It is the power of the people that brought an end to the authoritarian regimes in Egypt, Tunisia, and Libya. The struggle of the Syrian people is continuing: the regime has already committed crimes against humanity and yet remains in power. Turkey, as a neighbour and rising regional player, has championed an intervention in Syria and hosted a “Friends of Syria” meeting in Istanbul to reach that objective. However, Turkey’s criticism of Syria has provoked stern opposition from the Nusayris of Turkey, sharing the same ancestry with their counterparts in Syria, who mostly live in Antioch, home to thousands of Syrian refugees. The province itself has in fact been a significant source of conflict between Syria and Turkey over the last sixty years.
So, why do Nusayris oppose to an intervention in Syria? Is this just straightforward solidarity? The Turkish Radikal daily’s headline on April 15 voiced some Turkish Nusayri claims. According to those interviewed, Turkey is being deceived by the western powers. The pro-government Turkish press exaggerates the conflict in Syria and foments a bloody Sunni-Nusayri conflict, and Antiochian people suffer from Turkey’s interventionist plans as Turkish exports and imports with Syria have drastically decreased since the political unrest erupted last year. In the end they want to know why Turkey wants democracy only in Syria but not in Saudi Arabia or Qatar? However, such accounts only serve to conceal the main causes of opposition which lie in their historic fears.
Take the heated debates among group members in the ASI-DER, the mail-list of an Antiochian immigrant community. Most members agree that NATO and the US are pursuing imperial objectives and using Turkey as an instrument to reach those ends. While some group members reject this explanation and accuse Assad of slaughtering his own people, other group members argue that the western and Gulf media is exaggerating incidents. They denounce anti-Assad members for turning a blind eye on the plans of both western and Wahhabist powers attempting to topple Assad. The anti-imperialism discourse of the community incorporates a blend of leftist, secularist, and Kemalist ideology that sternly opposes the Sunni-led AK Party government and therefore any intervention in Syria initiated by this government. To them, the big picture is derived from an imperialist and Sunni-led plot against the Nusayris of Syria and Assad.
Sultan Abdulhamid of the Ottoman Empire struggled to create a common bond for his Muslim subjects across the Middle East, based on the Sunni branch of Islam. This sparked conflicts with Sunnis who lived in the Lebanese Mountains, and in Syria with the Nusayris. Sunnis have perceived Nusayris as inferior and non-believers ever since. Sultan Abdulhamid’s project reconciled Nusayris relations with the state, as many settled permanently and stopped rebelling, but failed to resolve the problems between the Sunnis and Nusayris as the latter rejected conversion to Sunnism. This problem continues to the present day and is the primary reason why the Nusayris fear a Sunni-dominated Syria.
Historically, having been oppressed by the Sunni-dominated Ottoman Empire and Turkish Republic, the Nusayris of Turkey think, if the Sunnis take power in Syria, their fellow-Nusayris will be subject to violence. The region will be dominated by Sunnis who may threaten their secular lifestyles. Not only might the Sunnis take revenge for what the Assad regime did, but also the attacks remind them, of a past that may be easily renewed.
This article is part of Arab Awakening's This week's window into the Middle East.