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Syrian Crisis Heightens Sectarian Tensions in Turkey

Posted: 02/02/2013 06:50

There are more ways than one that Turkey is feeling the impact of the Syrian conflict. Apart from the influx of Syrian refugees the crisis is also affecting the politics of many Turks. Some believe that the arrival of NATO patriot missiles in Adana hasn't provided security; rather it has dragged them further into the Syrian quagmire.

Deniz Bozkut a native of Adana, is unimpressed by Turkish involvement in Syria, "Syria is a mirror to Turkey whatever happens there will impact here, when the Turkish government promotes the views of the majority [Sunnis] he is dividing the nation into two." In Antakya this tension is felt even more intensely. The town possesses a mixture of Alevi, Sunni, Christian Turkish, Arab, Armenian and Kurdish inhabitants. Certain communities occupy different areas of the city. As a correspondent for Syria's Sham Network told me "the area around Hurriyet Caddesi even had open demonstrations of support for the Syrian president. In the 80s after Hama there were gunfights between Sunnis and Alevis. Now the tension is simmering." The correspondent who refused to be named wouldn't even sit in a café for fear of being spied on.

Many Alevi inhabitants in the city don't mind alleviating the humanitarian crisis but are upset at Turkish support for the Sunni lead FSA. One middle aged gentleman who introduced himself as Ustaz Jamil ridiculed the Arab Spring altogether and said "why is Turkey getting involved with the game of the Americans? So they can give freedom like they did in Iraq or Afghanistan? Instead Al-Qaeda is coming through here. Why?"

Sunni Turks have a different attitude. Some were clearly in favour of Turkish government's support of the FSA. Two young men I met, Juma and Ahmet, were happy that their government was helping the Syrians. In fact many mosques that I visited in Antakya were openly in support of the Syrian cause wisely focusing on the humanitarian crisis. Some Imams I tried to interview however were decidedly reserved on the question of Turkish policy in Syria.

The story is very different from the Syrian perspective. The Syrians who were not moved to the refugee camps reside mostly in the Mazarlik area in Antakya which has become a little suburb of Damascus. Most are wanted men some came here with just their clothes on their back whilst others witnessed massacres and lost family members. Occasionally you will meet some who are fighters in the FSA recovering from injury. The community of exiles is a closed one, they trust outsiders little and even more so if you are a journalist. On conditions of anonymity most speak favourably of the Turkish government's policy towards them, yet all realize that the recent shift in policy has been due to local pressure coming from sectarian elements and opposition groups. A community worker who called himself Saad, points out that the government often overlooks the expiry of visas or driving licenses, "as long as we obey the law its fine". The main challenge facing all exiles is the cost of living in the city, even Fawaz a businessman with savings was struggling to make ends meet.

Many also felt that the Turkish state was not protecting them enough from the Syrian regime. Fawaz said that "only two nights ago a captain of the FSA was kidnapped by two men". There is real fear in the community that Antakya is crawling with spies and informers. Many accuse even foreign journalists of being complicit in the crimes of the regime. "We know from government insiders", said the correspondent for Syria's Sham Network, "that the regime employed American, Spanish and French journalists in Homs and got Syrians killed". Most were deeply suspicious of the local Alevi community because they are accused of treating Syrians contemptuously and supplying Assad with men and arms through the porous Turkish border.

Whilst the Turkish government has taken a positive step in alleviating the Syrian refugee crisis. It seems more must be done in terms of helping Syrians to cope with their day to day lives. Many are not able make enough to pay the rent which is triple that of Syrian rent rates let alone putting food on the table. The Turkish government should also work harder to win over the Alevi community by showing that this conflict is not a sectarian one which favours Sunnis over Alevis. Rather putting aside the neo-Ottoman and more specifically sectarian rhetoric they need to work towards winning the Alevi community over. Compelling moral arguments will certainly go far to dampen sectarian tensions in the area.

 

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