As the conflict in Syria threatens to bring down the only regime in the world run by members of the Alawite religious sect, the uprising is beginning to stir resentment among the millions of Alawites who live next door in Turkey.
Fearing a massacre of their fellow Alawites if the regime in Damascus falls apart, the community here is starting to take sides in the conflict that puts it in opposition to the Turkish government’s policy of calling for the resignation of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad.
Turkish Alawites, who historically have kept a low profile, usually keep themselves separate from their brethren across the border in Syria. But the latest conflict appears to be bringing them together in support of Mr. al-Assad, a fellow Alawite.
“Even people who had little sympathy for Assad in the past, now they love him,” said Miyase Ilknur, a veteran reporter at the Turkish newspaper Cumhuriyet and Alawite whose reporting often focuses on her own community.
At least three street demonstrations in Istanbul have expressed support for Mr. Assad in recent months, and glossy Alawite magazines are circulating in Istanbul with messages in support of the Assad regime in Syria.
At a small community centre in Istanbul where about 250 Alawites gather regularly to drink tea and discuss politics, the talk has turned to dark scenarios of how the estimated two to three million Alawites in Syria could face obliteration.
“It will be a blood river,” said Huzdat Hatay, 52, a teacher and Arabic-language tour guide in Istanbul who serves as a leading member of an Alawite group. “The Muslim Brotherhood will take control and start hunting us down.”
Young men from the insular sect recently became so concerned about covert weapons shipments into Syria that they started hijacking ambulances in the eastern Turkish province of Hatay, searching the medical vehicles for arms caches, he added.
Alawites are stronger in numbers in Turkey than in Syria and are estimated to account for 15 million of the country’s 75 million people. Their recent activism reflects a deep concern among Alawites that Syria could be taken over by Sunni Muslims, who are the majority of the Syrian population, and in particular by the Muslim Brotherhood, which has branded their version of Islam as heretical.
Such concerns have a long history among the Alawites, which broke away from Shia Islam almost 1,000 years ago. Like their Shia ancestors, the Alawites revere Ali, a cousin and son-in-law of the Prophet Mohammed, but they also are said to consider him divine. Their traditions also include an eclectic mix of influences from the Mediterranean region: they venerate the Greek philosophers Socrates and Plato as prophets, and their rituals can involve drinking wine. Alawites are also taught that sinners are reincarnated as dirty animals such as dogs and pigs, and that the Koran should be understood as an allegorical story.
Frequently persecuted by mainstream Islam, the Alawites have historically dealt with threats by resorting to taqiyya, the custom of hiding their beliefs to avoid harm. Reports from inside Syria suggest that many Alawites, who benefitted from the Assad clan’s rule of Syria for nearly 40 years, have been falling into that pattern during the recent uprising. Reuters news agency reported last month that members of the Alawite community in Damascus were changing their names and accents to disguise their minority status.
Reports are also emerging of Alawites directly opposing the revolutionaries, beating up demonstrators and giving shelter to pro-government forces in their house-to-house battles against rebels.
In many parts of Turkey and elsewhere in the region, the uprising in Syria is viewed through the lens of Sunni Muslim ambitions running up against the interests of the Shia and other minorities, according to Ms. Ilknur, the journalist. This view is reinforced, she said, by the absence of international support for democratic voices in Sunni-dominated countries such as Bahrain and Saudi Arabia.
“The Sunni authoritarian regimes are U.S. puppets. It’s a double standard,” Ms. Ilknur said.
She said she has not heard of any vigilante action by Turkish Alawites to help their Syrian neighbours, but other commentators in Turkey have speculated that Alawite resistance could become a brake on the momentum of the uprising.
One of the glossy Turkish-language magazines handed out by Mr. Hatay’s Alawite community group in Istanbul, called Voice of the Asi River, warned readers not to trust the Western news organizations’ reports from inside Syria, and it also spoke in ominous tones about a possible counter-uprising.
“Ordinary people will make the price high, for those who interfere with Syria,” the magazine said.
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