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.

Umit Bektas/Reuters
New Syrian refugees rest as they arrive at a stopover facility for breaking fast near the Turkish border town of Reyhanli in Hatay province August 9.

Syrian refugee Abdulhefiz Abdulrahman remembers when he had many local friends in the Turkish city of Antakya, but those days seem over. 

The political dissident fled Syria, arriving in this border city several months before the uprising against President Bashar al-Assad's regime erupted last year.

“I had a lot of Alawite friends here,” says Mr. Abdulrahman, referring to the offshoot of Shiite Islam to which a large part of Antakya's population adheres.

Alawites dominate the regime in Syria, where the 18-month uprising has split the country along sectarian lines, pitting the privileged Alawite minority against the Sunni majority. 

In Antakya, where support for the Alawite Assad regime runs deep, hostility is growing toward Syrian rebels and dissidents who have made a temporary base there. And throughout the province, Turkey's apparent backing of the Syrian opposition is upsetting a delicate ethnic balance. 

“Before, when I told them I was a refugee, they respected me,” Abdulrahman told the Monitor. “They won’t even say hello to me in the street anymore.”

Now, local frustration about the government's apparent decision to let Syrian dissidents and fighters operate on Turkish soil could ignite wider ethnic tensions in the country. 

Turkey's rebel support draws ire

Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan's government has strongly backed the Syrian opposition, calling for the regime's overthrow.

“Even though Turkey’s a secular country, it’s increasingly being seen as a Sunni actor [in the Syrian conflict], along with Saudi Arabia and Qatar,” says Bulent Aliriza, director of the Turkey Program at the Centre for Strategic and International Studies in Washington. “Inevitably that affects the body politic.”

On Aug. 26, the leader of the Republican People’s Party, Turkey’s main opposition party, accused the government of training Syrian anti-regime fighters, after a delegation from his party was denied access to a Syrian refugee camp along the border.

"I sent our deputies to check out the camp, which was said to be full of agents and spies, but the authorities said you cannot enter this camp,” Kemal Kilicdaroglu told journalists. “Now I expect an answer from the government: ‘What is in that camp? Who are you training in that camp? Are you raising men to spill Muslims’ blood?'"

Ankara denies offering support to the Syrian armed opposition, or allowing it to freely operate from Turkish territory. But when the Monitor visited the Reyhanli border crossing near Antakya yesterday, one rebel commander waiting there said authorities were allowing him to cross into Syria even though he had no passport. And Reuters, quoting Doha-based sources, reported last month that Ankara has set up a secret base near the Syrian border, in cooperation with Saudi Arabia and Qatar, to provide military and communications assistance to the rebels.

'Sectarian solidarity'

Meanwhile, tensions are rising in Antakya. Last week, some residents held a protest calling for Syrians to be removed, while Syrian activists told the Monitor they had been called to a meeting with Turkish military and municipal officials and told they would have to leave the city "for their own security." Turkish officials deny such a meeting took place.

“The people of Hatay have lived together for thousands of years without regard for ethnicity or religion,” says Mehmet Ali Edipoglu, a local member of parliament from Mr. Kilicdaroglu’s opposition party. “The fact that attempts for regime change in Syria have turned into a sectarian war is damaging that."

“It’s not the refugees who are coming to Antakya, but the Syrian militants who are being armed by the government to go back into Syria,” he says, describing those living there as "assassins."

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. 

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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