Syrian Volcano; Turkey’s other Headache, Alevis

Do not open the Syrian 'Pandora's box', Iraq is still burning.

  • “If Syria implodes, the Syrian fire would consume neighboring states,” Bashar Assad
  • “Ankara is very far out on a limb on Syria,” Peter Lee in Asia Times
  • “The problem with western reporters is that they are past their due date – remnants of an industry we once believed brandished standards of objectivity we never actually witnessed... The Syrian crisis is not about reforms any longer – it has become a geopolitical battle for influence in the Middle East, with NATO, the GCC and BRIC nations taking sides,” Sharmine Narwani, a London/Beirut based journalist.
  • “Western media and Al Jazeera have outdone themselves in destroying the noble profession of journalism since the Arabs revolt against US puppets in the Arab world” -author

While posted at Amman (Jordan) in 1989-92, the author motored up to Damascus a few times. He found the Syrian immigration officials at the border very friendly, both during entry and exit. They insisted on serving tea or coffee, even during Ramadan, while the visa formalities took but a few minutes. The author noticed that Turkeys’ province of Hatay (Antakya –old Antioch) was shown in the maps on the wall within Syrian borders.

Some two decades earlier while posted first time at Ankara the author had enquired about the problem of Hatay, the Syrian ambassador, a legal luminary, told me that the Syrian province was stolen after a fraudulent referendum in 1939, but Damascus had not filed any legal claims in any international judicial forum. Other Syrian complaint has been Ankara’s refusal to discuss sharing of the waters of Euphrates, which originates in Turkey but is the life line of Syria. Turkey has built a massive dam against Syrian protestations, which the latter considers a strategic threat too.

One Turkish prime minister declared that Ankara had full rights over its waters like Arabs have over their oil resources. Euphrates and Tigris, which touches Syria in north-east later flow through Iraq and were the main underpinning of the Mesopotamian civilization, verily the mother of most civilizations including the European. Mesopotamia or modern Iraq now lies divided and devastated in the wake of US led illegal invasion of 2003 called ‘Operation Iraqi Freedom” and its brutal occupation leading to over a million Iraqis dead since then and more killed every day.

I mentioned in passing Syrian maps at the border when I had gone to express unhappiness and distress to the Director General in the Turkish foreign office in mid 1990s after Ankara had joined a group on Jammu and Kashmir at UN in New York. I was also upset by an earlier statement by the Turkish president during the visit of the Pakistani prime minister, always inflaming hosts with vitriolic, misleading and false propaganda on J and K. He had said that Ankara would accept an agreement on Kashmir only if Islamabad agreed. This undiplomatic utterance was suppressed in the Turkish media and in the official account of the press conference. This had irritated the leftist Turkish foreign minister present at the meeting. An earlier incumbent I had gone to remonstrate among others regretted the president’s remark adding that Kashmir was a very complex issue. I was able to get the exact but unofficial version not made public via a friend, who was close to the president. I had conveyed back a message that what if the people of Kashmir reached a settlement with India. What would Ankara do? I had received many messages indirectly from many Turks including diplomats who did not agree with the Turkish stand. That demarche was perhaps the only frosty meeting with the director general, who was otherwise a good and constructive friend.

Coming back to the present, it seems that AKP prime minister Erdogan and his Foreign minister Davutoglu are going ballistic, almost crazy with prodding and petrodollars from tiny but gas full Qatar and Riyadh, financiers of ruling Islamist Justice and Development party (APK) and other Islamist groups and even extremists and a declining hegemon, military – Industry complex controlled Washington, now in retreat to neutralize Iran’s resistance and power by breaking up its ally Syria. (Note that most Islamist political parties include the word Justice or Salvation)

“A new Middle East is about to be born. We will be the owner, pioneer and the servant of this new Middle East,” Davutoglu told Parliament after attracting criticism from opposition parties over Ankara’s Syria policy.

Such statements by Davutoglu would have suited Turkish folk tales hero Hoja Nasrettin (its equivalent in the subcontinent is Sheikh Chilli) but not a Turkish foreign minister. It reminds me of Condi Rice’s statement soon after the 2006 Israeli Hezbollah war had begun, when she had described the wanton and illegal destruction of civilian infrastructure in Lebanon as the birth pangs of a new Middle east.

During WWI, Ottoman armed forces fought well at Gallipoli under Kemal Pasha later known as Ataturk, who forged the new republic of Turkey out of the ashes of the Ottoman Empire after its defeat and collapse. Ottoman Turks successfully withdrew from its Arab domains, where the British played foul, as usual, even occupying oil rich Kirkuk in Mesopotamia etc. after the ceasefire. In north east, after the revolution in Russia, Soviets withdrew from areas Ottomans had lost. Not keeping the word, the British and the French cheated the Arabs and divided the Arab lands among themselves and created the cancer of Israel.

Under Ataturk, the regulars and irregulars fought gallantly and drove out the British encouraged Greeks who had reached the outskirts of Ankara, back into the sea to Smyrna, now Izmir and forced other European nations like France and Italy to withdraw their forces and saw Britain finally make peace.

Ataturk was one of the greatest of strategic thinkers and commanders but he believed in ‘Peace at Home and Peace Abroad’. Seeing WWII clouds in the horizon he even made up with Greek enemy prime minister Venizelos and advised his party and government in Ankara before his death in 1938 to keep out of onrushing war; not to be occupied or destroyed by the Germans and then liberated by the Soviets.

A brigade sent in 1950s to fight in the Korean War till the last men, to get acceptance into NATO did valiantly. Their 1975 invasion of Cyprus was poorly organized when Ankara sank its own naval ship. It was against Makarios police forces, who relinquished even more space than the Turkish armed forces had even planned to take over. Turkish troops stay put on the divided island and the wily British remain masters of the Akriotri base, they ought to have relinquished after the independence of Cyprus. These bases are used for wars of choice in Middle East including the two wars on Iraq and remain lily-pads for US led western aggression in the region.

The record of Turkish armed forces is poor against PKK guerillas in south east Turkey.

In the last few years the top Turkish military leadership has been hounded out and demoralized by AKP leader Erdogan and others. How will the disaffected Turkish armed forces fight? AKP and Riyadh are in hubris. Tehran will exact vengeance if Turkey enters Syria. Fifteen percent Turks are Alevis, with similar Shia belief as the ruling Alawite 12% minority ruling elite in Damascus. Syria has almost 10% each of Kurds and Christians. Syrian Kurds dominate the Syrian side of the long border with Turkey where PKK was ensconced. The border province of Antakya (historical Syrian Antioch) has very large Alawaite and Alevi population. It has been alleged that the then Sunni ruled Damascus had not opposed determinedly Antakya's take over by Turkey fraudulent referendum organized by the West just before WWII as an inducement for Ankara to join UK led Western powers.

I have kept a watch over Turkey since 1967 and was fortunate to be part of the exchange of VVIP visits exchanged between India and Turkey at the level of the Presidents and other such visits during my tenure of 1992-96, apart from opening the doors for cooperation in the military and defense sectors. I enjoyed my ten year stay and extensive travel around the country, home of over forty civilizations and warm Turkish hospitality. I thus feel saddened at the direction of the Turkish foreign policy of the Islamist AKP in power since 2002 under its acerbic leader PM Erdogan, whose party under the influence of billions of Saudi money in financial gifts and in investments in AKP strongholds of central Anatolia is fast chartering Turkey into dangerous channels.

Even the Asia Times which generally follows pro-Washington policy has been forced to disseminate two articles against Ankara’s policy on Syria in particular and with neighbors in general. It appears that FM Davutoglu’s much flaunted policy of zero friction with Turkey’s neighbors is mutating into hostile relationship with most of them specially on Syria, where forays into Syria’s internal affairs are being carried out from the province of Hatay which the author visited many times both during 1969-73 and 1992-98

Situation in refugee camps for Syrians in Turkey

Two Cairo based freelance journalists, Erin Banco and Sophia Jones reported in Asia Times how like a well-choreographed plays Turkish officials helped form “committees” inside every camp to speak on behalf of the refugees with the press and outside organizations. The story is a simple narrative of suffering Syrian refugees, fleeing the bloody crackdown by President Bashar al-Assad, finding relief, commendable conditions and the chance for a new life. But the government of Turkey is “hiding something”, according to a prominent Turkish human-rights lawyer - a sentiment shared by many Syrian refugees inside the camps.

Meanwhile, analysts are warning of the potential for clashes between locals and Syrian refugees. Huseyin Yayman, an academic and leading columnist on security matters who writes for daily Hurriyet, wrote some time ago that Hatay province, which is currently hosting tens of thousands of Syrian refugees, has “intentionally been turned by provocateurs into a gunpowder barrel ready to explode at any moment.”

Compounding Ankara’s dilemma is that it is not only facing the ire of the Assad regime, and Syrian Alawites today, but also the increasing resentment and anger against Turkey among the Middle East’s Shiites, who look on the Erdogan government as one of the principle sponsors of the armed Sunni-led resistance by the Syrian opposition.

Ankara unhappy at Jabhat al-Nusra as a terrorist organization

AKP mouthpiece Zaman reported in January that Ankara expressed its discontent to Washington over its listing of Jabhat al-Nusra as a terrorist organization, by arguing that the announcement “was ill-timed.” This message was reportedly conveyed during the talks Turkish Foreign Ministry Undersecretary Feridun Sinirlioglu had in Washington. If there was any truth to any of these reports, it indicates that the Erdogan government is playing with fire in order to force outcomes that suit its own ideological expectations, rather than considering the consequences for Turkey’s long-term security interests.

After Iraq, now another Pandora’s Box in Syria being opened

When US invaded Iraq ten years ago, which induced sectarian and ethnic conflicts in the state, Jacques Chirac, president of France at the time, had accused the invasion of the U.S. army as opening “Pandora's Box” in Iraq. Now, another box has been opened in Syria.

The Syrian crisis was quickly allied to the geopolitical interests of the United States against Russia and Asia. The unshakeable goal of the United States is to change the Syrian regime, break up Syria-Iran alliance and maintain its leading role in the Middle East.

Changing the regime of a sovereign country by external force has been the consistent foreign practice of the United States since the Cold War ended. The process will be cruel to Syrian people and the consequence will be calamitous to the state and even the world peace.

Yevgeni Primakov on the Conflict

Former Russian Prime Minister Yevgeni Primakov, an expert on Middle East in an interview with ?????????? ?????? (Rossiskaya Gazeta: The Russian Newspaper) last year warned, “If the armed opposition topples Assad, a Sunni junta in Damascus would arise, which automatically would entail persecution of the Alawis, who are a significant bloc in the population. Reprisals wouldn’t only target the activists of the ruling Ba’ath Party, as some think, rather, they’d strike everyone who doesn’t share their religious beliefs”.

In his view, much of the Arab League member states support the Syrian opposition because they don’t want an Assad victory. They fear that it’d create the ground for the formation of a Shi’a alliance consisting of Iraq, Iran, Syria, and Lebanon. He also noted that Assad’s overthrow wouldn’t stabilize Syria, pointing out, “All the talk in the West in support of the opposition, claiming that they desire to establish democracy and stability in Syria is absolutely untenable. There will be neither stability nor democracy there [if the opposition wins]”. Primakov opined that Russia’s stance on the Syrian question “was the only correct course. If I were head of the government or Minister of Foreign Affairs, then, I’d support the policy that’s now in force”.

Many political observers believe and I agree that the Gulf monarchies hope that by fully assisting and diverting attention to the carnage in Syria, they will be safe .It is a fatally wrong belief.

Syrian Refugees in Hatay and nearby

Syrians fleeing their shelled-out homes are finding relative safety in Turkey, but not as refugees. The Turkish government classifies all people who flee from non-European countries as “guests” of the Turkish state. Under this classification, Syrian refugees receive basic protections, but their status is open to revocation. Guest status fails to confer even the minimum guarantees that the 1994 Turkish Asylum Regulations would provide, meaning that Syrians do not have the ability to register as asylum seekers, and do not receive identification cards or residence permits.

Turkey ratified the 1951 Geneva Convention on the Status of Refugees with a provision that allows them the option only to apply refugee status only to people who have fled Europe. Turkey claims it has no international obligation under the Geneva Convention to provide refugee status to Syrians, and therefore, has no obligation to grant them permanent residency in Turkey, only in another country.

But according to the August 2011 Euro-Mediterranean Human Rights Network report, providing full protection to the Syrians seeking asylum in Turkey is “not only a humanitarian imperative but a legal obligation under international refugee law and international human rights law”.

Refugees fleeing the violence in Syria mainly enter Turkey through official border crossings and register with the Turkish authorities before being sent into a camp. Once they enter the camps, Syrians effectively have no access to UN refugee assistance since they are rarely allowed to travel far from the camp perimeter. This gives them no real possibility of travelling to UN refugee agency offices in the cities of Ankara or Van, both far away, to file for asylum status.

One exception to this rule has been for Free Syrian Army (FSA) members living in the soldiers’ camp in Reyhanli (where the blowback has already begun). Not only have FSA members received permission to leave their camp, but the Turkish government has reportedly provided large sums of money for non-essential surgeries they would not have been able to afford in Syria, according to doctors we spoke with.

Some Syrian activists, as well as other dissident soldiers in Hatay’s capital, Antakya, believe payments for these surgeries are being used as a form of bribery. One defector, a former officer in Assad’s army, said he thought the Turkish government was paying off people to silence them for fear they would return back to Syria and spread politically damaging information, including the full story of the treatment of refugees in the camps.

Since Hatay province was, prior to 1939, part of Syria and is home to a large Alawite population, so many support the Assad regime. The majority of the refugees in the camps, however, are anti-Assad Sunnis, creating extreme tension in the region.

A conversation with Mithat Can - one of the most prominent human-rights activists in Antakya and a man with the power to affect aid flowing into the camps - drove home just how much old enmities are affecting the way supposed advocates are dealing with needy refugees.

Can, an Alawite, bluntly said: “There is no war in Syria. The conflict in Syria,” he said, “is not between the government and the people.” According to him, there is an international imperialist plot by “Western gods” to remake the Middle East. He also claimed that the Syrian army was not targeting citizens at all, stating that the turmoil in the country stemmed from the fact that the Syrian government would not allow foreign intervention alter the political and economic landscape of the region.

Can, whose formal job is to help refugees file for asylum with the UN but whose opinion holds sway over local donors on whose aid refugees depend, stated that he believed that the news coming out of Syria was baseless Israeli and American propaganda and that the Syrian people were “actually okay”. This is the other version opposite of what CNN BBC, Al Jazeera dole out.


The Alevis of Anatolia

According to David Zeidan the Alevis constitute the second largest religious community in Turkey (following the Sunnis), and number some 25% (15 million) of the total population (Alevis claim 30%-40 %!). Most Alevis are ethnic and linguistic Turks, mainly of Turkmen descent from Central and Eastern Anatolia. Some 20% of Alevis are Kurds (though most Kurds are Sunnis), and some 25% of Kurds in Turkey are Aleve (Kurmanji and Zaza speakers).

Alevis consider themselves to be part of the wider Shi`a movement, who revere Ali (Muhammad's cousin and son-in-law) and the Twelve Imams of his house. Like all extreme Shia groups, their reverence for Ali verges on deification, for which reason classical Sunni ulama classified them as ghulat (exaggerators), outside the orthodox Islamic fold. Alevis are also called Kizilbash (the name of the Turkmen followers of the Safavid Sufi order of the 15th and 16th centuries), and Bektashi (followers of the Anatolian Bektashi Shia Sufi order founded in the 13th century). Further names used to signify specific tribal and linguistic identities: Tahtaci; Abdal; Cepni; Zaza; or names of great men revered by the Alevis: Caferi; Huseyni.

Alevis are distinct from the Arabic speaking Alawis of Syria and Southwest Turkey (Nusayris). Both are extreme Shia (ghulat) communities with similarities in doctrine and practice, but separate historical developments.

The Alevi liturgical language is Turkish, as opposed to Sunni and Twelver Shia use of Arabic. They thus see themselves as the “real Turks”, maintainers of true Turkish culture, religion and folklore in face of the Arabizing Ottoman Sunnis. Some of the differences that mark Alevis from Sunnis are the use of wine for religious ceremonial functions; non-observance of the five daily prayers and prostrations (they only bow twice in the presence of their spiritual leader), Ramadan, and the Haj (they consider the pilgrimage to Mecca an external pretence, the real pilgrimage being internal in one's heart); and non-attendance of mosques.

The central ritual of Alevi religious life is the ayn-i cem (cem for short) celebration that is a replay of Muhammad's legendary heavenly journey (mirac) with the assembly of forty (kirklar meclisi), combined with a memorial to the suffering of the Twelve Imams. A sacrificial meal (lokma), a ritual alcoholic drink, nefes hymns accompanied by music on the saz, dance (sema), and the ritual lighting and extinguishing of candles, are elements of the celebration. The ayn-i cem takes place only when distrusted outsiders are not present, and is held at night under great secrecy - a fact that opened it to Sunni speculations of immorality. Once a year this ritual is held under the leadership of a dede assisted by a rehber in a private house or a communal building (cemevi) attended by women on almost equal footing with men.

They accept Ali as the only legitimate successor to Muhammad and add to the Witness formula (shahade) the words “and Ali is God’s Friend”. Muhammad and Ali are emanations of the Divine Light - Muhammad is the announcer, Ali the preserver of Divine Truth, and both seem sometimes to merge into one divine figure. The veneration of Ali, approaching deification, is a central marker of all streams and Ali is placed above Muhammad with divine characteristics attributed to him as the gate (bab) to esoteric knowledge. As extreme Shias, Alevis believe in the incarnation of the Divine Light in Ali and his descendants the 12 Imams who are seen as infallible and sinless guardians of true Islam.

Alevis venerate Ehlibeyt - the House of the Prophet (Muhammad, Ali, Fatima, Hassan, Hussein) - seen as transcendent and superior to all others, and offer them love and reverence (sevgi ve saygi). They reject all enemies of ehlibeyt, especially the Ummayads who are seen as the personification of evil: they imposed Sunnism as the dominant orthodoxy to enslave the masses; distorted true Islam; destroyed the original Quran and pro-Alid Hadiths, and persecuted the Imams.

Alevis traditionally inhabit rural Central and Eastern Anatolia, in particular the triangle Kayseri- Sivas-Divirgi. Kurdish Alevis are mainly found in Tunceli, Elazig and Mus provinces. On the Mediterranean coast there are some tribal Alevi settlements of Tahtaci and Cepni. Alevi areas are peripheral and underdeveloped, resulting in the migration of Alevis to the large industrialised cities of western Turkey (and to Western Europe, mainly Germany) in relatively larger proportion than rural Sunnis. Alevis in Europe (especially in Germany), experiencing the freedom of a pluralistic society, stimulated new interest in Alevi ethnicity and culture (Alevilik).

During the Ottoman period, especially after the decimation of the Janissaries, which had gone rogue and who followed the Bekashi order, the Alevis were mostly neglected and even suppressed. Safavids of Persia played a negative role throughout history by converting more cosmopolitan central Asian Turkish arrivals with their belief in Turkish God Tangri and Shamanistic beliefs and practices and even some strands of Christianity. Therefore the Sunni Ottomans massacred the Alevis from time to time.

This antipathy and enmity has continued even in recent times. Much of the violence during the late 70s although presented by state and media as left versus right was in fact Sunni versus Alevi. Ultra-nationalists allied themselves to Sunni fundamentalists in attacking Alevis. Even some communists of Sunni background sided with conservative Sunnis against their political allies of Alevi background. In 1978 in the city of Kahramanras in southern Turkey local Sunnis went on a rampage, slaughtering scores of leftist Alevis from the nearby villages in the worst massacre in living memory.

Renewed inter-communal violence is sadly on the rise. In July 1993 at a cultural festival in Sivas a Sunni fundamentalist mob set fire to a hotel where many Alevi participants had taken refuge and 35 people were incinerated. The state security services did not interfere and the prosecution against leaders of the riot was not energetically pursued.

The author had seen the violence in early 1970s, which led to a soft coup in 1971. The author was again posted now as ambassador (1992-96) when Sunni Turks set fire to the cultural get together of Alevis at Sivas in 1993. Alevis were protected by the secular armed forces and the Republican People’s Party (RPP) established by Ataturk. The current leader of RPP is an Alevi.

But the Islamisation and AKP’s foolish policy on Syria will open many Pandora’s boxes in Turkey, the Kurds being a complicated and more visible one even violently and the underlying disaffection of Alexis simmering underneath, especially in Hatay and the adjoining areas.

An Alevi revival is now flourishing as young Alevis are for the first time in history willing to openly admit their Alevi roots. Not so long ago, they would have denied their being Alevis if asked. Alevis had always practiced their rituals behind closed doors, but in recent years hundreds of Alevi religious societies have been founded, Alevi monasteries have opened in major cities, and Alevi rituals held in public venues in the large cities.


More by :  K. Gajendra Singh

Top | Analysis

Views: 3396      Comments: 0

Name *

Email ID

Comment *
Verification Code*

Can't read? Reload

Please fill the above code for verification.