In Antakya, a cosmopolitan Turkish city on the border with Syria, the Alawite minority has taken sides against Ankara in staunch defense of Bashar al-Assad – dreading their fate if he is toppled.
Rejecting their government’s tough stance and sanctions against Damascus, the group outrightly belies the deadly crackdown that has killed more than 4,000 people in Syria since March, according to U.N. figures.
“We know full well that there is no oppression in Syria,” says Ali Yeral, president of the Ehli Beyt Alawite association in Antakya – summarizing the predominant attitude.
“Of course there are a few small problems ... but you have to allow time for President Bashar al-Assad’s regime to put in place democratic reforms.”
The Alawites form a minority Shiite branch that counts Syria’s ruling Assad family among its adherents.
It has about two million devotees in Syria, strongly represented in the top ranks of the army and the Baath party in power – and hundreds of thousands in Turkey, mainly around Antakya where they retain strong links with their brethren across the border.
Expatriate Alawites have for the most part remained loyal to the embattled regime in Damascus.
“Everything is calm in the (Syrian) cities. There is nothing in (the northwestern town of) Latakia; the people who come here say that they are living normally,” claimed Suheyla Kocak, an actress in the Antakya municipal theatre which has staged numerous plays in Syria.
“Where are the incidents happening? In remote areas, where people are ignorant and where they can easily lose their heads. It is in these types of places where they are fighting and killing each other.”
“Millions of people are on the street to support (Assad’s) reforms,” added Ali Yeral.
“But certain television stations, in particular Al-Jazeera, do everything to ignore it and instead show 200 to 300 members of a bloody terrorist organization demonstrating,” said Yeral.
Lurking behind such denialism may be the threat of reprisals against the Alawites, in Syria and elsewhere, should Assad’s regime fall.
“If Assad is overthrown, it is clear that there will be a massacre of Alawites,” said Yeral.
“After that, Lebanon’s Hezbollah will be in the line of fire, then Iraq, Iran, and this will reach all the way to Turkey and Saudi Arabia.”
Yusuf Mutlu, a restaurant owner, blames the Muslim Brotherhood for the violence in Syria. The movement is banned in Syria and all of its officials live in exile.
“The Muslim Brotherhood are the ones who are creating all of these incidents,” he claimed.
Mutlu said he had little sympathy for the 7,500 Syrian refugees in the Antakya region, with their terrifying tales of the devastation committed by the Syrian army.
Neither was he convinced by Ankara’s calls for Assad to stand down or the wisdom of sanctions against Damascus when relations between Syria and Turkey were warm just a year ago.
“As an Alawite, it hurt me deeply ... that an official with the Turkish Republic commits religious discrimination,” he added, referring to a statement by senior AKP ruling party official Huseyin Celik in September in which he underlined the role of Alawites in Syria’s power structures.