Zohra Bensemra/Reuters /Landov
Syrians and Turks show their support for Syrian President Bashar Assad in Turkey's southern city of Antakya on Feb. 19. Assad is a member of the minority Alawite religious sect, and many Alawites on both sides of the border support him.
The Syrian regime's heavy crackdown on dissent has led to a sharp plunge in relations with neighboring Turkey. But the regime does have its Turkish supporters — mainly members of the Alawite minority, the same Islamic sect Syria's ruling Assad family comes from. And that has resulted in complicated loyalties among some Turks, especially those along the border in southeastern Turkey's Hatay province.
Turkey's Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan has steadily sharpened his rhetoric against his former ally, Syrian President Bashar Assad, as the death toll in Syria has climbed. That stance is generally popular on most Turkish streets, but not all.
Last month in Hatay province, a large demonstration featured the classic pro-Assad chant: "Allah, Syria, Bashar, that's all."
The moment highlighted the deep ambivalence among Turkey's own Alawite minority about the international pressure to topple Assad, a fellow Alawite.
The Alawites split from mainstream Shiite Muslims more than 1,000 years ago over religious doctrine. Though the government does not keep official figures, it's estimated that Alawites make up just a small percentage of the population in Sunni-majority Turkey.
Bonds Of History And Family
Cafe owner Zeynal Urlu, a Sunni from Antakya, the administrative capital of Hatay, says Turkish Alawites know Assad has protected Syrian Alawites, something Turkey's leaders have not always done. But he says as the violence intensifies, that support is becoming harder to justify.
"Yes, now we feel the tension rising. The Alawites here are supporting the Assad regime without condition, and have even demonstrated for him. They see the situation primarily through the lens of their sectarian identity," Urlu says.
Analyst Cem Dogan at Mustafa Kemal University in Antakya says the relatively sizable Alawite population in Hatay sharpens fears of sectarian conflict.
"The people who live here for the most part are related to the Alawites in Syria. There are bonds of history and friendship," Dogan says. "And since Hatay is a province that has to a large degree turned its face toward Syria, it creates problems on an emotional scale."
Hatay's complicated history has much to do with the intensity of feelings about Syria in the area.
When the Ottoman Empire collapsed after World War I, Hatay was ceded to Syria, which angered the new Turkish leader, Mustafa Kemal Ataturk. By 1938, the nominally independent "Republic of Hatay" was declared, under a voting process that critics said gave short shrift to minority rights. Several months later, Hatay became part of modern Turkey.
Tensions between Turkey and Syria would linger until the early part of this century, when Turkey's Erdogan worked hard to thaw relations with Syria's Assad. The Syrian uprising and the regime's bloody response to it followed, and Syrian-Turkish ties soured again.
Zohra Bensemra/Reuters /Landov
Syrians and Turks show their support for Syria's Assad in Antakya on Feb. 19. Hatay province, where Antakya is located, was once part of Syria.
Syrians and Turks show their support for Syria's Assad in Antakya on Feb. 19. Hatay province, where Antakya is located, was once part of Syria. Zohra Bensemra/Reuters /Landov
Threats On Both Sides Of The Border
Urlu, the cafe owner, says the Alawite focus on minority rights is understandable, but it's not helping Syrians facing horrific bloodshed if everyone takes a strategic, not a humanitarian, view of the uprising.
"Everyone hates the killing, because at the end of the day this is Muslim killing Muslim, and that's unacceptable," Urlu says. "But there are other dimensions as well. For instance, Russia is supporting the regime at all costs. Why? To protect their Mediterranean military port. So they back the Alawite regime, with the help of Iran. And that makes people here nervous."
From a rooftop in the Turkish village of Guvecci, Syrians who have fled there for safety can see the green hillsides of their homeland, and some say they've seen Syrian troops at work, possibly laying mines.
Tamer Faizo, 19, says he has family on both sides of the border — not an unusual situation in Hatay province.
He says he hasn't seen many weapons going across this border yet — nothing more than a few guns at a time. But if anyone is looking to smuggle weapons to the Free Syrian Army, he says, he is ready to help.
Hatay's complicated loyalties are also giving rise to a bumper crop of rumors about local spies assisting Syrian intelligence, helping them track Free Syrian Army leaders and other wanted men — just one more factor ratcheting up tensions in the border province.