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Turkey’s Nightmare Scenario

As the situation in Syria devolves further into sectarian civil war, fears are growing in Turkey that nearby violence may ignite its own ethno-religious tinderbox. The WSJ reports that the Syrian conflict

. . . could drive a wedge between Turkey’s Sunni majority and the country’s Shiite sects. As record numbers of Syrian refugees have poured into Turkey in recent days, fleeing attacks from pro-government forces ahead of Tuesday’s United Nations-backed cease-fire deadline, the spectre of sectarian tensions also has stoked fears that this border city [Antakya, Turkey] could see a replay of the violence that left hundreds dead in the region in the aftermath of a 1980 military coup.

The last thing Turkey’s rulers want is for violence to erupt in refugee camps or elsewhere along the border with Syria. Turkey’s diverse population is sprinkled with minorities—Sunni, Alevi, Kurd. Neighbor is turning against neighbor in Syria’s increasingly sectarian conflict; will neighbor turn on neighbor just across the border in Turkey as well? That prospect has already been hauntingly foretold:

Turkey’s Arabic-speaking Alawis haven’t been silent. In early February, thousands organized two marches here [Antakya, Turkey] to protest the government’s changing attitude toward Damascus, with some openly voicing support for Mr. Assad.

Later that month, more than 20 homes in Turkey’s southeast were mysteriously marked by red paint. They all belonged to Alevis, a Turkish and Kurdish-speaking Shiite offshoot who vastly outnumber Arabic-speaking Alawis. Together the two groups constitute an estimated 15 million, or one fifth of a national population of 75 million.

Turkey is less volatile today than it was in 1900, when large Armenian and Greek minorities were also present. But with Kurds, Alevis and Alawis, it is not a monolith either. For Turks, Syria is not just a foreign policy issue.

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  • Anthony

    Is it possible that human beings can live together peacefully without construction of institutions that both socialize and deter aberrant (violent) behavior? WRM, that also transcends foreign policy issue for Turks and Syrians…

  • RSC

    “Turkey is less volatile today than it was in 1900, when large Armenian and Greek minorities were also present.”

    Well, we all know how Turkey dealt with its (Christian) Armenians back in 1915. Many of the Armenians who survived that genocide fled to Syria, where their descendants now fight for Mr. Assad. I don’t see a resolution to centuries of conflict any time soon.

  • Alex Scipio

    Put a fence around all muslim countries, airdrop all the weapons they want, and put a phone booth in the middle.

    Tell them: “Call the civilized world when you’re finished killing each other over your own ‘religion’. We’ll get back to you when we have time again to deal with your backwardness.”

  • Jim.

    @RSC — then between the wars, the Turks took it out on the Greek Christians in what ought also to be called a genocide. (See Niall Ferguson’s The War of the World for more details on this disgraceful, and disgracefully ignored atrocity.)

    Remind me, why are we siding with these guys again when they’re completely unwilling to come clean about these policies? Who’s going to fill that power vacuum, (Orthodox) Russia? India or China, who have their own Muslim problems? The collapsing EU?

    It really shouldn’t be that hard to bring the sort of pressure to bear on Turkey that would get them to take responsibility for their mistreatment of religious minorities and get them to play ball in the future. We just have to play a little bit of hardball now.

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