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.