Anti-Government Protests In Turkey Reach Syrian Border

The anti-government protests taking place across Turkey have not bypassed Antakya, down near the Syrian border. Nightly marches and demonstrations take place in the majority Alawite part of the city, but the protesters are a mix of minority Alawites and majority Sunni Muslims. In addition to the common complaints that Prime Minister Erdogan is growing more autocratic, some are convinced that the government's policies are pulling Turkey into the Syrian crisis and they fear more violence like the bomb attacks that killed at least 51 people in a border town last month.

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In Turkey, anti-government protests are concentrated in Istanbul and Ankara, but they have spread to many cities around the country, reaching all the way to the Syrian border.

NPR's Peter Kenyon recently visited Hatay Province and found mounting discontent and growing fear of sectarian violence.

PETER KENYON, BYLINE: Residents of Hatay, many related to Syrian families just across the border, have been on edge for some time, watching Syrian refugees pour into Turkey and rebel fighters stream back into Syria to do battle. Their fears of spillover violence deepened last month when two deadly explosions struck the border town of Reyhanli.

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KENYON: There used to be a house standing here, across the street from the Reyhanli Municipal Building. But the house was destroyed in the first Reyhanli bombing. And when people ran out in the street to help the wounded or just to escape, another larger explosion wreaked more havoc down the street. The Turkish government says 51 people were killed. Syrian refugees here believe the number is higher and they're convinced that forces allied with Syrian President Bashar al-Assad are trying to sow unrest on this side of the border.

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KENYON: At a nearby farm smack on the border, Methat Kusairi, son of a very old and well-connected Hatay family, sits on his terrace and contemplates the all but indefensible border that his family's cotton and wheat fields front. He doubts the Reyhanli bombs will be the last major violence Turkey will suffer, thanks to the government's current Syria policy.

METHAT KUSAIRI: Here we see Salqin, here we see Tuleil, all the Syrian villages. Just a few seconds ago you heard the bombing. Iran, Hezbollah militias are supporting the Syrian government. That's what we heard. Unfortunately if something happens there it's going to spread to Turkey. Sure we are afraid.

KENYON: Several months ago, Kusairi began working with other provincial community leaders - Sunni Muslim, Alawite, and Christian - to prevent sectarian hatred from spreading. Hatay has a strong Alawite population, from the same minority as Syrian leader Bashar al-Assad's family; while the Syrian opposition is largely made up of Sunnis, some of them with ties to extremist groups.

Kusairi says it's a volatile mix and Turkey hasn't managed it well.

KUSAIRI: From the day one, my theory was: accept everybody but register them. I don't think Turkish authority knows how many Syrians are now in Turkey. And that is the reason of bombings; that is the reason of terrorism because you don't know who is in.

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KENYON: Hatay's largest city, Antakya, is a melange of anxieties and most nights at nine, they're on display in protests and marches. You can hear the same chants as in Istanbul, protesting Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan's attempts to direct the private lives of Turks. But there are also Syria-related concerns. The Alawite minority fears a backlash from the Sunni Muslim majority, and the Sunnis fear pro-Assad forces are working with Alawites here. Both sides think the government isn't doing enough to protect border towns from Syria-related violence.

In an Antakya cafe, an Alawite former member of Parliament, Zuhair Ambar agrees that the government has much to answer for regarding its Syria policy.

ZUHAIR AMBAR: (Foreign language spoken)

KENYON: No, they haven't helped. We asked for help to calm things but they just make things worse, he says. When asked how he says, they keep supporting these Salafist fighters, some close to al-Qaida. Some of them are living in Turkey and crossing over to fight. Even after the Reyhanli bombings, they don't tighten the borders.

Ambar says the Istanbul protests get a lot of attention here. He doesn't think the protesters deserve to be gassed, but says no one in the ruling party seems able to convince the prime minister to take a softer line.

AMBAR: (Foreign language spoken)

KENYON: Those young people aren't asking for so much - save a little park and release the jailed demonstrators, he says. Mr. Erdogan is playing a very dangerous game. He wants to appear strong in the face of opposition to rev up his supporters for the next election.

With the government consumed with ending the Istanbul and Ankara protests, people on the border fear that it will take another tragedy - another bombing here, or a new flood of refugees - to re-focus attention on the border.

Peter Kenyon, NPR News.

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