey – the ‘Anatolian Tigers’ – Gaziantep has greatly benefitted from the economic boom seen under the AKP’s rule. Trade with Europe and, more recently neighbouring Middle Eastern states has grown exponentially; factories have been built in the vast industrial estates on the northern side of town; tourism has boomed; infrastructure – including a slick new tram – has been improved; and vast new private university campuses have opened for business. More than anywhere else I have visited, Gaziantep seems to typify the ‘New Turkey’ that writers such as Chris Morris have described.
Of course, as the sleepy, peripheral town has awoken, it seems to have encountered some of the wider issues that face Turkey as a whole. The debate between secularists and Islamists inevitably comes up in conversations with locals. The few English-speaking secularists I meet complain of the AKP and the support it gets among Gaziantep’s conservative-minded industrialists. Similarly, they moan how illiberal it feels here compared to Istanbul, and the fact that many restaurants have stopped selling alcohol during Ramadan. From a brief encounter, it doesn’t feel that conservative to me, especially compared with many Arab cities I have visited. However, once again in the mind of a Turkish secularist, fearing the gradual eroding of the Kemalist values that they have held dear for generations, the increasing number of veiled women walking alongside their husbands in the park can appear more threatening than to a western vistor.
The ‘Kurdish problem’, is also an emerging issue. Omer, manager of one of Gaziantep’s most successful industrial companies, tells me that the city is, traditionally, “the last Turkish city as you go east”, by which he means that the cities eastward of here – Urfa, Diyarbakir – have Kurdish rather than Turkish majorities. Yet as an economic success, Gaziantep has attracted internal migration including a sizeable Kurdish workforce for the first time. More so than in Istanbul or Ankara, the few people I discuss this matter with show more sympathy with the Kurds. Omer actually refers to the east as a ‘Kurdish area’, for example, and admits that the Kurds are treated badly. However, when the subject of the PKK comes up – currently facing yet another confrontation with the Turkish army in the East as I write – he is uncompromising. “They are terrorists,” he says, “no-one supports them, not Kurds, not anyone.” That said, he doesn’t foresee any trouble with Gaziantep’s new Kurdish population: “They are hard workers and we all get on fine. They just want to work, not get involved in politics.”
I came to Gaziantep in search of businesses that traded with Syria to get a sense of how they had been impacted by the crisis. In 2010 Syrian-Turkish trade was worth $2bn, according to the Gaziantep Chamber of Commerce, and $1.5bn of that consisted of Turkish exports. Gaziantep’s entrepreneurs themselves accounted for $130m of that. For some, then, the recent closure of the Syrian border has been an economic disaster. Omer’s company, for example, had taken advantage of improved Syrian-Turkish ties in recent years and invested heavily in the Syrian market. Taking advantage of cheaper labour and energy costs, they had built two large factories on the outskirts of Aleppo that accounted for 30-40% of total production in 2010. With the battle for Aleppo now raging between rebels and Assad’s forces, both factories closed down 3 weeks ago, the managers returned to Turkey and the Syrian workforce effectively laid off. “It’s going to be a tough year,” complained Omer.
Others though, were less concerned by the loss of Syrian trade. “Syria is not that important to Turkey economically,” a Gaziantepan academic remarked to me. “It is an important trade route to the Middle East, and it was symbolic in opening the Arab world up to Turkish goods, but for a while now the actual value of Syrian trade was far less than other Middle Eastern states.” Another industrialist that I spoke to confirmed this view. “Northern Iraq is where the real money is for Gaziantep. Syria is a market, but its no more special than others. Syria is not much of a developed economy. The middle classes have less to spend, and the industry is not that developed. We are an industrial city now, so we primarily export to other industrial economies. This is why northern Iraq has become so important: Iraqi Kurdistan is industrializing rapidly and they are buying our goods to do so.” While he believed that Gaziantep’s industrialists had a diverse enough customer base that it could survive prolonged chaos in Syria, he was worried that the conflict might destabilize Iraq. The academic echoed this point of view: “Gaziantep is trying to position itself as a major trading hub, but a lot of that depends on northern Iraq. 43% of our trade is with Iraqi Kurdistan. If the Syrian crisis spills over there, this dream of being a major player could evaporate.”
More pessimistic were those involved in Gaziantep’s tourist industry, who had been heavily reliant on Syrian tourists, particularly from Aleppo, before the crisis. Several tourist workers were quietly resentful of the AKP for being too aggressive towards Syria too early, while others – particularly the industrialists – shrugged their shoulders, failing to see what else Turkey could have done in the face of Assad’s brutality. Interestingly Gaziantepan’s views of Syrians themselves varied considerably. The professionals I spoke to, from the Chamber of Commerce and businesses, whether intentionally or not, spouted the official AKP government line on the Syrian people. They said how the Syrians were their ‘brothers’ and that they welcomed the tens of thousands of refugees that have fled to Turkey to escape the violence. Yet in informal settings, I found locals more cynical. A pair of teachers I spoke to remarked how when the busloads of Syrians used to visit the city, the locals would make fun of them behind their backs – echoing the anti-Arab snobbery that I found in parts of Istanbul. Similarly one noted how, when her parents joined in the wave of Turkish tourists visiting Syria during the 2000s, they found Aleppo and its people ‘primitive’. Clearly among ordinary Turks notions of brotherhood with Syria only goes so far and, as seen by the imbalanced trade relationship, even economically it is a connection that has clear delineated roles of who is ‘big’ and ‘little’ brother.
Syrian refugees: the view from Kilis
Few Syrian refugees can actually be found in Gaziantep city itself, although they are free to visit the city if they want from the four official refugee camps that have been set up in Turkey. There are officially 44,000 Syrian refugees in Turkey at present, though many accept that the unofficial figure is far higher. I visited the Oncupinar camp south of Kilis. Unlike in northern Jordan, where the UNHCR and charities operate the camps, Kilis is run entirely by the Turkish government – through the Turkish Red Crescent – and as such foreigners such as myself are denied entry. Syrians are allowed in and out as they please though, so I perch on a breeze block at an improvised bus stop outside the camp and chat with those on their way to and from Kilis – about 8 km away. As I found in Jordan, each refugee has a horror story explaining why they left Syria. Those I speak to come from Aleppo, Idleb and Jisr al-Shughour, and tell tales of the army and the Shabiha (pro-Assad militia) coming into their towns and villages, launching military attacks, shelling buildings and indiscriminately killing. Their stories of how they reached Turkey are, at times, just as moving. One man travelled by foot with his wife, 3 brothers and baby daughter from the countryside near Hama (about 200km). This involved traversing the mountains and sneaking past government check points. When they eventually reached Turkey they were placed in the Urfa camp, which, I discover from those that I meet here, has a reputation for poor conditions. Aware that the high temperatures of eastern Urfa were bad for his baby daughter, exacerbated by having to live in a tent, the man snuck back into Syria, again having to avoid army check points and trek by foot, to make his way to Kilis where conditions were meant to be better and refugees lived in containers rather than tents.
The views I hear here vary from inspiring to disturbing. One of the most incredible people I come across is a middle-aged doctor from Aleppo who is only in Kilis for the day, arranging an apartment – outside the camp – for his wife and daughter before returning to Aleppo. “I am a doctor,” he says when I asked why he is returning, “no matter how bad it gets, I love my country and I must help people.” His approach to the political situation is music to the ears of anyone fearing sectarianism or the rise of radical Islamism after Assad falls. “There is no tension in Aleppo at the moment between the sects, we are all brothers,” he says. “We don’t have a problem with the Alawis, just with the wrongs committed by the Assad regime.” He used to support Assad he said, and was a fan of his father, Hafez, but, “we live in a different world now. We need a modern state. A modern, civil, democratic state.” Sharing his pluralist views are several young students I meet. One, an English literature student from Jisr al-Shughour who studied in Lattakia similarly advocates a plural, democratic Syria after Assad. “All the people are scared of civil war,” he says, “It is coming, but not between sects, but between those who are pro and against Assad. Between the murderers and the people. There is no civil war between religions.” On the Alawis he says, “There will not be war between the Sunnis and the Alawis. After Assad goes I would like to see the murderers among the Alawis go to prison or to leave Syria because I don’t want any more bloodshed. However, Sunnis can live side by side with Alawis, but only with those that in their hearts were with the revolution, even if they did not demonstrate.” Though a devout Sunni Muslim, he too wants a civil state, not a theocracy. “We want a humanitarian leader,” he says, “whether Muslim, Christian or whatever. Everyone has their own opinion, and my opinion is I don’t want an Ikhwan (Muslim Brotherhood) government.”
Syrian refugees: signs of intolerance
The youngest refugees I meet do not share these tolerant views, however. As a foreigner inquisitive teenage boys inevitably swamp me when I arrive. The most vocal of these, Mohammad, a 14 year old from the Aleppo countryside and Shadi, a 16 year old from Idleb have a harsher view of Syria’s minority communities. Mohammad enthusiastically talks about Syria’s sects: “Only the Sunnis are against the regime. The Christians are scared of Islam. They do not like Islam. After the regime is gone, I don’t know what will happen to these minorities. Me, I don’t want the Alawis in Syria. None of them.” He later accepts that Druze and Christians could enter the government in the future, but not Alawis ever, he says. “All the Alawis are with Bashar,” says Shadi, at which point a younger member of the audience we have attracted jumps in and says, “no, its 50-50, not all are with the regime.” Mohammad snarls at the younger interlocutor. “No!” he barks. “They are ALL with the regime. Every one of them.” The younger boy looks sheepish and sits back down silent. As for the next regime, both Shadi and Mohammad, whose uncle is fighting in the Free Syria Army, say they want an Islamic government after Assad. This is a view shared by a few other older interviewees. “I want Ikhwan rule after Assad,” says Ahmed, a shopkeeper from Aleppo, “A Sunni government led by someone who fears God.” That Assad, an Alawi, does not ‘fear God’ has become a popular slogan shouted by Sunni protestors who do not recognize Alawis as true Muslims.
On the one hand the fact that some refugees held quite intolerant views towards the Alawis might be explained by the horrific experiences they’ve been through. On the other hand, I know from elsewhere that this is emerging as a significant current of thought, alongside an increasingly radical Islamism, among members of the armed opposition. The Kilis refugees’ views then, seemed to reflect the diverse views and debates within the opposition movements at the moment, both liberal and tolerant and Islamist and sectarian. I left hoping that whatever debates take place as to how to rule post-Assad Syria, they will be solved in a more democratic manner than young Mohammad aggressively shouting down his younger critic.