'Caught in the middle': Syrian refugees put strain on Turkish border town

Mezarlik Street in Antakya, Turkey, is known as "Syrian Street." This is where Syrian refugees with money can rent decent apartments, and where wounded fighters seek medical care. Jim Maceda / NBC News

A once quiet Turkish border town has been strained by the bloody conflict on its doorstep, as the stream of Syrians fleeing civil war stretches its resources and leaves locals angry at the lack of international response.

Antakya used to be a quaint, colorful and tolerant city in southern Turkey, about 25 miles from the Syrian border. Even as sectarian battle lines were being drawn next door between the Sunni majority and the minority Alawite sect to which Syrian President Bashar Assad belongs -- Antakya remained mixed and friendly.

But now that’s changed, said Zaina Daoleh, a middle-aged wife and mother, born and raised in Antakya.

“This was a peaceful place. I grew up with Christian and Sunni friends from first grade and we were still best friends in high school,” recalled Daoleh, an Alawite. “But there’s tension now.”

At the popular outdoor Sumerler Cafe in Antakya, Turkey, locals relax and play backgammon. Jim Maceda / NBC News

Her older sister, Fatma Adjan, a microbiologist, agreed.

“If the war in Syria continues, Turks will suffer even more,” she said, as they both relaxed at the popular outdoor Sumerler Cafe. “You can see the spillover already. The parents are spreading hatred and religious propaganda through their children. And the kids are now confused.”

Tens of thousands have already lost their lives in the bloody conflict between forces loyal to Assad and those opposed to his rule, forcing more than 2 million people to flee across Syria's borders. The bulk of those refugees end up in Lebanon, Turkey and Jordan.

In Antakya, opinions about the war are split along deepening sectarian fault lines, and have become heated. Like everyone we spoke to in this Alawite part of town, the sisters are undying supporters of Assad’s government, and said they felt deeply relieved that the U.S. cruise missiles were never launched. As we got up to leave, Daoleh leaned in and whispered: “(Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip) Erdogan was the one who gave the rebels the chemical weapons, you know.”

Waving her finger, she added: “And it was the rebels who used them, you know. Not Bashar!”

The chemical weapons attack that killed hundreds last month was blamed on the Syrian government by the Obama administration. In the aftermath of the attack, President Barack Obama seemed poised to launch tailored strikes against the Syrian regime. But on Aug. 31, Obama announced he would seek congressional approval before any military action against Syria.

Since then, the debate has moved into the diplomatic realm, and on Saturday, the United States and Russia struck a deal under which Syria will allow its stockpile of chemical weapons to be removed or destroyed by next year.

At the next café table, two retired friends, Sammy Uksec and Sabah al-Din, suddenly stopped their rowdy game of backgammon and joined in the discussion.

Two retired friends, Sammy Uksec and Sabah al-Din play backgammon at Antakya's Sumerler Café in Turkey. Jim Maceda / NBC News

“You – America – you are the real enemy!” blurted al-Din.

“Whose enemy?” I asked, wondering how bad this would get.

“The enemy of peace,” the former teacher replied. “You created al Qaeda in Afghanistan. It’s true! Wherever the U.S. goes, al Qaeda follows!”

Uksec rolled the dice and slammed several round backgammon pieces in a row on the board, as if on autopilot.

“At least Bashar looks stronger, now that he’s stood up to America and survived,” he said, nodding his head.

But one doesn’t have to travel far in Antakya to find some very different opinions about the violence in Syria, Assad, or President Obama’s about-face on proposed airstrikes.

Less than a mile from the Sumerler Cafe, another thoroughfare is lined with Arab falafel shops and carts filled with women’s headscarves. Syrian music blares from loudspeakers. The street has a real name – Mezarlik -- but everyone here knows it as “Syrian Street.” This is where Syrian refugees with money can rent decent apartments, and where wounded fighters seek medical care.

Mohammed, 21, was on crutches, his left leg bandaged around the knee.

“Tank shrapnel,” he said when asked about it. The former fighter defected from the Syrian Army. Now, he was trying to heal, find a job and support his young Syrian wife.

How did he feel about the airstrikes? “I would have supported them if they’d been on Assad,” he explained. “But on Syrian TV I saw that the Americans were targeting the (al Qaeda- linked) Nusra Front fighters. And I actually admire the Nusra Front – they’re not corrupt, like the rest of the rebel groups.”

Mohammed Hassan, 30, manages this falafel shop on "Syrian Street" in Antakya, Turkey. Jim Maceda / NBC News

The United States and the United Nations have designated the al-Nusra Front as a terrorist organization.

Back at the Sumerler, adoring Alawites said they couldn’t bear to even see Assad hurt his little finger, and were giddy that Obama had backed off from proposed “limited airstrikes” at the 11th hour.

The Sunnis on Syrian Street, however, who had been thrilled at the thought of Assad’s demise, were now frustrated, and had nothing nice to say about Obama.

“He’s dead as a president,” said Mohammed Hassan, 30, who manages a falafel shop on Syrian Street. “He’s weak and he’s a liar. But I was glad the airstrikes didn’t happen.”

He added: “But only because when I heard the word ‘limited’ I knew that the only Syrians who would be hurt were us, the people of Syria.”

Hassan explained he’d fled to Turkey with his wife and two children about four months earlier from the Syrian city of Aleppo, at the height of the fighting there. In his view, the debate over the chemical weapons attack on Aug. 21 in Damascus was an evil game played by Obama and Russian President Vladimir Putin to distract the world from the real war in Syria, the one he said no one can stop.

“Nothing has changed. Syrians are still afraid of more war and killing, just like a month ago or a month from now,” Hassan said. He went on, his voice cracking with emotion: “You can’t believe what’s happening inside my country. Both sides are raping and slaughtering innocents. We have Assad and his chemical weapons on one side, and on the other, al Qaeda will kill you if they catch you smoking. We’re caught in the middle. It’s crazy.”

But Zaina Daoleh had some hope for the future: “I just hope the war will stop and that Assad will survive,” she said, sighing, as she departed.

Mohammed, the young wounded rebel fighter-refugee, hoped nothing of the kind.

“An imam told us the other day in the mosque that all religions – Jews, Christians and Sunnis – would one day unite and rise up against Assad and the Alawites!” he said.

It was the only time I saw him smile.

Jim Maceda is an NBC News foreign correspondent based in London currently on assignment in southern Turkey. Jim has covered the Middle East since the 1970s.