In Turkey, Alawite sect sides with Syria's Assad

September 14, 2012

When the first families of Syrian war refugees straggled into this seaside city a few months ago, the locals offered a wary welcome.

Last week, they kicked them all out.

This ancient pilgrimage town in southern Turkey is populated by Alawites, adherents of a heterodox offshoot of Shiite Islam, who share their faith with Syrian President Bashar al-Assad. The Syrian leader has filled the upper ranks of his military, security services and feared shabiha militia with fellow Alawites.

Although Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan has thrown his support behind the Syrian rebels in their armed uprising against Assad, the Turkish street is revealing itself to be more divided about what is happening in Syria and along its borders.

Many Turks are proud that their government is giving a hand to those in need, but the main opposition leaders are warning that the country is being dragged into a sectarian conflict. The business community is also rattled.

Here in the Hatay province, where Turkey’s small Alawite population is centered, critics of the government’s role in the 18-month conflict next door are especially vocal.

“We are sure there are foreign fighters here, all the extremists and all the terrorists,” said Ali Yeral, a prominent religious leader of the Alawite sect in the southern Turkish city of Antakya. “They spend the day drinking tea, and at night they cross the border to kill our relatives” in Syria.

Yeral and other Alawite activists repeat stories, impossible to verify and likely not true, that nevertheless illustrate the level of animosity they feel about the 120,000 Syrians living in refugee camps and rented apartments in Turkey.

“We have heard them say after they get finished with the government of Assad, they will come for us and cut our heads off,” Yeral said. “They are Libyans, Saudis, Syrians. They are all terrorists. And they say to our girls, ‘I will have you in my bed and your father’s villa will be mine.’ ”

In Antakya, with its large Alawite population, Turks have staged street demonstrations, their most recent Tuesday, in support of their co-religionist Assad.

Protesters are calling on the Turkish government not only to oust the 40,000 displaced Syrians living in houses across Turkey but also to empty the 11 refugee camps along the Turkish-Syrian border, where an additional 80,000 Syrians languish in tent cities.

Most of the Syrian refugees, and most of the Syrian rebel fighters, are Sunni Muslims. Many Alawites, like the Christians in Syria, have seen Assad as a bulwark against a Sunni Islamist takeover.

Feeling the heat, the Turkish government last week quietly announced that it would begin to ask Syrians without passports to enter camps and those with passports to move away from the border.

The officials promised that the refugee camps would remain open and welcome those fleeing the bombing and fighting in Syria.

Turkish officials said there are good reasons for the tough policy — secure borders and knowledge of who’s coming and going — but Selcuk Unal, a Foreign Ministry spokesman, said “local tensions” played a role in the decision to move refugees deeper into Turkey.

“Here everyone is happy, at peace. So we threw the Syrian refugees out, because they are nothing but trouble,” said Muhittin Donmez, the son of an Alawite sheik, who tends an important shrine commemorating an Alawite holy man named Hizir. Tradition says that Hizir was a friend of Moses.

As Donmez spoke, he ladled out free bowls of a rich stew for local Alawites, who take to their rooftops at night to watch distant fireworks of the aerial bombardment of Syrian villages south of the border.

Alawite hostility toward Syrian rebels poses a potentially significant challenge for the Syrian rebellion. The Turkish border region is crucial for the rebels as a command-and-control center, a smuggling hub for arms and cash and a haven where wounded Syrian cadres can get medical care, rebel commanders can stash their families and anti-Assad activists can access foreign journalists.

Alawites in Turkey are a tiny minority, historically ignored or oppressed, while their counterparts in Syria make up 10 or 12 percent of the population and form the governing and business power elite.

The Alawite consider themselves followers of Shia Islam, although some Muslims accuse them of being heretics because Alawite include among their divinities Adam, Jesus, Socrates and Plato, in addition to the prophet Muhammad.

Turkish Alawites are increasingly weighing in with support for the Syrian regime on Alawite social media. “They are getting involved and are fearful for their co-religionists below the border,” said Joshua Landis, director of the Center for Middle Eastern Studies at the University of Oklahoma. “They are buying into the notion that this is a foreign conspiracy.”

Alawite anxieties highlight broader tensions in Turkey, which also faces a long-simmering Kurdish insurgency in the east.

With refugee camps on both sides of the Turkish-Syria border, one danger for Turkey is that the line becomes blurred.

“This is a relatively flat border, with nearly no physical barriers. The more the political boundary dissipates, the more northern Syria and southern Turkey will merge into each other,” said Soner Cagaptay, director of the Turkish Research Program at the Washington Institute for Near East Policy. “In the long term, this could expose Turkey to unsavory political movements coming from post-Assad Syria, ranging from potential jihadists to hard-line Kurdish nationalists.”

William Booth is The Post’s Jerusalem bureau chief. He was previously bureau chief in Mexico, Los Angeles and Miami.
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