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Along the Turkey-Syria Border, Erdogan’s Own Are Turning Against Him

This article first appeared in Le Monde.

REYHANLI – Nearly a week after the two car-bomb attacks rocked this sleepy town, the people of Reyhanli, in southern Turkey, are still burying their dead.

In this Hatay Province town, near the border with Syria, three more bodies have just been found under the rubble, bringing the death toll from the May 11 attack to 51. Little by little, grief and despondency are being replaced by anger.

This exclusively Sunni town is definitely no bastion of resistance to the Justice and Development Party (AKP), the ruling conservative Islamic party. But now, the people of Reyhanli are holding Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan accountable for their situation — accusing him of dragging their country into civil war by being assertive towards Bashar El-Assad and allowing Syrian rebels to set up bases in Turkey.

The Turkish government’s official version of events – which blames local pro-Assad Arab Alawite fundamentalists for the massacre – is hard to swallow. So are the repeated speeches by Erdogan exempting the Syrian refugees and rebels – who have settled in Reyhanli by the thousands – from any responsibility. The people of Reyhanli resent Erdogan for this stance.

"Why hasn’t Erdogan come to see us?" asks Hussein angrily, behind the counter of his grocery store. His shop is located a few meters away from the town hall, where the first bomb exploded. "He opens the border to everyone and thinks we are going to stay safe? He lets in all these people wearing galabiyaIslamic robes and beards down to their feet – a reference to the jihadists fighting in Syria – and he thinks we are going to believe that Turkish people bombed us?"

The second bombing occurred next to the post office. Cahit Seyhan is up on a stepladder, fixing the false ceiling of his pharmacy. He also believes that the government tried to save face by blaming the bombings on supporters of the Syrian regime. "It could very well be Jabhat al-Nusra," he argues, accusing one of the most famous jihadist groups leading the fight against Assad.

These reactions are emblematic of how the local population is anxious and worried about being the object of a new intimidation campaign – whoever the attacker may be. Merjimek, an insurance broker, warns: "Erdogan must stop playing with fire. He must force both sides to negotiate and find a compromise. Otherwise, there will be other explosions."

The revolt against Erdogan’s stance on Syria is also born out of social frustration. Reyhanli’s lower classes do not always approve of these refugees, who are sometimes wealthy, who sometimes start businesses in the city, and whose mass influx has driven real-estate prices to an all-time high. "They are opening more shops than we are, can you imagine?" says Hussein the grocer.

"AKP, USA, killers!"

This despondency can also be felt in the provincial capital of Antakya, known as Antioch in ancient times. Since the bombing, a very heterogeneous crowd made of left-wing militants, social workers, artists and students, has been gathering everyday in front of the bazaar. They have different religious beliefs – Sunni, Alawite and Christian – reflecting the variety in the city’s religious and ethnic mosaic. For Ghaleb Redwan, one of the demonstration’s organizers, "Hatay – another Turkish name for Antakya – is a very tolerant city, where people do not care about their neighbor’s religious belief, and we want to keep it that way. We do not mind welcoming Syrian refugees, as long as it does not threaten our own security."

On Tuesday, fierce slogans could be heard during the demonstration – "AKP, USA, killers!" – revealing the anti-imperialistic views of a great number participants. Some of them are – more or less admittedly -supporters of the Syrian regime, especially the Alawite Arabs, who belong to the same Shia community as the Assad clan.

Some of them are also nostalgic of a time when the Hatay Province was part of Syria – the territory was under French command after the fall of the Ottoman Empire and only became part of Turkey in 1939.

Sheikh Ali Yeral, an Alawite leader in Hatay Province, believes "The Erdogan government’s stance on Syria is enslaved to American and Israeli interests in the region. Its goal is to carve up the Arab states into a multitude of small states, to weaken them in front of Israel."

This political uprising has not gone unnoticed by the Turkish opposition. Kemal Kilicdaroglu, leader of the social-democratic People’s Republican Party – the AKP’s main opponent – travelled to Reyhanli to present his condolences, and then went to Antakya, where he made a more political speech.

Before flying to Washington to meet President Obama, Erdogan declared: "We are the first victims of theSyrian crisis in the region. We cannot just stand by watching what’s happening."

If Erdogan does not look inclined to change his policy on Syria, it is because he knows that Hatay Province – because of its unique history and location – is an isolated case. Even if there have been a few demonstrations here and there, the rest of the country has not reacted as fiercely.

Still, the government remains prudent. Authorities have banned TV channels from images of victims of the attack. This censorship does not come as a surprise. Local and presidential elections are scheduled for 2014, and Erdogan has a lot at stake.

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