The vulnerability of Turkey’s Alevis in the Syrian crisis | Kurdish-Alevi, Deniz Naki, AKP, Gezi, Syria's Alawites, Turkey's Alawite, Anatolian, refugees in Turkey
The vulnerability of Turkey’s Alevis in the Syrian crisis Print
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//After posting messages against Islamic State on social media Denzi Naki was attacked by IS supporters.After posting messages against Islamic State on social media Denzi Naki was attacked by IS supporters.

A Kurdish-Alevi soccer player’s recent experience could shed some light on what effect the Syrian war and the Islamic State’s “caliphate” is having on Turkey.

The footballer, Deniz Naki, carries two tattoos in his forearms, one tattoo being “Dersim”, the other “Azadi” (“freedom” in Kurdish). Both refer to his family’s and his people’s story.

25 year-old Naki’s family is from Dersim, a town with a painful history. A Kurdish-Alevi town in the eastern Turkey, Dersim witnessed a massacre where thousands were killed by the army in 1937-1938.

As Kurdish towns in Syria came under IS threat, Deniz Naki showed his support for the Kurdish fighters and his contempt for IS with his posts on Facebook. First he started receiving threats and racist verbal assaults by IS supporters. Then the threats became reality.

On November 2, he was attacked by 3 men on street in the Turkish capital Ankara. His attackers were shouting racist abuse at him as they beat him brutally. The apparent motive of the attack was Naki’s outspoken opposition against the IS and support for Kobane, the Kurdish town in Syria that was fighting IS.

According to Naki’s account the attackers called him “dirty Kurd” and threatened him further saying “This is your last warning. Leave this city, leave this country!”

And he did so. A few days after the attack, he left Turkey for Germany where he was born and raised. Not because he was afraid, he says, but because he was worried for his family and friends. Naki says his parents in Germany were so worried about him that they couldn’t sleep. He was also concerned that his friends might be harmed if they are seen with him.

As for his plans for the future he says he doesn’t want to go back to Turkey, “because there’s no tolerance” there.

Can Naki’s experience be discarded as an isolated event or does it constitute a proof of growing support for IS in Turkey? Some analysts believe in the latter.

Turkish political science professor and columnist Pınar Tremblay wrote about Naki’s ordeal in an article titled “Turks increasingly sympathetic to Islamic State” on Al Monitor website (November 10, 2014). “Although Justice and Development Party (AKP) leaders have not declared any intentions about a caliphate, social media has boomed with thoughts on the Prophet Muhammad’s prophecies on the coming of IS”, Tremblay wrote.

Deniz Naki himself told Al Monitor that “the attack was not a sporadic incident, as he had been systemically targeted by IS supporters for seven months prior to the attack”. He expressed his conviction that there is extensive support in Turkey for the IS caliphate.

And what this growing support means for Alevis in Turkey can be seen in Naki’s answer to Al Monitor’s question about whether he had sought legal protection in Turkey: “How much trust could an Alevi Kurd have in the state for protection, given that all the dead kids from Gezi [Park] are Alevis? Did you forget?”

Alevis in Turkey, a minority with a population of almost 15 million including both Kurds and Turks, are one of the ethnic and religious groups that feel most the strain of the Syrian crisis. A November 4 article by William Eichler titled “Turkey’s Arab Alawites and the Syrian conflict” sheds some light on the issue:

The Syrian conflict is a democratic struggle against a tyrannical government. However, due to the machinations of Assad, and the rise of Sunni extremists such as ISIS, sectarian trends have emerged. Syria's Alawites, fearing what would happen to them in a Sunni-dominated state, see their fates linked to the survival of the regime. This makes them targets of factions within the predominantly Sunni opposition which, in turn, appears to confirm Alawite fears that only Assad stands between them and the destruction of their community.

These sectarian divisions are partially mirrored over the border. Turkey's Alawite and Alevi (a closely related Anatolian Shia sect, often seen as identical to Alawites) communities see their coreligionists (and sometimes family) being targeted and so there is a sense of solidarity which translates into sympathy for Assad. As one Alawite resident of Antakya put it, “After the events in Syria, most of the Alevi people in Turkey have supported Assad as he is Alevi or Alawite, and they believe they are under threat. Actually, they are not interested in Assad's personality or what he has done.”

//The aftermath of Reyhanlı bombings.The aftermath of Reyhanlı bombings.

And the Turkish government’s “pro-Sunni Syrian policy” and support for the Syrian Sunni rebels didn’t ease the plight of Alevis. As the Turkish authorities turned a blind eye to the Syrian opposition fighters using the Turkish territory as a base, the Turkish towns close to Syria border became obvious targets. Apart from occasional shell landings in Turkish territory, 53 people were killed in Reyhanlı town in May 2013 car bombings. The attack and the then Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdoğan’s reaction to it increased tensions even higher. Erdoğan’s words, “Our 53 Sunni citizens were martyred”, were seen as a proof of his sectarian policies and polarizing the society.

1.6 million Syrain refugees in Turkey

The tension that the Syrian crisis creates in Turkey is more than sectarian based, however. As the number of Syrian refugees that took shelter in Turkey reached 1.6 million since the Syrian conflict started, the initial hospitality of the Turkish citizens started giving way to resentment and social unrest.

//Syrian refugees fleeing to Turkey. (Photo: AP)Syrian refugees fleeing to Turkey. (Photo: AP)

Of the 1.6 million Syrian refugees in Turkey only about 220,000 live in refugee camps. The rest are scattered in cities as far from the Syrian border as İstanbul. While UN applauds Turkey for hosting so many Syrians and the refugee camps are sometimes described as “5-star” camps, National Geographic Emerging Explorer Aziz Abu Sarah says that “camps offer no work possibilities, and just like in prison, you receive your daily portion of food and water and are asked to wait, hopelessly, passively.”

About 200,000 Syrian refugees currently live in Istanbul, according to estimates. It is quite common to come across Syrian children or even entire families on the streets of İstanbul, begging for money.

The influx in the urban landscape mounts the tension between the locals and the refugees. Locals claim that Syrian refugees working for less money hurt their job opportunities and the wages, and strain the resources. The refugees, on the other hand, complain from discrimination and abuse.

Recently a Mediterranean tourist hub, Antalya, has asked the authorities to bar the entry of Syrians. Antalya Police Chief Cemil Tonbul declared, “We won’t accept any Syrian refugee, unless they have come by legal means. For those who refuse to leave, we will either drive them out of the city or take them to the closest refugee camp.” Tonbul also said they asked for an exemption for Antalya regarding a government decree that confers a number of rights on all Syrian refugees, including access to education and health, as well as work permits.

And the “Turkey’s Syrian refugee crisis”, as one journalist puts it, doesn’t seem to be ending soon. As Deputy Prime Minister Numan Kurtulmuş said on November 6, 1.6 million Syrian refugees are there to stay. Kurtulmuş, in an address to the Parliament’s Planning and Budget Commission said, “Unfortunately, we looked on the Syrian refugees as temporary, that they would arrive and leave in a few months. But after 3.5 years of this civil war it looks like they will remain here.”


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