‘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
Before the war, Syrians used to cross the border into Hatay to do business and shop. Now they stream across in their thousands as refugees. According to Turkish government figures, more than 200,000 Syrian refugees live in camps along Turkey’s border, and at least as many are estimated to be staying in private homes in nearby towns and villages.
The UN predicts that the number of refugees will double, perhaps triple, by the end of the year. Given that most of those fleeing Syria are opponents of the Assad regime, their presence has not gone down well with the local Alawite population.
“They brought problems with them,” says Zafar Comert, who points out metal grilles his family fitted to the windows of their home after a burglary they blamed on Syrians. Other residents claim there has been an uptick in crime since the refugees arrived.
“When the Syrians came here people were apprehensive,” says Semsettin Günay, a local Sunni who helped establish a multidenominational civil-society group that seeks to defuse sectarian tensions in Hatay. “They didn’t trust each other so much. We have a long history of peaceful co-existence, but things became strained.”
Government efforts to disperse the refugees deeper inside Turkey have eased the situation, but the border region remains a crucial staging post for Syria’s rebel forces. Hatay province serves as a command-and-control centre and a hub for smuggling arms and cash, a place where commanders recruit from refugee camps and injured fighters can be treated.
Many in Antakya complain about the heavily bearded men, some of whom do not appear to be Syrian, they see walking in the city’s labyrinthine bazaars.
“They come here to rest and eat, and then they go back to Syria to kill our brothers,” says Ali Yeral.
Tensions were exacerbated in May when twin car bombs ripped through the predominantly Sunni border town of Reyhanli, killing 53 people. Alawites blamed factions linked to opposition forces in Syria; the Turkish government accused elements close to the Assad regime. Suspicion fell on a shadowy outfit led by Mihrac Ural, a Syria-based Turkish Alawite with a history of involvement in militant leftist groups.
There are claims that Ural, who has featured in videos purportedly threatening opposition-held areas of Syria, has recruited men from Hatay’s Alawite communities to fight for Assad. Few are comfortable speaking of Ural in Antakya; many Alawites say they have never heard of him.
Semsettin Günay says the Reyhanli bombings raised fears that Turkey may be drawn deeper into the war next door and that this explains much of why people took to Antakya’s streets in such numbers the following month.
“People are very concerned. We don’t want to see another attack like that,” he says. “Even if nothing had happened in Gezi Park, there would have been protests here because of Syria.”