In an empty coffee house in Antakya, local tradesman Ahmet Sari's face crumples in anger as he speaks about Syria.
“What's happening in Syria is all part of America's great project to reshape the borders of the Middle East. America and its allies don't care about bringing democracy to the Syrian people. Look at what happened to Iraq!” he fumes. “The imperialist countries are only after oil and mineral resources.”
Nineteen months into Syria's conflict, resentment of Ankara and anti-US sentiment simmer in Antakya, which lies just over the border with Syria. The province is grappling with an ailing trade and tourism sector and an influx of refugees and rebel fighters. Locals blame the Turkish government for dragging them into the conflict by backing the Syrian opposition and aligning Turkey with the opposition's Western allies.
The current administration's "zero problems with neighbors" foreign policy, which stood strong for several years, now rings hollow as Turkey's diplomatic ties with Syria and its ally Iran sour due to Ankara's support for the rebels. And many say that all of these problems can be traced back to the US, who they are convinced got involved with, and perhaps even fomented, the Syrian unrest to loosen up regional powers' grip on oil, enlisting Turkey as a pawn in the process. It had little to do with support for democracy, they believe.
Stirring up the 'beehive'
The beliefs stem in part from a bold Bush administration political proposal that has faded into obscurity in the West, but remains lodged in the minds of many here. Known as the Greater Middle East Initiative, it was formally introduced by then-US Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice in 2006 at a conference in Tel Aviv. Her references to "the birth pangs of a New Middle East" and the unveiling there of a new map of the region featuring a "Free Kurdistan" are still remembered with resentment.
Even with a new administration in the White House that has sought to distance itself from the previous administration's Middle East policies, many in the region are suspicious of US motives and don't believe that the various uprisings began as indigenous, people-driven movements, independent of any US involvement.
Refik Eryilmaz, a Turkish parliamentarian from Antakya with the opposition Republican People's Party, says that Western superpowers are trying to incite a sectarian conflict between Sunnis and Shiites so that countries in the region fragment along ethno-religious lines, becoming weaker in the process.
Syria is predominantly Sunni, but President Bashar al-Assad is an Alawite, a Shiite offshoot, as is most of his government.
"The access to oil will be made easier when people in these regions are divided and fighting amongst themselves. Both the US and Israel want to weaken Iran and strengthen their own position in the Middle East. But to do this, first they must weaken Syria and replace the current government with someone who supports them instead of Iran," says Mr. Eryilmaz.
This suspicion – that outside intervention is stirring up sectarian strife in Syria – is a view shared by many in Antakya, Turkey's most ethno-religiously diverse province.
Although Nihat Yenmis, president of the Alevi Cultural Foundation (AKAD) in Iskenderun, is convinced that sectarian violence will not seep into Turkey, he laments the plight of Syrian civilians, caught up in the cross-fire of a conflict that he interprets as planned and stoked by outside intervention.
“All ethno-religious groups have lived side by side in this region for centuries. But if someone hits a beehive from the outside, they will destroy the peace within the hive. All the bees inside the hive will fight with one another. That's exactly what the US is doing in the Middle East,” says Mr. Yenmis.
Gilbert Achcar, a professor of international relations at the School of Oriental and African Studies in London, says that the Greater Middle East Initiative has long since been abandoned, and all that remains is the deep skepticism of US motives that it spurred. Those in the Middle East tend to attribute more power to the US than it actually has, he says.
“The US is overwhelmed by the situation in the Middle East and is not in control, let alone plotting something. The GMEI never took root. It just provided a grand name that fueled people's imaginations, and conspiracy theories were invented," he says.
A penchant for conspiracies
The region's penchant for Western conspiracy theories is long-standing, beginning with the then-secret 1916 Sykes-Picot Agreement that divided up the region between the British and the French, Mr. Achcar says.
That history influenced the perception of the Bush administration's Greater Middle East Partnership Initiative, later renamed the New Middle East Project, that was drawn up in 2004 in response to potential "threats of terrorism" in the wake of 9/11. The mission was to bolster democracy and socio-economic development in the Middle East and North Africa and build a bulwark against the expansion of radical terrorist groups, such as Al Qaeda.
But the initiative stalled in the face of heightened anti-American sentiment in the wake of the US invasion of Iraq in 2003. Prominent Arab figures were quick to criticize it as another US attempt to "reform" a region it did not fully understand. In an article published in pan-Arab newspaper Al-Hayat in 2004, the chief editor of the Arab Human Development Report, Nader Fergany, criticized the "arrogant" worldview of the the Bush administration which "causes it to behave as if it can decide the fate of states and peoples.”
Tasked with alleviating Arab mistrust, the US selected Turkey as a key bridge between the US and the Middle East. The ruling Justice and Development Party's promotion of "conservative democracy" appealed to the West because of its reformist stance, and to Islamic countries in the Middle East due to its emphasis on a traditional Muslim identity.
But today, Turkey's role as a bridge between the West and the Arab world on the Syrian conflict has again raised suspicions. Its alliances with the US and autocratic countries like Saudi Arabia and Qatar, who have also come out as strong backers of the Syrian opposition, have provoked accusations that Turkey is more intent on weakening secular Syria and reinstating a Sunni government than in democracy.
While Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan confirmed last year on a live broadcast that the US initiative never took root, some in the Middle East still refer back to Mr. Erdogan's older statements of being GMEI's co-chairman, and remain convinced that a US-inspired scheme – with Turkey taking the lead – is underway.
“Perhaps the US is doing what's right for its own country and implementing a foreign policy that will protect its dominance in the world, but we have to inquisition the countries that are acting as a US pawn. Many people in Turkey think that Turkey is merely serving US interests in the region to its own detriment,” says Eryilmaz.
Back in Antakya's coffee house, with no end in sight to the Syrian conflict, local trader Ahmet Sari shows how deeply this sentiment reaches.
“So many people have died unnecessarily in Syria – children are dying," he says, wearily. "We just want this war to stop and for there to be peace. We don't hate the American people. We just want the US administration to stop trying to spread its expansionist policies.”