North Africa, West Asia

Turkey’s Arab Alawites and the Syrian conflict

Turkey's Alawites do not face the same threats as the people of Syria and Iraq. Despite the porous nature of Turkey's southern border, it is not about to collapse. But the Alawites of Hatay feel vulnerable.

William Eichler
4 November 2014

Wars are no respecters of borders. As refugees flow one way and money and munitions flow the other, they become international affairs. This, first and foremost, hurts the people directly involved. But it inevitably has an impact on surrounding communities. Last June, I visited the southern Turkish region of Hatay with a translator to find out how the Syrian conflict has affected the Arab Alawite community there. While the focus of the world is on the threat of ISIS and a lot of the discussion concerns the threat they pose to the west, it is surely important to consider communities that live in the area.

Alawites are ethnic Arabs and members of a Shi'ite sect located in the eastern Mediterranean region, whose syncretic and secretive religious practices have historically made them suspect to Sunni religious authorities. United under the Ottoman Empire and, for a time, under the French Mandate for Syria and the Lebanon (1923-1943), they became divided when the borders of the modern Middle East were drawn up. In 1939, Hatay became a part of Turkey and a new border created Syrian Alawites and Turkish Alawites, making foreigners out of family members.

They are minorities in predominantly Sunni countries, a fact that has made them responsive to secular ideologies. In Syria, Hafiz al-Assad, an Alawite himself, took power in a military coup as the head of the secular Ba'ath Party and filled key positions with relatives and associates from the Alawite community. In Turkey, a glance at the wares on offer in two of Hatay's Alawite neighbourhoods, Harbiye and Samandag, gives the visitor a clear idea of the community's political sympathies. The images of Turkey's secular founder, Mustafa Kemal Ataturk, and the left-wing revolutionary Deniz Gezmis, adorn many souvenirs. In recent years, there has also been a fourth face added: Bashar al-Assad.

In Harbiye, I asked the owner of a stall how Syrians react when they see pictures of Assad. “Even if they didn't like him, they wouldn't say anything because this is an Alawite neighbourhood,” he responded. Further south, at an open-air concert in Samandag, a popular singer performing in Arabic sang a song that praised the “Lion of Damascus” - a reference to Assad whose name means 'Lion'. Support for Assad amongst the Alawites of Hatay has always been strong, but it has risen exponentially since the Syrian war began.

The Syrian conflict is a democratic struggle against a tyrannical government. However, due to the machinations of Assad, and the rise of Sunni extremists such as ISIS, sectarian trends have emerged. Syria's Alawites, fearing what would happen to them in a Sunni-dominated state, see their fates linked to the survival of the regime. This makes them targets of factions within the predominantly Sunni opposition which, in turn, appears to confirm Alawite fears that only Assad stands between them and the destruction of their community.

These sectarian divisions are partially mirrored over the border. Turkey's Alawite and Alevi (a closely related Anatolian Shia sect, often seen as identical to Alawites) communities see their coreligionists (and sometimes family) being targeted and so there is a sense of solidarity which translates into sympathy for Assad. As one Alawite resident of Antakya put it, “After the events in Syria, most of the Alevi people in Turkey have supported Assad as he is Alevi or Alawite, and they believe they are under threat. Actually, they are not interested in Assad's personality or what he has done.”

Another factor contributing to Alawite (and Alevi) concerns is the ruling Justice and Development Party (AKP) and what is percieved as their pro-Sunni Syrian policy. Before the 'Arab Spring' erupted in 2011, the AKP's foreign policy was based on the realpolitik principle of “zero problems with neighbours”. However, after 2011 it started to present itself as a supporter of regional democracy. (One sceptical shop keeper in Harbiye rolled his eyes at this, “We don't have democracy here. How can we help them?”) Soon the Turkish government was actively supporting the Syrian uprising, and it relaxed controls on its southern border in order to facilitate the free passage of refugees and all manner of opposition fighters.

The humanitarian side of this 'open border' policy is clear. Over a million refugees have fled to Turkey seeking respite from the brutal oppression of the Assad regime. The Turkish government has provided refugee camps, although many have also moved to major cities. While this policy has contributed considerably to helping those in need, the rapid influx of people has, according to a recent report by the International Crisis Group (ICG), placed a burden on local infrastructure and a strain on resources. This has fed social tensions and led to anti-Syrian riots in some cities in the south.

These tensions have also been heightened by another aspect of the policy. The Turkish government has allowed Syrian opposition fighters to use Turkish territory as a base to fight from. This has, in effect, left towns and cities in Turkey's south in danger of attack; a fact underlined in May 2013 when a car bomb killed 53 people in Reyhanli. This has led to a sense of vulnerability in southern communities, a sense that only feeds social tensions. A stall owner in Harbiye told us, “[the Syrian refugees] should stay in the camps. Or if they want to rebel, they should stay in their country.”

While this affects everybody, it certainly reinforces the sense of insecurity and anger in the Alawite community which sees the AKP's Syrian policy as sectarian. This is a perception that is only sharpened by the rhetoric of President Recep Tayyip Erdogan who referred to the 53 victims in Reyhanli as “Sunnis” before their identities were known. He also dismissed criticisms of his policy from the leader of the opposition Republican People's Party (CHP) Kemal Kilicdaroglu, who happens to be Alevi, with the suggestion that he was just siding with his coreligionist in Damascus.

Turkey's Alawites do not face the same threats as the people of Syria and Iraq. Despite the porous nature of Turkey's southern border, it is not about to collapse. But the Alawites of Hatay feel vulnerable and so support whoever they feel will protect them. The threat of sectarianism, something Hatay with its long traditions of tolerance has resisted thus far, is a political problem and not a religious one. As such, it requires a political solution.

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