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September 12, 2011, Monday

Antakya: Friendship with Syria came late, disappeared quickly

I went to the Reyhanlı district of Antakya province for the Eid el-Fitr holiday. It is three kilometers away from the Cilvegözü border gate and 45 kilometers from Aleppo. Cilvegözü is the most important land route from Turkey not only to Syria, but also the entire Middle East.

On the streets of Reyhanlı you can run into Syrian military and police officers who took refuge with their relatives in Turkey. They hesitate to talk and there is fear in their eyes. They do not trust anybody. They only say that they had to flee in order to avoid becoming part of the savagery in Syria.

The buffer zone between the Cilvegözü and Babel Hawwa border gates has become a center for smuggling due to lack of security. Turkish smugglers cross through the Cilvegözü border gate to purchase fuel, oil and cigarettes without entering Syrian territory. About 2,000 cars do this on a daily basis, and each car makes a profit ranging from TL 100 to TL 500. For this reason, there was a shortage of fuel in Syria near the Turkish border. Fuel is 15 Syrian pounds in Syria whereas it is 45 Syrian pounds in the buffer zone (1,000 Syrian pounds is equal to TL 35). Syrian fuel is marketed in the convenience stores in Antakya at a price of TL 2.7 per liter. American cigarettes smuggled from Syria are sold at TL 5 per package.

Ses, a local paper based in İskenderun, pays a great deal of attention to this and takes the pulse of the local people. The paper is owned by Ayşe Figen Arlı, a journalist born and raised in İskenderun. She is concerned about what has been going on Syria and is trying to understand the incidents. “We found friendship with Syria late, but we are losing it really quickly,” she says, and she's right. The residents of Antakya agree with her.

Hasan Özdemir, owner of the Öncü paper from Reyhanlı; Şahiye Say, owner of the Samandağı daily from Samandağı; and Mehmet Karasu, chair of the Antakya branch of the Turkish Writers' Union, hold similar sentiments. The intellectuals of the city of Antakya are valuable and progressive. They are true intellectuals who lead human-oriented lives.

The local intellectuals believe that the US is responsible for the incidents in Syria. They also believe that Israel is what motivates the US to pursue this policy and that the real cause of the Arab Spring and the Syrian uprising is materialization and fulfillment of the Greater Middle East Project.

You attract reactions and criticism when you argue that Bashar al-Assad is a dictator, that the Arab people are now demanding democracy and that what matters is the friendship of the Syrian people rather than the friendship of a dictator like Assad. In that case, you are considered a pro-American, and you will have to defend yourself to make your point. When you find yourself in the middle of a conversation on Syria, you are asked whether you support Assad or a military intervention in Syria. Obviously this is a tough question to answer.

There is an old story that illustrates this point. A camel was asked whether it likes going uphill or down, and in reply the animal asked, “Is there not a level road?” We do not have to make a choice between the two equally bad options. In other words, we do not have to support the Assad regime or seek a military intervention in Syria. There should be a third option. This means that we have to support democratization in Syria rather than the continuation of the Assad regime or a military intervention. We cannot possibly prevent Syria from becoming another Iraq by continuing to support Assad.

We have to push the Assad regime to initiate political reforms, hold free and transparent elections and address the corruption in the political administration. We should make him be just and fair. We have to promote the rights of people, children, the poor and disabled, women and all living things in Syria and everywhere else in the world. We must promote environmental rights, humanity, respect for others and just distribution of revenue. We have to stand against discrimination, racism and religious and sectarian disagreements. Our compass should point only to democracy. We need the brotherhood of the people more than ever. We do not have to submit to brutal administrations.

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