Pro-Assad Syrians lay low in Turkey

Syrian refugees have poured into Hatay Province, long tolerant of Sunnis, Christians, and Alawites. That openness is challenged by divisions between Assad regime and its opponents.

Associated Press/Syrian Presidency via Facebook
In this photo released on the official Facebook page of the Syrian Presidency, Syrian President Bashar Assad, center, casts his vote as Syrian first lady Asma Assad, right, stands next to him at a polling station, in Damascus, Syria, on June 3, 2014.

In a ramshackle market in Turkey's Hatay Province, Masrura sells ceramic cups and rugs bearing the stoic face of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad.

Her clients, she says, mirror the political divide of neighboring Syria.

“Some Syrians buy the carpets to put it on the bathroom floor and stomp on Assad’s face, while others hang it up on their wall with pride to soothe their souls,” she says.

Events in Syria have long had a ripple effect in Hatay, with its mix of Turkish Sunnis, Christians, and Alawites, a Shiite sect to which Assad belongs. Families here have relatives on both sides of the Syrian conflict, and the province's population has swelled with refugees.

Once a strong commercial ally of Damascus, Ankara has turned its back on the Assad regime, hosting the opposition Syrian National Coalition and largely turning a blind eye to rebels operating along Turkey’s porous border with Syria.

In this mountainous area streaming with anti-Assad activists, rebels, and their relatives, Syrians who support Assad are outnumbered. They keep a low profile, settling in pro-regime areas like the Alawite town of Harbiye. The mood is tense as Assad seeks a third term in today's widely criticized presidential election.   

“Syrians are scared. If they speak in favor of the regime, there could be reprisals from the opposition, and vice versa,” says Suleyman Ezzer, a Turk who rents out apartments in Harbiye to Syrians. 

Concerned that one wrong word could put them in danger, Syrians living in the town tend to keep their doors locked and stay quiet about their political views. But two young women sitting at an outdoor cafe were keen to be heard.

“Even if rebels block the roads and hit polling stations so that people can’t vote, Assad will win because everyone loves him,” says Maryam Yahya, a young hairdresser from Aleppo who followed her husband to Turkey in search of work.

Her friend Nasreen Sakit introduces herself as a Sunni Muslim whose father is serving in the Syrian Air Force.  She believes that Assad, [a member of the Shiite Alawite sect,] is the only one who can prevent the country from collapsing along sectarian lines.

While “terrorists fight for freedom and kill in the name of Islam,” Ms. Sakit says, “Assad is defending the nation. Anyone in his place would have done far worse in this situation. His father (Hafez) would have killed everyone. Bashar showed mercy.”

Assad the protector

Like the Assad clan, which has been in power for more than four decades, the two women frame the conflict as an existential war pitting a secular regime against hardline extremists who want to veil women, impose Islamic law, and slaughter minorities. 

When faced with mostly peaceful antigovernment protests in March 2011, Assad unleashed a brutal crackdown, claiming his country was the target of a foreign conspiracy. Today, that narrative has been bolstered by an influx of foreign jihadists, some backed by Sunni powers. 

Yessay, an elderly Christian Armenian shepherd from Kassab, Syria, stands with the Assad regime even though he was detained and beaten by its security services five times.

At least under Assad, Christians worshipped freely, he says. He warns this won’t be the case if Syria is overrun by “Islamists with beards so long and thick that they look like buffalos. Better the devil you know, than the devil you don’t.” 

Disgruntled supporters

While the West and the Syrian opposition see today's election as a farce, Assad’s supporters say he is giving democracy a genuine chance. No one doubts that he will be victorious at the polls.

Asaad Arab and his wife Fatma, who live in a cramped apartment with their seven children, say they would return to their home in Syria and vote for Assad if the border wasn't controlled by “terrorists.”

Although they take pride in their relatives serving in the Syrian Army, they long for the comforts of peacetime in Syria: security, quiet nights without bombs, and uninterrupted access to water and electricity.

“We hope elections help calm things down and that we can go home,” says Mr. Arab.

Mrs. Arab doesn’t mince her words. “We were okay under Assad, we loved him and all that.  But his army dropped barrel bombs on us. Assad should have at least offered us safe zones in his war against terrorists,” she says.

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