In a bustling park in the Turkish city of Antakya, Metin, a local merchant, is having a picnic with his family. His hazel eyes fixated on a large, turquoise pool by a grove of pines, he takes a sip from his raki and whispers as if he’s revealing a secret. “It breaks my heart to hear about it in the news,” he says, referring to the brutal government crackdown taking place across the border in Syria’s predominantly Sunni districts. “But, how can an Alawite be cruel like that?”
Like the ruling Assad family in Damascus, Metin is an Alawite of Arab origin. He holds a Turkish passport, yet he has relatives who live in Syria. Torn between devotion to his sect and disgust over what he calls the “alleged reports of violence,” he has a hard time making up his mind about the Assad regime. Indeed, having maintained a strong bond with the Syrian Alawite heartland of Latakia ever since Antakya’s annexation to Turkey in 1939, most Arab Alawites living in Turkey are distrustful of the news coming out of Syria, and they believe that President Assad is falling victim to an international smear campaign.
A sect with ties to Shia Islam, Alawites constitute about 12 percent of Syria’s 22 million people but hold a vastly outsized portion of the high-ranking positions in the government and the military. Due to their syncretic religion that blends Islam with other local traditions, the Alawites have long been considered heretics and were historically persecuted as such by Sunni Muslims. When Syria fell under French rule in the early 20th century, the Alawites were granted their own state, based in the port city of Latakia, and enjoyed relative autonomy until Syria gained its independence in 1946. Many religious minorities, including the Alawites, were split over the issue of union with the newly-established Sunni-dominated country. In the 1930s, a group of activists including Sulayman Al Assad, one of the prominent patriarchs of the country’s ruling clan, appealed the union with Syria to French officials. But the French rejected the Alawites’ demand to maintain their autonomy and, since then, the Assad family has been involved in the Alawite political movement in Syria, gradually assuming a guardianship role for the group and securing their loyal support in return. When Hafez Al Assad seized power in an intra-party coup in 1970, most of the Alawite community lined up behind him.
Since the outbreak of protests earlier this year, Syria’s burgeoning opposition has been striving to win the loyalties of the Alawite community, which constitutes the backbone of the regime in Damascus. Sondos Soleiman, one of the few Alawite opposition members, told me that her people have “also suffered from the suppression of the regime,” and, likewise, also aspire for a “democratic state and freedom of expression.” Last month, anti-regime protestors dedicated a Friday demonstration to Saleh Al Ali, a prominent Syrian Alawite who rose up against the French occupation in Syria in 1918. And the Change in Syria conference, which brought together a diverse group of Syrian dissidents in the Turkish city of Antalya in June, also emphasized that the opposition aimed to embrace all of Syria’s ethnic and religious groups. Molham Al Drobi, a member of the Islamic Brotherhood and an executive committee member at the conference, told me that Alawites “will lose a historic opportunity” if they don’t side with the Syrian revolution.
But in Antakya’s Alawite neighborhoods, I found that most residents were still more likely to take their cues from Syria’s embattled dictator Bashar Al Assad, who in a June televised address blamed the unrest on “saboteurs” and urged his nation to ruminate on the motivations driving the protests. “What is happening to our country, and why?” he asked. “It doesn’t require much analysis, based on what we heard from others and witnessed in the media, to prove that there is indeed a conspiracy.”
Sure enough, such conspiracy theories run rampant throughout Antakya’s Alawite neighborhoods. Metin told me that members of “fundamentalist groups” might be providing incentives for Sunni refugees who have crossed the border into Turkey to draw a grim picture of the situation in Syria. Repeating an oft-heard rumor, he says that “provocateurs pay each [refugee] two hundred dollars to cross to the Turkish side.” Nurettin, a local Alawite retailer who also believes the international media is exaggerating, argued instead that “Western meddlers who want to bring the end of Assad” are manipulating thousands of Syrians refugees—or “lobbyists” as he calls them—to hurt Assad’s reputation. “The refugees in the camps here [in Turkey] are mostly Palestinians who ran away from the camps in Deraa expecting jobs in Turkey” he told me. “I think there’s nothing going on in Syria,” a third local official who refused to give his name told me, implying that the media reports of regime violence are largely fabricated.
With such feelings, hundreds of Alawite Turks turned out in June to voice their opposition to the influx of mostly Sunni refugees from Syria into Samandagi, another Alawite neighborhood in Turkey. With the gap between Syria’s two critical religious groups widening, it seems unlikely in the near future for President Assad to lose support of his fellow Alawite clansmen in the region. Despite his stained record, many continue to see him as the most reliable anchor for their safety, and they ascribe symbolic importance to his leadership. So far, at least, the Alawites in Antakya appear unwilling to think otherwise, even it if means suspending their disbelief.
Afsin Yurdakul writes about Turkish politics. Her work has appeared in Foreign Policy and The Daily Beast, among others.