‘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

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.”

Roaring trade
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.”

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.”