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Turkey’s Shiites Fear Contagion


Turkey’s Shiites Fear Contagion

As violent clashes continue to boil in Syria, hundreds of thousands of Arabic-speaking Turkish Alawis fear the sectarian…


ANTAKYA, Turkey—As violent clashes continue to boil in Syria and its government is increasingly alienated from neighbors and allies, shopkeeper Ferit Kilic is worried about his own fate over the border in Turkey.

Mr. Kilic is an Alawi, a Turkish offshoot Shiite sect similar to the Alawite sect of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad and his Alawite-dominated government that rules over a Sunni majority. He is one of hundreds of thousands of Arabic-speaking Turkish Alawis, most living near the Syrian border, and fears the sectarian conflict next door could open the same fault lines in Turkey—especially as relations between the two former allies become increasingly hostile.

“For now, we live in harmony with Sunnis here,” said Mr. Kilic, as he tallied the cost of sweets a mother was buying for her child. “But in the past there were provocations to get the Sunni and Alawites to fight each other.”

Turkey’s Arabic-speaking Alawis haven’t been silent. In early February, thousands organized two marches here to protest the government’s changing attitude toward Damascus, with some openly voicing support for Mr. Assad.

Later that month, more than 20 homes in Turkey’s southeast were mysteriously marked by red paint. They all belonged to Alevis, a Turkish and Kurdish-speaking Shiite offshoot who vastly outnumber Arabic-speaking Alawis. Together the two groups constitute an estimated 15 million, or one fifth of a national population of 75 million.

The events have raised concern that Syria’s sectarian conflict could drive a wedge between Turkey’s Sunni majority and the country’s Shiite sects. As record numbers of Syrian refugees have poured into Turkey in recent days, fleeing attacks from pro-government forces ahead of Tuesday’s United Nations-backed cease-fire deadline, the spectre of sectarian tensions also has stoked fears that this border city could see a replay of the violence that left hundreds dead in the region in the aftermath of a 1980 military coup.

There are marked cultural and religious differences between Turkey’s Alawis and the more numerous Alevis—including language and religious rituals, where Alevis place more prominence on the role of music and dance. Turkish and Kurdish-speaking Alevis also share less affiliation and family ties with the Syrian regime than do the Arabic-speaking Alawis—but people from both groups have become unsettled by Ankara’s increasingly hawkish Syria policy.

Last month, sectarian barbs appeared to infect Turkey’s domestic debate on Syria. In a speech,Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan, a Sunni, accused the leader of the country’s opposition, an Alevi, of being in sympathy with Syria’s president. “Don’t forget that a person’s religion is the religion of his friend,” the prime minister said of Kemal Kilicdaroglu, the opposition leader, who like many of his sect, is a member of Turkey’s secular Republican People’s party.

The prime minister and other top officials have stressed that if the swell of Syrians seeking refuge in Turkey continues to rise, Ankara could be forced to take harsher steps, including opening a buffer zone on Syrian territory, to protect civilians and ensure national security.

Representatives of Turkish Alevis have repeatedly criticized the Assad regime’s crackdown but are also unnerved by the prime minister’s increasingly bellicose stance.

“As Turkish Alevis, we do not support an antidemocratic, an antihumanist regime, but we cannot understand why the prime minister so suddenly became an enemy of the Syrian administration,” said Selahattin Ozel, chairman of the federation of Alevi associations in Turkey.

The breakdown of relations between the neighbors has been swift and severe. Ankara and Damascus were close allies until the summer, when Turkish officials said President Assad’s refusal to end a bloody crackdown forced a shift. Turkey has sheltered thousands of Syrian refugees, including members of the rebel army; the opposition Syrian National Council in December opened an office in Istanbul.

As Mr. Assad ignored Ankara, Mr. Erdogan’s attacks have grown increasingly personal. He likened Mr. Assad’s crackdown to the tactics of Hitler’s dictatorship, in some of the strongest language of any leader on Syria.

For some Alawis and Alevis, Mr. Erdogan’s rhetoric reflects a religious divide that runs below the surface of Turkish politics and society. “In Turkey, we have not solved our ethnic questions, and democracy has not yet taken hold,” said Mehmet Guzelyurt, an Alawite dentist from Antakya. “This is why we know that violence could spark at any time.”

Mr. Erdogan has taken some steps to widen minority rights, and in November reached out by apologizing for a 1937 massacre in the city of Dersim which killed some 13,000.

Turkey’s government acknowledges Alawis’ and Alevis’ concerns, but stresses that the Prime Minister’s apology for the Dersim massacre was historic and that Turkish foreign policy would never be based on a religious or sectarian calculation. “Our Foreign Minister rejected meeting with the Syrian National Council until they widened their base to include different religions and sects,” a Foreign Ministry spokesman said.

Some analysts say the government needs to deliver on its promise to pass a new constitution, granting greater freedom for minorities, if it is to offset that perception—and the political momentum for constitutional change has eased.

“This tension could be dangerous. …If the Turkish government does not give very wide rights to Alevis during this period when Sunni-Shia tensions are rising in the region, it may regret it later,” said Kerem Oktem, a fellow of the European Studies Centre at Oxford University. Alevis have demanded official recognition as a separate religious minority and recognition for their places of worship, which would enable their religious authorities to get financial support from the Turkish state.

The Wall Street Journal

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