ANTAKYA, Turkey — The home of Subhi Barakat, the president of the French Mandate’s Syrian Federation in the early 1920s, is nestled within the old part of this southern city, right next to the present border with Syria. Boasting stone vaults with radiating porcelain tiles, the 19th-century residence was built in the architectural tradition known as eclecticism, based on the principle that employing a range of styles can create something new. Barakat went on to back the Syrian rebellion against the French, who took control after World War I and the partitioning of the Ottoman Empire.

Nearby once lived Zaki al-Arsuzi, who later became the intellectual progenitor of the Baathist movement—which combined pan-Arabism and socialism—and a mentor to President Hafez al-Assad, father of Syria’s current president. As a teacher in Antakya, he abolished the French system in his classroom, removing divisions based on religion and sect, founded an Arabism club and stressed to his students that they belonged to one nation. The French authorities exiled him to Aleppo for fear he would stir anti-French sentiment.

Antakya visibly embodies the history of the modern Syrian nation, and yet it currently stands outside Syrian borders. Today, it’s the capital of Turkey’s southern Hatay province.

This Mediterranean region of some 1.6 million people falls outside the usual neat understanding of what is Turkey and what is Syria. Home to some 900,000 Arabic-speaking Syrians, the province has become a testing ground for whether Turkey’s national citizenship program for nearly 200,000 Syrian migrants—the only one of its kind in the region—can help ease their integration within Turkish society. 

It’s significant that the Syrians here are hardly a monolith. Thanks to an unprecedented policy of citizenship for the large numbers of them who migrate to Turkey, they are increasingly divided along the lines of citizen and non-citizen. Their influx to Hatay, and a new citizenship hierarchy crystallizing among them, may forever change the ethno-political narrative of this region.


*          *          *


Even before the latest newcomers settled here, Hatay was a geopolitical fault line. Formerly known as the sanjak of Alexandretta, an administrative division of the Ottoman Empire, the region fell under Syria’s Aleppo province before it was folded into France’s mandate.




The new Turkish republic complained to the League of Nations about the safety of the ethnic Turkish population there—leading to the sanjak’s naming as the Republic of Hatay, an independent entity meant to be separate from, yet connected to Syria, in 1937. When a Turkish-French treaty sealed a friendship between the two powers, tens of thousands of Turks moved into the area, and a 1939 referendum made the republic an official part of Turkey.

But Syria never recognized the annexation, accusing France of using its land as a bribe to keep Turkey out of Hitler’s orbit. Inside Syria, demonstrations each November 30 still mark the loss of the land.[1] Official Syrian maps continue to include Hatay as part of the country’s national territory.

Just this past November, Syria’s parliament issued a statement that it would “do everything in its power to get back Hatay.” Although largely toothless, the rhetoric shows how control over the area continues to echo in Syria-Turkish relations—with its residents suspended in the middle.

Today, Hatay is the only Turkish province not to have been part of the republic’s establishment in 1923. Geographically, it is almost entirely outside of Anatolia and pokes down into Syria like a thumb.

Hatay also stands out in Turkey linguistically and culturally: Alongside ethnic Turks, it is home to Sunni, Alawite and Christian Arabs, Kurds, Armenians, Circassians and Jews—a mirror of Syria’s ethnoreligious diversity, including the largest proportion of indigenous Arabs found in the entire nation.


*          *          *


Already accustomed to neighbors of various faiths and ethnicities, many Hatay locals have their doubts about whether integration here will work.

“We are no strangers to problems here: The Christian problem. The Armenian problem. The Kurdish problem. The Alawite problem,” one ethnic Arab archaeologist named Yusuf told me. “And now, Hatay has a Syria problem.” (His family name, as well as all others, is withheld for security concerns.)


Antakya (foto_great1, Unsplash)


Yusuf, who was dressed in a checkered suit, is a member of Hatay’s Arab Orthodox Christian community of roughly 1,500 people.“Look,” he added, pulling on his cigarette. “I don’t have a problem with Syrians personally. But the doctors went to Europe, the engineers to Istanbul, and here we are stuck with the poorest of them.”

He pointed behind his desk to a replica of a mosaic. Known as Antioch in ancient times, Antakya, the capital of Roman-controlled Syria, is renowned for its massive collection of Roman mosaics.

 “Each stone fits perfectly aside one another,” Yusuf said. “Where do we put all these new stones?”

That is the question increasingly facing Hatay, which reportedly has one of the highest concentrations of Syrians who have acquired Turkish citizenship.

The city’s mayor, Lutfu Savash, blamed Syrians in an article for disruptions to Hatay’s small-scale agricultural sector. He argued that the new arrivals have led to Turks migrating away. “After the Syrians settled in our city, our citizens with three to five acres of land got into a dead end,” he said, explaining that Turkish farmers typically sell their land to Syrians and move to urban areas in search of new work.

Besides agriculture, Hatay’s economy depends mainly on tourism and international transportation. The region benefited from a boom in Syria-Turkish trade in the early 2000s, which ended with the outbreak of the Syrian conflict. In 2019, Hatay was one of the top five provinces with the largest negative contribution to Turkey’s annual GDP according to TurkStat, the government’s statistical agency. Savash is not alone in pinning the blame for the weak economy on the newcomers.


*          *          *


On a cold, wet day in the village of Vakifli, located on the slopes of Musa Dagh, or Moses Mountain some 15 miles north of Antakya, a group of elders sat in a café around an oil drum-turned-fireplace. A plastic Christmas sapling stood watch in the corner. Vakifli is Turkey’s only remaining Armenian village.


In a teahouse in Vakifli, Turkey’s only remaining ethnic Armenian village, Kevork says Syrians are threatening Hatay's delicate social balance


The eldest, Kevork, donning a newsie cap, laid out a deck of cards to draw a metaphor for how Hatay’s diverse groups balance one another out. “The large number of Syrians, however, threaten this balance,” he said. Syrians are crowding out locals by agreeing to work for less, he and others in the café argued.

As Kevork dealt out cards to the other players, he also brought up a larger concern often voiced by Turkey’s political opposition: that these recently naturalized Turks will change the delicate political map ahead of the 2023 general elections. Syrian Turks, it is widely believed, will always be loyal to the ruling Justice and Development Party, or AKP.

Although the new constituency is too small to make an impact on national elections, legislative elections at the provincial level are always close—in Hatay, parliamentary seats have been decided by only a few thousand votes.    

Downhill from the village, in the coastal town of Samandag, known for its large Alawite community, a local journalist, Ismail, shared the concern over the disruptive effects of the Syrian war on Syrian society. Describing changes to Syrian identity he said, “Before, my Syrian friends would always first identify as Syrian, no matter their religion. That national identity is in danger by those continuing to fight.”

The influx of Syrians also threatens the secular principles in Hatay society, Ismail added. Some argue that Turkish support for Assad, especially by Samandag’s Alawite community, has grown in Hatay since the start of the Syrian conflict. That is the only way, according to Ismail and others, that Syria can be stable for Syrians to return.


*          *          *


Such concerns about Syrians disrupting Hatay’s equilibrium exist alongside a generous national policy: Turkey is the only of Syria’s neighboring countries to offer citizenship to displaced Syrians. They make up an emerging class of naturalized Syrian Turks.

An increasingly defined social structure has emerged, with four broad categories of Syrians in Turkey: those who are undocumented, others with temporary protection or refugee status, Syrian residents and, with the greatest rights, naturalized Syrian Turks.

Public data on the number of Syrians granted citizenship is not made regularly available, but when the plan was first revealed in 2016, the government said it was preparing for up to 300,000 Syrians to become Turks. To date, more than 193,000 Syrians have become Turkish citizens, according to Turkish Interior Minister Suleyman Soylu.

The policy is remarkable given that Turkey has largely focused on defending its ethnic brethren. Witness, for instance, Turkey extending citizenship to some Iraqi Turkmen and Uyghurs, a Turkic ethnic group, or the Turkish Foreign Minister’s message to Lebanese Turkmen during a visit to Beirut after the devastating 2020 port explosion: “We will grant Turkish citizenship to our brothers who say ‘I am Turkish, I am Turkmen,’ and express their desire to become a citizen.” Although Turkey has fast-tracked Syrian Turkmen, most Syrians being considered (and accepted) by Turkey’s citizenship policy appear to be ethnic Arabs.



One of Christianity’s oldest churches, the Church of St Peter near Antakya, built circa 1100 by crusaders and rebuilt in the 19th century


Generally, Turkey has offered three paths to citizenship: naturalization with a valid residency permit for five years (most Syrians are disqualified due to being under temporary protection or holding a tourist residency); an ongoing marriage of at least three years[2]; and a more recent cash-for-passport program, where citizenship is offered in exchange for investing $250,000 in real estate.

However, the last option is not a pathway for most Syrian nationals due to a 20th-century Turkish law blocking Syrians from property ownership, largely for fear that irredentist Syrians would try to reassert sovereignty over the disputed Hatay province by buying back land.[3] The other option is to deposit $500,000 in a Turkish bank account for three years—a pathway for only a few hundred wealthy Syrians to obtain citizenship.

Unable to access these mainstream pathways, Syrians primarily have obtained Turkish citizenship through the extraordinary conditions of Turkey’s 2009 naturalization law, which authorized the cabinet to grant citizenship to foreigners who provide an “outstanding service” to the country economically, in sports, the arts or other ways. (Among such foreigners is the Chinese-born table tennis player Melek Hu, who competed for the Turkish national team in the 2008 Olympics.)

Although cases were meant to be considered only under exceptional terms, the interpretation of “exceptional” has changed over time—namely, as the Turkish government watched the brightest and wealthiest of the exiled Syrians in Turkey leave for the West.

Media reports highlighted instances of Turkey’s rejecting exit visas for educated Syrians who had received resettlement visas in Western countries. The government apparently started to see offering citizenship as a strategy to stop that exodus.

In 2018, the country shifted from a parliamentary to a presidential system of government—now extraordinary citizenship cases no longer require approval by the entire Turkish cabinet, but can be settled more simply and swiftly by the president’s office. Thanks to the rare combination of political will and bureaucratic streamlining, tens of thousands of Syrians began securing Turkish citizenship.


Habib-i al Najjar Mosque contains the tomb of Habib the Carpenter, said to be a contemporary of Jesus Christ, and a symbol of the religious coexistence in Antakya today (Dosseman, Wikimedia Commons)


At a large trade fair called the Hatay Expo earlier this month, Kemal Kilicdaroglu, the head of the main opposition Republic People’s Party, said the province hosts the most Syrians per capita of any province in Turkey. The area also reportedly has one of the highest concentrations of Syrians who have acquired Turkish citizenship.

However, the dozens of Syrian applicants I interviewed described the government’s procedure of inviting Syrians to apply for Turkish citizenship as random and obscure. Even less clear, they said, is why some Syrians and not others eventually receive citizenship.

“It’s like maqluba,” Mohammad, a hotel manager in Antakya said with a hungry look, referring to a Syrian rice dish that is flipped upside down before being served.

Originally from Hama, he manages a boutique hotel in the old city (and moonlights online as an exchange rate forecast trainer). Inside, windows and balconies surround a lush yard, of a design similar to18th-century courtyard houses in Damascus.

As three Ukrainian businessmen in the courtyard discussed how best to export olive saplings from Hatay, Mohammad described how he had heard stories about Syrian doctors being denied Turkish citizenship, while his neighbor, who runs a market stall, was successful. After more than two years, he is still waiting to hear about his own citizenship application.


*          *          *


Like with any diaspora, many longstanding socioeconomic divisions followed Syrians across the border into Turkey. But the difference in the status of those with and without Turkish citizenship is novel. Originally from Aleppo, Jawad, who coordinates cross-border aid programs to rebel-held northern Syria, described a hierarchy that has emerged between Syrian Turks and Syrian refugees.

Since becoming a citizen two years ago, Jawad’s advantages—speaking Arabic and legal status in Turkey—have put him in a small pool of candidates considered upwardly mobile, and he has risen in the ranks toward middle management at his workplace, an NGO. Meanwhile, only 1 to 2 percent of working-age Syrians have work authorization (permit applications are costly and burdensome).

Upon Jawad’s receiving his passport, his family immediately looked into buying a house. That is something many Syrian Turks do, he noticed. They are more willing (and also for the first time legally able) to invest. “I know my rights now, and I am not afraid to tell the authorities when I am being mistreated,” he said of what’s changed with his new citizenship.

One of the recent homeowners is Brigadier General Ahmed Berry, who defected from the Syrian military at the start of the conflict and went on to become chief of staff of the Free Syrian Army, the initial military wing of the Syrian opposition.[4] With the physique of a linebacker, he mercilessly banged on a wobbly plastic table in a quiet city garden near his apartment, railing against the recent actions of the “criminal Syrian regime.”


General Ahmed Berry (right), who defected from the Syrian military and went on to become chief of staff for the Free Syrian Army, in a park near his home in Turkey


Still, Berry was enjoying his new rights as a Turkish citizen, particularly freedom of movement. “The Syrian passport is the worst in the world. Now, I can move freely to any province here and go to over 50 countries without a visa,” he said. “And if the regime falls tomorrow, I will be back in Syria tomorrow night. I can move back and forth now.”

By contrast, Syrians under temporary protection status need permission to move between provinces or face possible deportation. If caught in a different province without permission, they risk becoming part of an alarming trend of forced deportation, as has happened to over 150 Syrians in late January alone.  

Sulayman, who had his citizenship application revoked, described very different circumstances. Syrians without Turkish citizenship now ask naturalized family or friends to put real estate in their names as a workaround to buying property themselves, he said.

But that scheme comes with a significant risk, he added, recalling the cases of some Syrians who had initially asked Turks “They learned the hard way after [the Turks] seized the property, leaving them with nothing.” Sulayman had asked a close friend, whom he knew from his hometown in northeastern Syria, to buy an apartment in his name. “I trust him like a brother. The same will not happen to me,” he said confidently. 

The perks of citizenship go beyond mobility and ownership. A Syrian with a Turkish passport, who asked to go unnamed, described what happened when he enrolled in a remote MBA course at Bahçeşehir University in Istanbul. Tuition went down from $12,000 for foreigners to $3,000 for Turkish citizens.

Then there’s Abo Abdo, a burly man in his mid-40s from Idlib, whom I met just a week after he acquired his Turkish citizenship. He looked as if he had just won the lottery. “Syrian refugees are at the bottom of the social pyramid,” he said. “Sure, they have access to some rights, like free healthcare and education, don’t have to pay taxes, etc. But I am much happier now as a citizen.”

But citizenship is no cure-all for Syrians in Turkey. Several Syrian Turks expressed unease that their citizenship could be revoked depending on domestic Turkish politics.

Earlier this month, Turkey’s main opposition leader Kemal Kilicdaroglu reiterated his commitment to send Syrians home should his party win the 2023 election. Syrians in Antakya noted with concern that such a forced exodus has already occurred in Sudan, where 10,000 Syrians lost their Sudanese citizenship in 2020 after a transitional government came to power. 

But citizenship alone does not determine the opportunities for Syrians in Turkey, one Syrian in her early 40s who had worked as a lawyer in Syria told me in a café overlooking Antakya’s Orontes River. Language barriers can play a role, too, Najla said. Most Syrian Turks with whom I spoke agreed.

Having diligently studied Turkish upon her arrival and developed professional competency, Najla is now studying for her final law school exam to be a lawyer in Turkey. “I will be able to represent other Syrians here,” she said.

Najla has been in Antakya since 2013 and rules out returning to Syria under any circumstances. “Syria was destroyed even before the war began.”


Few people were willing to have their photographs taken. Many are displaced and uncomfortable talking about their citizenship status, worried they could be deported


Away from the provincial capital, positioned along the international highway that connects the port of Iskenderun in Turkey and Idlib in Syria, the town of Reyhanli is a gateway where Turkey first felt the spillover of the Syrian conflict. A 2013 car bombing in the town’s center killed more than 50 people, one of the deadliest attacks in Turkey’s modern history. Seeing it as his attempt to hit the Syrian opposition and stir sectarian tensions inside Hatay at the time, Turkey blamed Syrian President Bashar al-Assad. “Assad followed us here,” Hassan, a lawyer originally from southern Idlib, told me.

Over the last decade, Reyhanli’s population has swollen nearly threefold to about 250,000 with entire new residential areas built for Syrian migrants. Hassan drove me from the downtown to his home in one of those neighborhoods, Yeni Shehir (New City).

In contrast to the cold of Antakya, the sun was bright and warm. “Of course,” Hassan said as we entered his apartment. “Because we are close to Syria.”

That proximity prompted him to move to Reyhanli. “I didn’t care about getting citizenship at first,” he said. “I thought I would be here temporarily, which is why I chose to live here, close to the border. However, I agreed to submit my application when invited to apply for citizenship.”

The majority of other Syrians he knows who were invited to apply did the same, he said. Although public data is not available, Hassan estimated the number of naturalized Syrians in Reyhanli at around 10 percent of the population, above average compared to other parts of the country.

Still, Hassan said that one Syrian Turk regretted his decision to become a citizen after discovering his family could no longer live in one of Turkey’s few remaining refugee camps where electricity and other basic utilities are free.

“Some fear losing support from international organizations, but I still advise all Syrians to apply,” Hassan said. “You can find work, buy a house, get security and so on. Still some say no, as they think it means giving up on ever returning.”

Despite a widespread appreciation for naturalization, my interview with more than a dozen Syrian Turks made one thing clear: none of them were particularly excited to vote, and any feelings of newfound loyalty or nationalism—if present—went unsaid. The offer of Turkish citizenship appears a marriage of convenience, not one of love.   


*          *          *


“What are you doing in Yayladag?!” a bus driver asked in mock disbelief, as I boarded his minibus. After a 45-minute ride zigzagging through the mountains, I arrived at the town’s center, located at the southernmost point in Turkey, next to the Syrian border.


A 360-degree view of fields outside Yayladag. Use cursor to see full view (Ozkan Yildirir, Google Maps)


There I was greeted by a pleasant series of murals of smiling strawberries, Yayladag’s main cash crop, as well as two less pleasant plainclothes policemen. They asked me the same question as my driver; this time, they were actually expecting an answer.

I told them the truth: I had come to visit a friend’s cousin, Tarek. I wanted to speak to the Syrians there at the very tip of Hatay. The town has doubled in size to over 20,000 in the past decade, primarily due to the influx of Syrian Turkmen, who share ethnic and family ties with Yayladag’s Turkish residents. The officers eventually let me meet Tarek, a naturalized strawberry and mushroom farmer.

In the quiet of his home, he explained how he had grown up less than five kilometers away in one of the 35 Turkmen villages on the other side of the border. He recounted how the Turkmen minority in Syria had been marginalized because of government concerns it was a fifth column for Turkish interests.

“The Syrian regime gave us nothing,” he said. “I grew olives and lemons. In 2012, we fled from bombings by Syrian airplanes. At the border, one Turkish soldier put my 72-year-old mother on his back and another carried my daughter to safety. That is the difference between the two sides of the border. Now, I grow strawberries here.”

“When I lived in Syria, I dreamed in Arabic,” he added. “Now I dream in Turkish.”

Tarek’s family received citizenship two years ago alongside the majority of the approximately 10,000 Syrian Turkmen in Yaladag, he said. “Citizenship is very useful,” he explained. “As a farmer, I can own the land instead of renting. Others decided to move to other parts of Turkey. Since we [Syria’s Turkmen minority] speak both Turkish and Arabic, many of us work in companies dealing in the region.”

Although the visible border wall and the memories of Syria it evokes for him cause him stress, Tarek appears to be one of the lucky ones . “If the regime leaves, then I will go back and forth,” he said. “There to farm my olives and lemons. Here, I’ll continue with strawberries and mushrooms. But my children will stay. They are Turkish citizens and there is no future for them in Syria.”


*          *          *


In Hatay, the idea of bridges is an inevitable cliché. Syrians, whether naturalized or not, and Turks are deeply entwined here to a degree distinct from many other Turkish regions. Far from Turkey and Syria’s political centers, nationalism is replaced by a more local familiarity with one another. With the new social class of naturalized Turks presenting a phenomenon not in keeping with the region’s concepts about ethnicity, the anomalous demography and culture of Hatay somehow doesn’t sit easily alongside Turkish statism.

In my hotel’s stone courtyard in Anatakya’s old city, Mohammad, the hotel manager, offered his parting insight. “It is better that Hatay is under the Turks than the Syrians,” he said. “If not, it would have been destroyed like everywhere else, and I would have had to find another place to live for my family.”

The liminal boundary between self and the other may be at its thinnest here.

On my final day in Hatay, I met Ahmet, a Turkish high school teacher with a toothy grin, in the town center. He didn’t blame Syrians, including those who have acquired citizenship, for wanting to settle in the area.

“Hatay has been a junction since Alexander the Great,” he said. “We are all passengers here, refugee or not. My family just happened to migrate here five centuries earlier. So if a Syrian lives here, works here, pays taxes and obeys the rules—then why not?” 



[1] The rationale for this date is twofold. First, the League of Nations granted autonomy to Hatay in November 1937. The second may be more symbolic to show unity with another cause related to greater Syria: A decade later in November, the United Nations issued a resolution on the partition of Palestine.

[2] According to TurkStat, 3,373 Syrian brides were married in Turkey in 2019 and 2,798 in 2020, the largest proportion of any foreign nationality. For foreign grooms, 751 Syrians were married to Turks in 2019, and 735 in 2020, second only to Germany where there is a large Turkish community. The majority of these marriages likely occur in border areas, such as in Hatay, where Syrians share deep familial and ethnic bonds with their neighbors.

[3] Syrian nationals without either secondary Turkish citizenship or who have established a company are blocked from purchasing real estate. Turkey made several amendments to land ownership in November 2021. One of them stipulated that Syrians with another foreign nationality (for example, a Syrian with German citizenship) would be treated as a Syrian in Turkey and therefore barred from owning property.

[4] There are reports that some Syrians received Turkish citizenship by way of their tie to the FSA, which assisted Turkey in carving out a buffer zone in northwest Syria.


Top photo: A view of the inside of the Church of St. Peter as people visit the centuries-old site and take in views of Antakya in the valley below