ANTAKYA, Turkey (Reuters) - An influx of Syrians fleeing President Bashar al-Assad’s military onslaught is stoking tension in an area of Turkey known for religious tolerance and setting Turks who share the Syrian leader’s creed against their own government.
In the Turkish frontier province of Hatay, home to the Antioch of the Bible and a mix of confessional groups rare in an overwhelmingly Sunni Muslim country, Turks of Arab origin who share Assad’s Alawite beliefs are increasingly critical of Ankara’s open support for rebels fighting the Syrian leader.
The Syrian refugees, like the insurgents, are overwhelmingly Sunni Muslims, most of whom support the 19-month-old uprising, making for a combustible mix that echoes the increasingly sectarian nature of Syria’s civil war.
While most Alawites said the conflict had not yet divided Hatay’s indigenous communities, some fear reprisals and spoke of isolated incidents between Sunnis and Alawites. One man said Alawite villages had begun arming themselves.
As rebels - some of them foreign Islamists keen to join what they deem a holy struggle - wage war in Syria, the official Syrian narrative of a “terrorist” campaign threatening the existence of minorities resonates deeply with Turkey’s Alawites.
They believe that Turkey, once Assad’s most important trade partner and ally, is playing the sectarian card by throwing its weight behind the men who would rule after his overthrow, among them opposition politicians and army defectors based in Turkey.
“Does the Turkish government really think that everyone will like them when this is all over? Only when Assad is gone will the real war start,” said Aydin, an Alawite shopkeeper in Hatay’s provincial capital Antakya near the Syrian border.
“The government is playing a sectarian game here. They are trying to divide our community. Whether you were Sunni, Alawite or Christian never even mattered here before. To ask would even be a dishonor. But things are changing,” he said.
Turkey has led calls for international intervention in Syria, provided sanctuary for rebel officers and warned of more robust military action after firing back into Syria in recent weeks in response to mortar shelling spilling over the border.
But there are now signs of Ankara acting to prevent a sectarian backlash, including a report that it is urging unregistered Syrians to leave Hatay, and efforts to block rebels from crossing into Turkey.
Sectarian tensions in Hatay province, once a part of Syria, have been brewing since Turkish Prime Minister Tayyip Erdogan broke with Assad last year. But as fighting over the border has intensified and the outflow of refugees increased, the atmosphere has turned more volatile.
More than 100,000 Syrian refugees from the heavy fighting in the north of their country are now sheltering in refugee camps along the border. Tens of thousands more are unregistered people living in Antakya and other frontier towns and villages.
Historically an easy crossing point for smugglers even before the uprising due to its hilly terrain, Hatay has borne the brunt of the Syrian exodus to Turkey and served as a staging post for rebels crossing back and forth into Syria.
Some of the most senior officers to defect from Syria’s army now live in a camp in Hatay under Turkish military guard.
“There are so many strangers here now we don’t know who any of them are. They walk around with their long beards. Some of them aren’t even Syrian. You take one look at them and you know they are murderers,” said Aydin.
“Are these the people you want to rule Syria?”
The resentment goes both ways. At a hospital in Antakya one Syrian anti-Assad activist, who coordinates treatment for wounded refugees and rebels in Hatay, stopped a Turkish nurse from treating one of the men he had brought in.
“I don’t want her to treat him, she’s an Alawite. They are all spies,” he said.
Nearly half of Hatay’s 1.5 million people are Alawite, a sect whose followers hail from mountains by the Mediterranean Sea just south of the border with Turkey.
Hatay, home to Turks for centuries, became a Turkish province after a disputed referendum in 1939, when Syria was a U.N.-mandated French domain and the Turkish republic barely 16 years old. The Arabs on the northern side of the border were mainly Alawites, but Hatay also hosts Orthodox, Catholic, Protestant Christian and even nominal Jewish minorities.
Communal friction in Hatay reached a new high last month when hundreds of people, mostly Alawites, took to the streets in Antakya to protest against Turkey’s policy on Syria. The demonstration, which followed smaller ones this year, finished with police firing tear gas to scatter the protesters.
Ankara has repeatedly said its stance on Syria aims to protect the Syrian people as a whole and strongly denies pursuing any sectarian agenda. But there are signs the government is getting worried about a potential backlash.
Crude cartoons that used to run throughout the day on Turkey’s state-run TRT television channel, depicting a swinging ball and chain labeled democracy toppling a teetering and derogatory statue of Assad, have been lifted.
In August, the Turkish foreign ministry issued a letter to governors in border regions instructing them to “urge” unregistered Syrians to move out of rented property and into refugee camps outside Hatay, according to an official at a foreign embassy in Ankara who had seen the document.
A foreign ministry official said the ministry was in constant contact with the relevant authorities but could not confirm if such a letter had been sent.
There are indications too of Turkey trying to distance itself from overt involvement in Syria’s armed rebellion.
A two-day meeting between Syrian rebel commanders due in Antakya last month was cancelled, rebels said, after objections from Turkish officials, who urged them to find another country.
The most prominent of the rebel factions, the Free Syrian Army, last month announced it had moved its leadership from Turkey to “liberated” areas in Syria, a move one Western diplomat said was a decision “obviously” motivated by Turkey.
Officials in Ankara have denied any change in policy.
But refugees in two border areas said Turkish soldiers were starting to block fighters from crossing over into Turkey. “They tell them, ‘Don’t bring your problems here, keep them over there’,” said Mustafa, a refugee in Hatay’s Yayladagi district, who used to frequently cross the porous frontier.
A significant drop in trade since the conflict began is also a concern. Some businessmen say they are doing a fifth of their normal trade. Others have gone bankrupt as day-tripping middle-class Syrians hunting bargains on branded clothes have all but disappeared and Turkish trucks no longer carry goods into Syria.
While some Alawites acknowledge Assad will have to go, their fears center on who will replace him and how this will affect their region, inextricably bound to its southern neighbor.
“Who in this room has at least one relative in Syria?” Ibrahim, an Alawite butcher in Antakya, asked a group of men seated around him. The men - Alawites, a Sunni and a Christian among them - all raised their hands.
“You see, we are all connected to Syria in one way ... What Turkey is doing there is affecting us all. If Turkey stopped its support, this war would stop,” Ibrahim said.
Writing by Jonathon Burch; editing by Nick Tattersall and Mark Heinrich