Samandag, Turkey – Men sit playing cards in a cafe perched beside the turquoise waters of the Mediterranean. The craggy peak of Mount Aqraa stretches away in the distance.
For much of the past month, the roar of artillery fire has boomed down from the mountain and along the streets of the normally quiet seaside town of Samandag, a few kilometres from the Turkey-Syria border, in southeastern Hatay province.
“[Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip] Erdogan is trying to make a war,” said Enver Yarci, a waiter at the cafe. “I can’t relax any more; the war is right there.”
Along the mountain, war is raging as Syrian rebels – Jabhat al-Nusra, Ansar al-Sham and the Saudi-backed Islamic Front – penetrate the Syrian Mediterranean province of Latakia, Syrian President Bashar al-Assad’s ancestral homeland.
The assault began nearly a month ago, and saw fighters sweep into the Armenian-Syrian town of Kassab and deeper into the province. As fighting escalates, tensions have spiked in Turkey’s neighbouring Hatay province. Populated largely by Sunni and Alawite Muslims – the latter have business and familial ties to Syria’s Alawite community – Hatay has in some ways become a microcosm of Syria.
In the villages that dot the mountain on the Turkish side of the border, Al Jazeera spoke with Sunni villagers who cheer for the Syrian rebels, while Alawites, who make up about one-third of the population, voiced fears that Turkey is being drawn into a sectarian civil war.
“We never used to talk about religion,” said Yarci. “But Erdogan only cares about Sunni Muslims. He is turning us against each other by supporting the rebels in Syria.”
Rumours of involvement
Rumours float easily across Hatay. Some say that Turkey planned and facilitated the assault into Latakia, while others claim that Erdogan will start a war with Syria to escape corruption allegations that have hounded him and his closest associates for months.
The sight of Turkish fighter jets that strayed into Turkish airspace in late March has done little to dispel the rumours, while a leaked wiretap seemingly showing Turkish intelligence and foreign ministry chiefs discussing a false-flag operation in Aleppo province has further fuelled conspiracies.
“Erdogan shot the plane down to shift people’s attention from his corruption before elections,” stated Enver Pasali, an Alawite from Antakya, the provincial capital. “And also to please his friends in Qatar and Saudi Arabia,” he added.
Turkish officials deny the rumours of involvement in the Latakia offensive, describing the allegations as “totally unfounded and untrue”.
However, a Humanitarian Relief Foundation (IHH) truck was stopped by gendarmes in early January, reportedly carrying arms and intelligence agents destined for Syria. The IHH is considered to be close to Erdogan, whose deputies regularly defend the organisation.
Analysts have warned Turkey against portraying itself as a regional Sunni hegemon allied closely with Qatar, Saudi Arabia and the Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt.
“Publicly adopting a profile of a balanced regional power, rather than a Sunni Muslim one, would do much to reduce any possibility that the sectarian polarisation that is crippling Syria will jump the border to Turkey,” said an International Crisis Group reportlast year.
While few believe the tension in Hatay will morph into violence – the province is famed for its tolerance – it adds another layer of polarisation in a country wracked by crisis.
“He [Erdogan] doesn’t like us just because we are Alawite,” said Sevgi, a storeworker in Antakya, who did not want her last name used. “He is a dictator who tries to control everything. If you disagree, he fires tear gas.”
In Yayladagi, perched high in the mountains along the Turkey-Syria border, bearded men speaking Arabic roam the streets, purchasing provisions before vanishing across the border.
“Turkey never gave us anything,” said Abu Hamza, a Syrian fighter with the Salafist armed group Ansar al-Sham, a faction that partially controls the Armenian town of Kassab. “They just gave us more dead [by not intervening].”
Turkish military vehicles patrol the streets, while trucks transport tanks into border zones. Additional troops have been deployed throughout the province. Yet despite the show of military muscle, Turkey’s intelligence chief Hakan Fidan has admitted that “the border is not under control” in a leaked wiretap.
“The eastern Turkish frontier has become the gateway to the Syria jihad. Some have gone so far as to deem it the Peshawar of this generation of jihadists,” said Jonathan Schanzer, vice president of research at the Foundation for the Defense of Democracies (FDD), referring to the Pakistani city known as a training ground for religious rebel groups. “This is not an exaggeration. Turkey has allowed this territory to become a safe haven, a logistics and planning base, and a zone of terrorism finance. It cannot be understated how important this is to the continued growth of the various jihadi factions fighting in Syria.”
Turkish officials have consistently denied providing support to armed groups in Syria, insisting that Turkey’s involvement is purely humanitarian. “It is out of the question that groups like al-Nusra and al-Qaeda can take shelter in our country,” said Erdogan during a visit to Stockholm late last year. “We have taken the necessary steps against them and we will continue to do so.”
As the civil war in Syria grinds on, the conflict has spilled across the border into Turkey, and violence has escalated dramatically in neighbouring Iraq and Lebanon.
In March, rebels from the hardline Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (ISIL) opened fire on a checkpoint in the Central Anatolian province of Nigde, killing three and prompting a broader operation which saw Turkish counter-terrorism units raid a sleeper cell in Istanbul, leading to another shoot-out with al-Qaeda-linked fighters in the heart of Turkey’s economic and cultural capital.
In May 2013, twin car bombings struck a bustling market street in Reyhanli, a border town in Hatay province, killing 53 people. Ankara linked the Syrian regime to the attacks, which were widely interpreted as punishment for Turkey’s support of rebel fighters.
“Turkey’s permissive policies have inexorably led to the escalation of this conflict. Specifically, the Turks have not differentiated between jihadi factions and those without extremist ideological leanings,” Schanzer told Al Jazeera.
“This can be reversed, to some extent, if Ankara imposes tighter border controls and takes efforts to purge the financiers and gun runners from its territory. But such moves are not likely. There is simply no will on the part of the Erdogan government to do so.”
Analysts suggest that Erdogan’s position took shape as the Arab uprisings brushed old rulers aside – with Turkey taking on a leading role in the region and solidifying relationships with the Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt, Tunisia and Qatar.
“Erdogan has taken the Arab Spring as a kind of avenue to assert its supremacy in the region,” said Cengiz Aktar, a senior scholar at the Istanbul Policy Center. “As such, there is no chance that he will lower sectarian tensions in Turkey. The reality is, he does not understand what the Shia and Alawites are about, and there is no political will on his part to even try.”
Talip Kucukcan, director of the Institute for Middle East Studies and a professor of sociology and religion at Marmara University in Istanbul, says that although he does “not see any kind of governmental discrimination against minorities in Hatay”, he acknowledges people in the province are “suffering economically” from the closure of the border, which may fuel frustration in the region.
“The government previously had very good relations with Syria,” Kucukcan said. “If it was pursuing a sectarian policy, it would not have had such good relations with Damascus – or similarly with Iran.”
Erdogan retained a significant plurality of the vote in Turkey, with his Justice and Development Party winning about 45 percent of the vote in last month’s municipal elections. This came after a decade of sweeping reforms, in which Turkey experienced lightspeed economic growth and rapid development, largely stamped out torture in prisons, and pursued membership in the European Union.
Back in Samandag, the sense of tension and anger at Erdogan’s policies is palpable.
Yarci, the cafe waiter, laments the loss of religious tolerance in Hatay. “We should tolerate everybody [regardless of religious affiliation]. We need to find that again. But for Erdogan, only the Sunni count.”