While the Alawites of Syria may not be monolithic in their support of their fellow Alawite President Bashar Assad, the dictator can find near unanimous backing among members of the sect across the border in a region that is part of Turkey. In 1939, Syria’s colonial master, France, ceded the Syrian province of Alexandretta and its population of over 120,000 — most of whom were Alawites, also known as Alawis — to Turkey. Known today as Hatay, the region’s inhabitants are equally divided between Alawites and orthodox Sunnis, along with a small number of Christians. For decades, an uneasy truce reigned between the sects. But since the outbreak of the revolution in 2011, the Turkish Alawites, who number around 500,000, have increasingly taken to the streets to express their support for the Assad regime.
In a carpet shop in the village of Harbiyya in Hatay, the rugs portray familiar personages: Turkey’s first leader Mustafa Kemal Ataturk, with his penetrating eyes, next to the flowing curls of Ali, the Prophet Muhammad’s cousin and son-in-law who is venerated by Shi‘ite Muslims, including the Alawites. But one carpet stands out among the lot — that of Syrian President Assad. In this Alawite village within Turkey, the beleaguered leader who has been labeled a war criminal by the West is more popular than Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan.
(PHOTOS: Syrians Flee into Turkey)
The Alawite communities in Turkey and Syria have been torn by the latter’s 18-month civil war. Sect members in Turkey have thrown their weight behind the Syrian regime even as Prime Minister Erdogan has denounced Assad’s “attempted genocide” of defenseless civilians. Harbiyya residents have no qualms about their support for Assad. “In Syria, there is democracy,” explains restaurateur Riyad Aslan Yurek. “There is a freedom there that is absent in other Arab countries.” For Yurek, the allure of Syria lies in its secularism. He contrasts the liberties there with the austere Islam that reigns in Saudi Arabia, where he labored for five years. “After Friday prayers, the Saudis would execute drug dealers and amputate the hands of thieves,” he recounts. “This extremism does not exist in Syria.”
Alawite activists are vocal in their support of Assad in Hatay’s capital. Every day in the city of Antakya, a group of students in their 20s collect signatures at a table located in the downtown pedestrian mall, calling for an end to the Syrian conflict. The men take turns shouting out slogans such as “We don’t want America’s imperial war!” and “No to the shedding of blood in Syria!” Some passersby ignore the loud cries, while others are curiously intrigued by the petition drive. When an American journalist stops to ask about the group’s activities, though, a burly man in his 30s hisses him away, shouting, “America is funding terrorists in Syria!”
Later, one of the volunteers, Ilena Coksoyler, explains the group’s frustrations. “We watch television at night and see the [rebel] terrorists hanging Alawi soldiers and yelling, ‘God is Great!’” the 25-year-old education student notes. “We are afraid for the Alawis in Syria and afraid that the foreign terrorists will try to do the same here in Turkey.”
Foreign fighters from countries like Libya and Saudi Arabia have indeed been spotted in the city. But last week the Turkish daily Today’s Zaman revealed that a local organization is trying to recruit Turkish Alawites to fight on the side of the Syrian regime. Alawites in Turkey deny that any such mobilization has taken place, but they sympathize with the need to protect their brethren in Syria.
Many in this city claim that the foreign fighters trickling into Syria are injecting fanatic ideas into Syrian society. “Bashar is fighting al-Qaeda, who want to create an Islamic emirate in Syria,” explains Nizam Ozar. “He is killing terrorists who are threatening the security of the state.” It is a refrain heard throughout the small tourist village dotted with hotels that welcome foreigners who go there to see the waterfalls. Residents assert that the Saudi Arabian and Qatari funds fueling the rebellion are being doled out to radicals who want to destroy the secular state the Assad family cultivated over 40 years.
“The Syrians are using the refugee camps [in Turkey, which house Syrians fleeing the conflict] to set up training bases,” explains Ozar, before excusing himself to welcome some tourists to his trinket shop. “At night the fighters sneak into Syria and kill the soldiers,” he comments when he returns. “Turkey allows this and this makes us angry.”