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Syrians in Turkey celebrate Erdogan's triumph over coup attempt

Syrians tell MEE their stance against the coup is support for the principle of democracy, not specific parties in Turkey
Crowds of youths and families took to the square in front of Antakya city hall in support of the government over military rule (MEE/Lizzie Porter)

ANTAKYA, Turkey - Scores of Syrians took to the streets in Turkey to support anti-coup protesters amid fears that military rule would have seen them persecuted and sent back to a warzone.

The 2.7 million Syrians in Turkey overwhelmingly supported efforts to denounce Friday’s attempted coup, which saw members of the military attempt to take down the government of Recep Tayyip Erdogan.

The flag of the Syrian Revolution flew alongside the Turkish red and white crescent in crowds, particularly in southeastern cities and towns including Antakya and Gaziantep. Between them, the two provinces are home to nearly 700,000 Syrians.   

"It is our duty to stand with the Turkish people, who hosted us, and respect their opinion and choice of their own leaders," said Mariam al-Nabo, a former physiotherapist from Aleppo who has lived in the southern Turkish city of Gaziantep for three years.

"Turkey has become the second Syria," she told Middle East Eye. "We are optimistic about the insistence of the Turkish people in [demanding] what they want."

Some 2.7 million Syrians – most of the 4.8 million externally displaced – have fled to Turkey to escape widespread violence in Syria’s five-year long war. Most do not live in refugee camps but in privately rented accommodation in towns and cities in the southeastern region.  

There was strong anti-coup sentiment in Gaziantep, where Syrians organised processions as part of wider weekend parades. There were chants in Arabic alongside Turkish-language rallying cries.

"Syrians were involved in this for the stability of Turkey for fear of their status in the event of conflict in the country,” said Mohammed Taha, a Syrian from Deir Ezzor who now lives in Gaziantep and witnessed gatherings of thousands of people in the city's central Democracy Square.

Local politicians in Antakya used the military's absence to turn the post-coup period into a political rally, and jubilant city residents rode trucks, tractors and cars through the city centre (MEE/Lizzie Porter)

Syrians said that they feared rule similar to that which they had fled under the Assad government in Syria, had the Turkish military taken over.

“There would have been a very long civil war between pro-Erdogan and anti-Erdogan [sides],” said Ahmad Issa, a Syrian from Idlib who now lives in the Turkish border town of Reyhanli. 

“I am sure the Syrians would be involved in this war, and they would be an enemy for the military. If they had won, every crime against Syrians would have increased.”

Some cited Egypt as a previous example of Syrian refugees suffering under military rule.

"It would be like what happened in Egypt after the [Abdel Fattah al-]Sisi coup," said Sameer al-Shami, a Syrian from Damascus who has lived in Turkey for two years.

"Pro-Sisi media attacked refugees and mobs attacked them on streets. Police didn't help them and many were kicked out of the country."

Scores of NGOs, charities and Syrian opposition politicians operate from Turkey and the EU has poured millions of euros into the country to attempt to manage the large numbers fleeing the five-year-long conflict.

But it is not all rosy. Syrians living in Turkey interviewed by MEE cautioned that their support was for the principle of democracy rather than support for specific political parties in Turkey, or because they believed it was a model example of leadership.

"Many Syrians, including myself – refuse a change by a coup against an elected government, even though democracy is not at its best here," said Sameer, who now lives in Istanbul.

"Syrians knew [Turkish] border guards shot and killed nearly 40 [Syrian] civilians after closing its borders. They have talked about that a lot after the latest incident, when 11 civilians, including children, were killed. Now they hope those kinds of incidents will end."

There has been widespread documentation of Turkish border guards shooting at and killing Syrians attempting to cross the border in recent months. While Turkey claims to maintain an "open door" policy for those whose lives are in danger, it is simultaneously building a wall along its border with Syria. It will reportedly be equipped with automatic guns that will fire at anyone coming within 300 metres.

It is also as yet unclear whether NGOs and lawyers supporting Syrians in Turkey will be affected by the ruling government’s crackdown on those who may be seen as sympathising with the coup. So far more than 7,500 people have been arrested due to related accusations.

Syrians in Turkey are not given refugee status – or the full rights and protection that entails – but are instead considered "guests" with limited access to work.

Many are employed on the black market, working long hours in low-paid jobs. They often pay higher rents than their Turkish counterparts and there has been tension in communities where Syrians have grown to outnumber Turks.

Politicians take advantage of military’s absence

On Sunday in Antakya, local politicians took advantage of the lack of coup supporters able to access the city centre to rally support.

Whereas in Istanbul and Ankara pro-government protestors were faced with tanks, and warplanes flew overhead, the atmosphere in Antakya was more jubilant, with children sporting red and white T-shirts and tractors joining the tooting motorbikes and vans. 

Thousands of people – Syrians and Turks – gathered to rousing music in front of a stage on the city’s main thoroughfare, Ataturk Caddesi. Flanked by images of Erdogan on a reel, an adjudicator kept the crowd happy with chanting, clapping and nationalistic songs.

Among the deafening sound of car horns, Ahad, a chemical engineer from Antakya, told MEE that Antakya’s residents were out to support the government over the military. “We don’t want the military to make decisions,” he said, giving his first name only. “This is a democracy. Turkey is not Iraq or Syria.”

The Hatay region, with Antakya as its capital, was part of Syria until the French awarded it to Turkey in 1939. Both Arabic and Turkish are widely spoken in the region, which is home to an ethnically diverse population of Arabs, Turks, Armenians and Kurds. There were strong links with Syria prior to 2011, with travel between the two countries common. Bus companies in Antakya still advertise travel to “Halep” (Aleppo), and “Humus” (Homs), although services no longer run.

Families and groups of friends in Antakya appeared to relish the opportunity to take to the streets in the knowledge that authorities would encourage rather than arrest them.

Antakya Mayor Ismail Kimyeci, who belongs to Erdogan's ruling Justice and Development Party (AKP), addressed the crowds, and denounced what he described as "terrorist attempts to undermine the unity of the country".

Later into the evening, young men smothered cars that made up a parade outside Antakya’s city hall, rocking them violently to chants of "bismillah Allahu akbar" (in the name of God, God is the greatest), and crowds of onlooking police did not make any attempt to intervene.

An excuse for violence towards minorities

However, there were scuffles in the Armutlu district on Saturday and Sunday, home to Antakya's Alevi (Alawi) population, who said that they were victims of attacks by Sunni Muslim Erdogan supporters.

Police denied MEE entry to Armutlu, which was sealed off on Sunday night and guarded by dozens of police officers. But one Alevi man, who gave his name as Mohammed, said there were “problems” between his community and the people cheering the government in the city centre.

Hundreds of cars took to the streets of central Antakya (MEE/Lizzie Porter)

Riot police equipped with shields and pellet guns stood in streets leading to the Armutlu district. Antakya authorities did not respond to a request for comment on whether any arrests were made. The Armutlu district was later re-opened.

Local news and activism site Sendika published video purportedly shot in Armutlu in Antakya of mobs attacking each other, and what it described as “reactionary fascist provocation”.

The situation mirrored violence between Alevis, who follow an offshoot of the Shia branch of Islam, and Sunnis in Istanbul, and in the eastern city of Malatya. Sendika reported attacks stemming from “jihadist and Muslim mobs” that used the celebratory post-failed coup atmosphere to target the minority.  

Elsewhere in Turkey, Syrians also quickly became victims of isolated attacks, in what appeared to be an increase in nationalistic sentiment.  

Photos published on social media appeared to show attacks on Syrian shops in Ankara, which were eventually broken up by police.

Turkish authorities last week announced plans to grant Turkish citizenship to 300,000 Syrians who "can be useful" to the country.

While such a move would grant Syrians more rights, they feared that it would also increase resentment.

"Many people fear more attacks on them, especially after the citizenship debate," added Sameer.

Damascus did not respond directly to the coup attempt in Turkey. But there were reports of the Syrian army firing celebratory shots in government-controlled areas when they heard that the Erdogan government might be toppled.

Erdogan and Assad were once allies, but relations soured as Turkey offered support to rebel groups and accommodated opposition politicians.

The Syrian state news agency, SANA, responded indirectly by publishing a report from Moscow saying that the coup attempt in Turkey would have no effect on Russian involvement in what it described as "the joint fight against terrorism" in Syria.

The agency's website appeared to be blocked in Turkey on Monday and Tuesday.

For now, Syrians in Turkey are relieved, as they feared that military rule would see them forcibly returned to the violence they fled in their own country.

“If the coup is successful, maybe Syrians would be forced to return to Syria,” said Ahmad from Reyhanli. “And if they go, maybe the regime will kill them or arrest them.”