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In Turkish border city, Erdogan's backing of Syrian rebels draws ire

In the city of Antakya on the Turkish-Syrian border, Turkish government support for the Syrian opposition has unnerved locals belonging to the same Shiite sect as President Assad.

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Mr. Edipoglu accuses the government of pursuing a sectarian foreign policy. “[The Turkish government] is not supporting a secular movement, it’s supporting a Sunni movement that even the Sunni people don’t want," he says. 

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Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan’s ruling Justice and Development Party (AKP) has repeatedly said its opposition to the Assad government is driven by the regime’s human rights abuses, not by solidarity with the predominantly anti-regime Sunni opposition. But that has not stopped senior AKP figures from leveling similar accusations against the Turkish government opposition.

Mr. Kilicdaroglu, the opposition leader, is an Alevi, a member of a Turkish sect distinct from Arab Alawite that numbers between 15 and 20 million in Turkey. Alawites number around 400,000, almost all based in Hatay.

Despite differing origins and rituals of worship, the two groups both have loose and unorthodox interpretations of Islam, and thus share a legacy of persecution by the Sunni Muslims in whose lands they form a minority.

On Aug. 6, Mr. Erdogan angered Alevis when he suggested that their religious houses, known as cemevis, were not true places of worship. Referring to mosques, he told journalists that "there must be only one house of worship for all Muslims." The previous month, Turkey's Directorate of Religious affairs had ruled that cemevis were merely "cultural centers." 

In July, Huseyin Celik, the AKP’s deputy chairman, conflated Alawites and Alevis when he suggested “sectarian solidarity” was behind Mr. Kilicdaroglu’s repeated criticism of Turkey’s stance on Syria, alleging that the opposition leader supported the Assad regime. 

Is Syria quietly sowing disruption?

Regardless of the motivations behind Ankara’s backing of the opposition, some fear that Damascus will respond to Turkey’s hard line by trying to stir up hostilities with minorities that Turkey has struggled to suppress, particularly with the Kurds, who number around 20 million in Turkey and have faced decades of state persecution. 

Earlier this month a car bomb in the border city of Gaziantep killed nine people, including a 12-year-old child. Turkey has blamed the attack on the guerilla group the Kurdistan Workers' Party, although it has also investigated possible Syrian and Iranian links to the attack.

The bombing sent tensions between Turks and the country's restive Kurdish minority soaring.

Last month Turkey reacted furiously after Damascus ceded control of a large part of Syria's own Kurdish-populated region to a militia linked with Kurdish rebels operating in Turkey.

Erdogan said that if Syrian territory were used to mount cross-border raids into Turkey, "then intervening would be our natural right."

In Antakya today, Hatay Gov. Mehmet Celalettin Lekesiz refuted a recent string of Turkish media reports, saying that Syrians in the province were neither being armed and aided by the state, nor persecuted by the local population.

He told reporters at a press conference that these claims were part of a "systematic" campaign to undermine the peace of the province. "These attempts to find stories are not moral or reasonable. Let us not contribute to attempts to spread hostility among the people," he said.

Koray Caliskan, a political scientist at Istanbul’s Bogazici University, believes that with Ankara campaigning for the overthrow of the Assad regime, it is inevitable that Damascus will seek to stoke instability in its neighbor.

“I believe that if we engage in dangerous policies like regime change in neighboring countries, they will engage in similar disruptive activities in ours,” he says.

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