Hatay, Gezi, Syria and the anatomy of a multi-catastrophic war

Hatay, Gezi, Syria and the anatomy of a multi-catastrophic war

- No, it’s called box tape.

- Yeah, sure. But it is also Saddam tape.


Such an exchange would be an awkward and surprising conversation with someone who is now in his mid-30s but spent his childhood back in the 1990s in the southern provinces of Turkey. Awkward, because it’d be odd to see someone who still equates the slain Iraqi leader following the U.S. invasion with a simple box-sealing tape. And surprising, because it’d be shocking for the other party in the conversation to realize that not everybody, but perhaps only his compatriots in the south, widely but exclusively still call the very same box tape after Iraq’s fallen leader.

Though nearly forgotten, the anecdote about box tape still remains despite the collective trauma of those people, particularly young ones, who grew up during the Gulf War in the early 1990s. During the peak of the U.S.-led Operation Desert Storm against Iraq due to its invasion of Kuwait, every corner of nearly all homes in the southern cities, particularly in Adana, which hosts an U.S. airbase, were covered with thick box tape in the event of a gas attack by Saddam Hussein, who was said and feared to be seeking revenge on Turkey. So, this was the strange but very much real story of a simple box tape becoming a lifesaver for thousands in the south.

Despite the high expectations fuelled by bellicose rhetoric by both local and foreign leaders, the media frenzy broadcasting the war live on TVs and the urban myths, no attack was staged but the box tape stayed for many years on the corners of doors and windows as a fearful reminder of what it would be like to be the unintentional target of a U.S. war in Iraq.

Years passed, but a revisit of the familiar fear has started to return to the southern provinces of Turkey, with the epicenter of fear shifting slightly to Hatay from neighboring Adana amid the defiant and dangerous calls and actions of Turkish rulers. Like neighboring Adana, Hatay was known for its tolerance toward its different ethnic locals, including Nusayris – or Arab Alawites – a sect to which the Syrian leader, Bashar al-Assad, also belongs.

Standing on the edge of a war in a Sunni-dominant but Nusayri-ruled country, Hatay first became a humanitarian spot for Syrians fleeing the war regardless of their ethnic identities. Later, things became more difficult as Ankara covertly allowed armed Syrian rebels to find safe havens on the Turkish side of the border – just a few kilometers away from the city. 

Due to friction or pressure from the Western allies, Turkey turned its back on the rebels, especially the al-Qaeda-linked al-Nusra, but Hatay still suffered mightily, especially with a May attack in Rehyanlı that both killed over 50 and destroyed the spirit of tolerance toward the Syrian refugees. The anxiety among Syrian refugees toward their hosts annoyed by their presence in Turkey was not the only point that has been ignored by the Turkish government; so were the motivations and culprits of the attack. 
In the meantime, senior Turkish officials, remarkably Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdoğan, intensified their “otherizing” discourse toward both Turkey’s Alevi and Alawite communities (the differences between the two groups are not only linguistic, but also cultural and religious, although the two still approach each other in harmony due to their nature) in a country that has historically disregarded, discriminated and assimilated them. While launching severe salvos at al-Assad, the Turkish premier believed that he did not even think his remarks would offend the Alevi and Alawite communities in his country, even though he in fact vilified them with an aggressive campaign.

If the long-boiling discontent in Hatay has been erupting every night in the province against Erdoğan’s government, or if the province is still crying for its slain sons, it was not for nothing. Becoming more motivated in its anti-government movement, Hatay is nowadays risking becoming a sectarian spark that could engulf the entire country with its protesting locals from all ethnic backgrounds against the government. 

The Turkish premier’s claims accusing anti-government protesters of “rallying support for al-Assad” gives a clear sectarian indication of his government while his “otherizing” discourse and actions toward Alevis have begun to harvest new sectarian tensions even in the capital over a controversial cemevi (Alevi house of worship) and a Sunni mosque and in Adana’s Alawite-dominant districts.

Nonetheless, it would be a half-drawn picture if the unease among the Alawite community of Turkey is not mentioned due to the fate of their kin and al-Assad amid an ongoing war and now less-likely international intervention. Irked by Syrian refugees, who they see as the “deadly foe of their kin on the other side of the border,” Turkey’s Alawites are concerned about what would happen to them if their kin in Syria are wiped out after al-Assad’s possible fall.

That’s why stakes are now higher for Turkey, which is also one of the regional nations sitting on a ticking sectarian bomb. But recent days have proven to be tenser in terms of a sectarian outburst amid the intertwined side effects of the Syrian civil war and the blunt anti-government anger in Turkey. 
Unfortunately, the upcoming days signal an era of darkness, in which far more than a single roll of box tape will be needed.