‘We don’t want the war. They are our brothers’
For the family of Abdullah Comert, a 22-year-old killed during protests in Turkey this summer, the increasingly sectarian nature of the Syrian uprising is confirming the worst fears of Turkey’s Alawites
Heroes and villains: a wall hanging of Bashar al-Assad, the Syrian president, on sale in Alawite-dominated Harbiye, close to Turkey’s border with Syria. Photograph: Mary Fitzgerald
Grieving: Abdullah Comert’s mother and brother. Photograph: Mary Fitzgerald
The walls of the Comert family home are covered in posters of their son Abdullah, one of five demonstrators killed as anti-government protests rippled across Turkey in June.
The 22-year-old security guard, who died from head injuries after he was hit by a tear-gas canister fired by police, was a member of Turkey’s main opposition party, the CHP. More tellingly, he was one of Antakya’s many ethnic Arab Alawites, adherents of a heterodox offshoot of Shia Islam.
Turkey’s Arab Alawite minority is concentrated here in its southernmost province of Hatay, an area whose history has ensured deep ties of kinship with their fellow Alawites, including President Bashar al-Assad, over the nearby border with Syria.
Graffiti in the Comert’s neighbourhood denounces the Islamist-rooted AK Party of the Turkish prime minister, Recep Tayyip Erdogan, most of it criticism for its support of the Sunni-led uprising against Assad. One red-painted scrawl reads: “No to war with Syria.”
The protests that erupted two months ago here in Antakya, an ancient pilgrimage site and the main city in Hatay, were partly sparked by anger over a harsh police crackdown on a small environmental protest in Gezi Park in Istanbul. But they also had their own distinctive flavour, rooted in local dynamics influenced by the escalating conflict next door. Antakya had witnessed several Syria-related demonstrations before Gezi Park. Although the rallies have now largely petered out elsewhere in Turkey, they continue here.
“The main reason for the protests in this city is Syria,” says Abdullah Comert’s brother Zafar. “We don’t want the war. They are our brothers.”
Comert and his siblings paint the Syrian uprising as a foreign plot against Assad and reduce the country’s myriad rebel forces to radicals seeking to establish an Islamic state. “We support Assad not just because he is Alawite like us. It is more what he represents. He is standing against the West’s project for this region and the extremists they are supporting.”
The anxieties aired by the Comert family and other Alawites in Antakya echo those of their coreligionists in Syria, a minority that forms the backbone of the Assad regime and dominates its security apparatus.
The Syrian opposition has accused Alawite-led loyalist gangs, known as shabiha, of carrying out atrocities. With radical elements, including al-Qaeda-linked militants who consider Alawites heretics, playing a growing role in the battle against Assad, the increasingly sectarian hue of what began as a popular uprising is confirming Alawites’ worst fears and fuelling conspiracy theories. Many in Antakya refer to YouTube videos showing Sunni extremists executing regime forces, including Alawites.
“They say that when they are finished with the Assad regime and the Alawites there, they will come here to kill us and take our houses,” says Ali Yeral, a prominent Alawite leader in Antakya, going on to cite a slogan attributed to Sunni hardliners in Syria: “Alawites to the tomb, Christians to Beirut.”
In the nearby town of Harbiye, which has a large population of Alawites, traders say they do a roaring trade in tapestries bearing Assad’s image.
“He’s a good man,” says Orhan, an Alawite who sells Assad souvenirs at a waterfall popular with day trippers. “All these problems are being caused by external forces like the US. If the Syrian people did not like Bashar he would have been finished by now, but he is still there after three years of fighting.”