The group met for the first time last week on Sept. 21 in İstanbul, where it held its first protest, calling for solidarity with Syrian people fighting the Assad regime in Syria and solidarity with the Syrian refugees in Turkey.
This initiative is announced to be a coalition formed by leftist, liberal and Islamist groups. Among the members of the coalition are the Revolutionary Socialist Workers Party (DSİP), Young Civilians, Organization of Human Rights and Solidarity for Oppressed Peoples (MAZLUM-DER), Say Stop to Racism and Nationalism, the Art for Peace Initiative, the Global and Nahda Network. The coalition members announced that this protest was the first activity of their initiative and they will continue their efforts to increase awareness about the plight of the Syrian people.
Gathering in Taksim Square, protestors carried banners that read “We are in solidarity with the Syrian people,” “Murderer Assad Get Out of Syria,” “The Syrian People Are Not Alone” and “Freedom.” The demonstration ended with a press release read in both Turkish and Arabic. Yıldız Önen, who read the press release on behalf of the crowd, said: “The Assad regime is a dictatorship massacring its own people. This regime has a shameful history of supporting the American occupations in the Middle East. This regime is a hypocritical rule that turned its back on the Palestinian people. The Assad regime means torture, intimidation of the secret service and repression. This regime is basically a gang of murderers that have been targeting peaceful protestors and killing civilians for months. Tens of thousands of civilians, who were forced to leave Syria due to the brutal killings of the regime, have taken refuge in Turkey. Thousands of them are still waiting along the border. We ask the Turkish Government to formally recognize these people as refugees and grant Syrians legal status. We urge the Turkish Government to maintain necessary conditions for the Syrian people to enjoy their refugee rights that include the freedom of movement. We want the conditions in the refugee camps in Turkey to be improved. With this coalition, we aim to establish solidarity networks with Syrian asylums.”
Meltem Oral, a member of the Revolutionary Socialist Workers Party, said: “We first want to emphasize again and again that the Assad regime is a brutal regime killing its own people. Unfortunately, there is widespread disinformation and confusion among the Turkish public opinion regarding the crises in Syria.”
The Turkish government is considered a key player in the Syrian crisis spearheading the efforts to remove Syrian President Bashar al-Assad from power. Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdoğan often refers to the regime in Syria as a “terrorist state.” However, public polls demonstrate that many Turkish citizens are not happy to see their country getting involved into this conflict. According to the Transatlantic Trends 2012 public opinion survey conducted by the German Marshall Fund, 57 percent of Turkish people said that Turkey should completely stay out of the Syria conflict. The Consensus Research and Consulting Company’s survey for the Turkish daily Habertürk reveals that 61.5 percent of the Turkish population does not approve of the government’s policy on Syria. A survey released in June by PEW Global Attitudes Project demonstrates that 67 percent of the respondents from Turkey believe that Assad should step down. This figure is below Jordan (89 percent), Egypt (89 percent), and Tunisia (88 percent), and only higher than Lebanon (53 percent), where the Shia Muslims overwhelmingly expressed support for the Assad regime.
“Actually, we were very late to form this initiative,” says Mehmet Algan, director of the Nahda Network, a liberal initiative based in İstanbul, which aims to establish connections between pro-democracy activists in the Middle East region. “There is a strong Baathist lobby in Turkey that manipulated the public opinion and obscured the truth about the Syrian crises. The voices of the Syrian people were not heard, unfortunately. If we can lift the veil of ignorance regarding the issue, I believe Turkish people would be more sensitive and conscientious about the Syrian people.”
From the early days of the Syrian uprising, various pro-Assad demonstrations were staged in different cities of Turkey. Lately Antakya, the capital of the southern province of Hatay, which is home to thousands of Syrian refugees, became a hub of dissent against the government’s policy on Syria. Antakya comprises a large Alawite population. Several leftists organizations took part in pro-Assad rallies and chanted slogans such as “Birruh biddem nefdik ya Assad” (Let’s sacrifice our lives and blood for you, Assad) in Arabic, “No to intervention in Syria,” “Down with the US,” and ‘Long live the brotherhood of Turkish and Syrian people” in Turkish.
“Many leftist organizations exploit the understandable concerns of Allawites in Antakya and aim at generating an opposition against the government out of the Syrian issue,” says Oral. “For us, supporting the Syrian opposition does not necessarily mean supporting the government. You can be against the Justice and Development Party [AKP] government and pro-Syrian opposition at the same time. However, the anti-refugee, racist and sectarian language used by some Turkish leftist is tarnishing the reputation of the left in Turkey.” Mohammad Al-Mahmoud, a Syrian activist based in İstanbul, noted that “it is the first time leftists in Turkey take streets to support the Syrian people,” while referring to the activities of the new initiative.
Amin Tabbaa, a Syrian-Canadian consultant for international humanitarian organizations, observes that the political opinion in Turkey on the Syrian issue is “divided.” “This is healthy, indeed. Yet I would encourage the Turkish public to bring more awareness on the issue. As far as I see intellectuals in Turkey are either hesitant or not pro-Syrian opposition. I encourage them to take a deeper look at the crisis and connect with the Syrian opposition.”
Algan states that there are many Syrian members of the “Solidarity with the Syrian People” coalition and they coordinate with the Syrian activists based in İstanbul. “We learn a lot from each other. I think we have a common story and the democratization struggle in Turkey parallels with those in the Arab world. As we fought against the military tutelage that imposed a strict laicist and nationalist system on Turkey and urged for democracy, now the Syrian people try to get rid of autocratic regimes and strive for democracy,” says Algan, adding, “Those Turks who resisted the democratization of Turkey are now against the Syrian opposition.”
The coalition members announced that this protest was the first activity of their initiative and they will continue their efforts to increase awareness on the plight of Syrian people. The initiative says their activities will comprise of seminars, forums and demonstrations to urge more support for the Syrian people.