The anti-Erdogan protesters in Turkey have many grievances - but the prime minister's record of support for the Syrian rebels may turn out to be the most explosive.
- By Sophia Jones<p> Sophia Jones, a former editorial researcher at Foreign Policy, is an Overseas Press Club fellow and freelance journalist based in Cairo. Follow her on Twitter: @Sophia_MJones. </p>
ISTANBUL — The names of the dead are taped to Sycamore trees in Istanbul’s Gezi Park: Fatma Erboz, age 3. Ahmet Uyar, 45.
These trees — threatened by government redevelopment plans that have in turn inspired mass protests around Turkey — have been transformed into memorials for the more than 50 people who died in twin car bombings last month in Reyhanli, a Turkish town on the border of Syria.
On Tuesday morning, police attempted to drive protestors out of the park with water cannons and tear gas — perhaps signaling an end to the popular and mostly peaceful demonstrations that have spread across Turkey over the past two weeks. But the issues that have fueled the turmoil — from complaints over the Islamist government’s conservative social policies to demands for greater democracy — are not likely to dissipate so quickly. And that is particularly true of one issue that has inflamed many protesters’ anger at Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan: The government’s stance on the war ravaging Syria, which has now claimed over 80,000 lives.
The war in Syria is polarizing Turkey. According to a recent study by MetroPOLL Strategic and Social Research Center, based in Ankara, only 28 percent of the Turkish public supports the prime minister’s policies on Syria. Since the start of the conflict, the government has strongly condemned Syrian President Bashar al-Assad. From early on, Erdogan has vocally supported the Free Syrian Army (FSA), the rebel group battling the regime, and has urged the United States to supply them with weapons and to establish a no-fly zone.
Turkey is crucial for the rebels. It offers refuge for their families as well as a safe zone where they can plan and launch attacks over the border. Turkish businesses supply the rebels with everything from medicine to uniforms to cigarettes. But many Turks have long worried that this would make them subject to retaliation by the Syrian government — a fear that, for many, was confirmed by the attacks in Reyhanli. The leader of Turkey’s main opposition has repeatedly confronted Erdogan over his pro-rebel policies, accusing the prime minister of supporting Syrian "terrorists."
Indeed, protests against the government’s Syria policy actually predate the broader demonstrations of the past two weeks. Thousands of enraged residents took to the streets in Reyhanli in the days after the bombings, citing what they perceive as a growing lack of security and a job market now favoring Syrian refugees willing to work for less than Turks.
Among those demonstrating in the southern city of Antakya is Nil Esen, an engineer who is struggling to find work. "Because of the Syrian rebels, there is lots of bankruptcy," he wrote in a private Twitter message. "Antakya’s economy is very, very bad now." Recent polls show that 66 percent of Turks want their government to turn away Syrian refugees. And around 52 percent of those polled oppose the government’s policy of housing Syrians in refugee camps in Turkey.
There are currently hundreds of thousands of Syrians living in more than a dozen refugee camps on Turkish soil. Reyhanli has experienced a population increase of 50 percent since the war began, thanks to a flood of FSA fighters, refugees, and humanitarian aid workers.
Even those who were once sympathetic to the refugees’ dilemma are now finding the war in Syria to be quickly encroaching on their own security and economic stability. "Turkey already had economic problems," said Huseyin Kikis, who works at a restaurant in Istanbul. "And then the Syrian people started to come and try to find jobs. Now you can see Syrian women begging on the street."
Cross-border shelling and car bombs have become common fixtures in both Turkish and Syrian life in the border region. As a result, many Turks now feel that the war on the other side of the border is coming too close for comfort.
The Turkish government blamed the Reyhanli bombings on the Syrian secret police, declaring that the perpetrators would "sooner or later pay the price." Syria responded by pinning the blame on the rebels, whom it decries as terrorists, and harshly criticized Ankara for supporting them. Some opposition groups in Turkey have mirrored the Damascus government’s response, labeling the attack as the work of Jabhat al-Nusra, an al Qaeda-affiliated extremist rebel group fighting in Syria.
A government-supported media blackout following the Reyhanli bombings and a failure to provide a complete list of either the deceased or of those who had been detained for carrying out the attacks has only perpetuated widespread confusion and panic. The government’s eagerness to discourage coverage of the bombings has led some Turks to see the attacks as part of an official conspiracy, a ploy to elicit stronger support for the rebels. (What the conspiracy theorists don’t explain, of course, is why the bombings have had exactly the opposite effect.)
When Istanbul’s Gezi Park protests reached Antakya, a Turkish city near the Syrian border, complaints among the protesters were overwhelmingly focused on Syria. Many Syrians in the border region, in turn, have responded to the recent protests with fear and anger. "In Antakya, we try to hide ourselves and avoid going outside during the protests," said Razan Shalab al-Sham, a well-known Syrian activist who is now based in Antakya. "Syrians who are with the revolution are against the Turkish protests. Turkey treats Syrians better than Lebanon or Jordan. We trust in Erdogan. We started a revolution to get freedom, not to make trouble in Turkey."
Not all opponents of Erdogan’s Syria policy are motivated by concerns about economics or security. Some secular Turks are staunch supporters of Assad, whom they see as a bulwark against Islamism. One female protestor in Taksim (who asked to remain anonymous) told me that, while she agrees with the government’s stance on admitting Syrian refugees, her loyalties remain with Assad. "Our government supports terrorists here, like the Syrian rebels."
Such sentiments may be especially prominent among Turkey’s Alevis, a religious sect that despite its name is not directly related to the Syrian Alawites who make up Assad’s power base. Some have suggested that the Alevis, who are a minority within an overwhelmingly Sunni population, are likely to empathize with the Alawites in Syria. (Alevis make up over 10 percent of Turkey’s population — though some estimates put the number as high as one-third.) One of their most prominent members is Kemal Kilicdaroglu, the leader of the main opposition party, the Republican People’s Party (CHP), who has long been one of the harshest critics of the prime minister’s Syria policy. Though Kilicdaroglu denounces the Syrian president as a "dictator," he also allowed a delegation
from his party to pay an official visit to Assad in Damascus three months ago.
So far Syria has not been a driving factor behind the protests in Turkey. But its significance is likely to grow as long as the civil war across the border continues, potentially aggravating political, economic, and religious problems within Turkey itself.
Correction: A previous version of this article misstated conflating the Turkish Alevis and Alawites. The article has been updated accordingly.