Ismail Kimyeci, the Hatay chairman of Erdogan’s ruling Justice and Development Party, or AKP, said critics are overstating the presence of fighters in Antakya. He dismissed the concerns as propaganda meant to stir division. “The Syrian people are demanding a new, free country,” Kimyeci said. Of the Syrians in Hatay, he said: “We don’t really see which religion they are. The Turkish policy is to help everyone.”
But tensions are festering. In interviews, Antakyans complained about Syrian rebels ditching restaurant tabs or robbing women of their jewelry, though none could cite personal experience. Last weekend, several thousand people protested Turkey’s participation in what was described as an imperialist plot against Syria. Some said all rebels must leave Turkey.
“They are saying, ‘After we finish in Syria, we will cut your throats here,’ ” said Ali Zafer, 33, a teacher who said he supports Assad, describing one common rumor about the rebels. Turkey, he said, “especially brought them to Antakya, to kill Alawites.”
Syrians interviewed said they generally feel welcome but know that might wear off. At a rebel safe house in Reyhanli, where the Alawite population is smaller, occupants said Turks stop by with supplies and encouragement.
“We are trying our best to obey the rules of a foreign country,” said a rebel commander who goes by the nom de guerre Abu Hashim.
But he also contended that the controversy should motivate Turkey to speed an end to the war. “It’s better for the Turkish government to send us weapons,” he said, “so they can avoid this fuss here.”
Karen DeYoung in Washington contributed to this report.