Democracy Lab

How the War in Syria Has Helped to Inspire Turkey's Protests

The anti-Erdogan protesters in Turkey have many grievances - but the prime minister's record of support for the Syrian rebels may turn out to be the most explosive.

ISTANBUL — The names of the dead are taped to Sycamore trees in Istanbul's Gezi Park: Fatma Erboz, age 3. Ahmet Uyar, 45.

These trees -- threatened by government redevelopment plans that have in turn inspired mass protests around Turkey -- have been transformed into memorials for the more than 50 people who died in twin car bombings last month in Reyhanli, a Turkish town on the border of Syria.

On Tuesday morning, police attempted to drive protestors out of the park with water cannons and tear gas -- perhaps signaling an end to the popular and mostly peaceful demonstrations that have spread across Turkey over the past two weeks. But the issues that have fueled the turmoil -- from complaints over the Islamist government's conservative social policies to demands for greater democracy -- are not likely to dissipate so quickly. And that is particularly true of one issue that has inflamed many protesters' anger at Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan: The government's stance on the war ravaging Syria, which has now claimed over 80,000 lives.

The war in Syria is polarizing Turkey. According to a recent study by MetroPOLL Strategic and Social Research Center, based in Ankara, only 28 percent of the Turkish public supports the prime minister's policies on Syria. Since the start of the conflict, the government has strongly condemned Syrian President Bashar al-Assad. From early on, Erdogan has vocally supported the Free Syrian Army (FSA), the rebel group battling the regime, and has urged the United States to supply them with weapons and to establish a no-fly zone.

Turkey is crucial for the rebels. It offers refuge for their families as well as a safe zone where they can plan and launch attacks over the border. Turkish businesses supply the rebels with everything from medicine to uniforms to cigarettes. But many Turks have long worried that this would make them subject to retaliation by the Syrian government -- a fear that, for many, was confirmed by the attacks in Reyhanli. The leader of Turkey's main opposition has repeatedly confronted Erdogan over his pro-rebel policies, accusing the prime minister of supporting Syrian "terrorists."

Indeed, protests against the government's Syria policy actually predate the broader demonstrations of the past two weeks. Thousands of enraged residents took to the streets in Reyhanli in the days after the bombings, citing what they perceive as a growing lack of security and a job market now favoring Syrian refugees willing to work for less than Turks.

Among those demonstrating in the southern city of Antakya is Nil Esen, an engineer who is struggling to find work. "Because of the Syrian rebels, there is lots of bankruptcy," he wrote in a private Twitter message. "Antakya's economy is very, very bad now." Recent polls show that 66 percent of Turks want their government to turn away Syrian refugees. And around 52 percent of those polled oppose the government's policy of housing Syrians in refugee camps in Turkey.

There are currently hundreds of thousands of Syrians living in more than a dozen refugee camps on Turkish soil. Reyhanli has experienced a population increase of 50 percent since the war began, thanks to a flood of FSA fighters, refugees, and humanitarian aid workers.

Even those who were once sympathetic to the refugees' dilemma are now finding the war in Syria to be quickly encroaching on their own security and economic stability. "Turkey already had economic problems," said Huseyin Kikis, who works at a restaurant in Istanbul. "And then the Syrian people started to come and try to find jobs. Now you can see Syrian women begging on the street."

Cross-border shelling and car bombs have become common fixtures in both Turkish and Syrian life in the border region. As a result, many Turks now feel that the war on the other side of the border is coming too close for comfort. 

The Turkish government blamed the Reyhanli bombings on the Syrian secret police, declaring that the perpetrators would "sooner or later pay the price." Syria responded by pinning the blame on the rebels, whom it decries as terrorists, and harshly criticized Ankara for supporting them. Some opposition groups in Turkey have mirrored the Damascus government's response, labeling the attack as the work of Jabhat al-Nusra, an al Qaeda-affiliated extremist rebel group fighting in Syria.

A government-supported media blackout following the Reyhanli bombings and a failure to provide a complete list of either the deceased or of those who had been detained for carrying out the attacks has only perpetuated widespread confusion and panic. The government's eagerness to discourage coverage of the bombings has led some Turks to see the attacks as part of an official conspiracy, a ploy to elicit stronger support for the rebels. (What the conspiracy theorists don't explain, of course, is why the bombings have had exactly the opposite effect.)

When Istanbul's Gezi Park protests reached Antakya, a Turkish city near the Syrian border, complaints among the protesters were overwhelmingly focused on Syria. Many Syrians in the border region, in turn, have responded to the recent protests with fear and anger. "In Antakya, we try to hide ourselves and avoid going outside during the protests," said Razan Shalab al-Sham, a well-known Syrian activist who is now based in Antakya. "Syrians who are with the revolution are against the Turkish protests. Turkey treats Syrians better than Lebanon or Jordan. We trust in Erdogan. We started a revolution to get freedom, not to make trouble in Turkey."

Not all opponents of Erdogan's Syria policy are motivated by concerns about economics or security. Some secular Turks are staunch supporters of Assad, whom they see as a bulwark against Islamism. One female protestor in Taksim (who asked to remain anonymous) told me that, while she agrees with the government's stance on admitting Syrian refugees, her loyalties remain with Assad. "Our government supports terrorists here, like the Syrian rebels."

Such sentiments may be especially prominent among Turkey's Alevis, a religious sect that despite its name is not directly related to the Syrian Alawites who make up Assad's power base. Some have suggested that the Alevis, who are a minority within an overwhelmingly Sunni population, are likely to empathize with the Alawites in Syria. (Alevis make up over 10 percent of Turkey's population -- though some estimates put the number as high as one-third.) One of their most prominent members is Kemal Kilicdaroglu, the leader of the main opposition party, the Republican People's Party (CHP), who has long been one of the harshest critics of the prime minister's Syria policy. Though Kilicdaroglu denounces the Syrian president as a "dictator," he also allowed a delegation from his party to pay an official visit to Assad in Damascus three months ago.

So far Syria has not been a driving factor behind the protests in Turkey. But its significance is likely to grow as long as the civil war across the border continues, potentially aggravating political, economic, and religious problems within Turkey itself.

Correction: A previous version of this article misstated conflating the Turkish Alevis and Alawites. The article has been updated accordingly.



On Your Left, the Decline and Fall

Visiting Brussels soon? A new museum offers a peek into the future to see how the European dream died.

BRUSSELS — Museums about the European Union are a bit like the No. 71 bus in Brussels -- you wait ages for one to arrive and then three show up at roughly the same time. The first to open its doors was the Parlamentarium, which sounds like a giant water tank filled with EU lawmakers swimming around, but is actually the European Parliament visitors' center. The museum, which was inaugurated in October 2011, is stuffed with interactive gizmos like a 3D tactile model allowing starry-eyed guests to explore the EU assembly in its three places of work -- Strasbourg, Brussels, and Luxembourg. There is even a "tunnel of voices" which "immerses you in Europe's multilingual heritage" -- although you can get the same experience on the No. 71 bus.

If that's not quite enough of a draw to throw the kids in the back of the car for a weekend jaunt to Brussels, in two years, the next official EU museum will open its doors. The House of European History -- the dream of former President Hans-Gert Pöttering -- set to cost over 56 million euros, will house a permanent exhibition on 20th century European history with a strong focus on the last 60 years of EU integration -- perhaps unsurprisingly given the continent's  bloody past. Like the Parlamentarium, the House of European History has a clear pedagogical aim: "To remember that peaceful cooperation is not to be taken for granted," in the words of the museum's website blurb.

But if the anticipation is killing you, visitors in Brussels right now have a chance to experience a less sanguine and more creative, anarchic, fleeting -- and fun -- exhibition about Europe in the dystopian future.

The year is 2063 and the Friends of a Reunited Europe have organized the "first international exhibition on life in the former European Union" -- which collapsed under the weight of its own contradictions in 2018. The show focuses on the last decade of the Union, when "prosperity and stability lulled Europe to sleep," according to the mock "House of European History in Exile" pamphlet handed out to visitors. It was a time when "people everywhere used a single currency called the 'euro,'" when "national borders were blurred" and Brussels, not Warsaw, lay at the beating heart of the old continent.

The exhibition, organized by the Royal Flemish Theatre, is housed in a derelict former boarding school several hundred yards from the headquarters of the European Commission, in the architectural wasteland of this city known as the "European quarter." A slow but steady trickle of visitors trudges up two flights of rickety stairs to a lobby that looks like the waiting room of a regional Polish tax inspectorate circa 1974. The walls are clad in formica, the sink is filthy, the flatpack cupboards unhinged, and a neon light flickers overhead. A mousy receptionist hands me a lottery ticket with my assigned number and tells me my personal tour will start in 10 minutes. When my number is called out, I move to pick up an ancient audio guide but it's stuck to the table. "Sorry, but it's out of order," says the receptionist, with a wry smile.

The first room contains a stack of paper, rising out of the floor below like a demented Corinthian pillar piercing the ceilings four floors high. This is the European Union's infamous "Acquis Communautaire" -- or body of European law -- which, the exhibition informs us, grew to about 311,000 pages by 2017.

I pass a fading  poster trumpeting the European Union's Nobel Peace Prize in 2012. The award feels like prehistory as I enter the dimly-lighted third room, entitled "Return to the Past." The exhibits are neglected and color-faded -- in fact, very much like Brussels itself. The room, like much of the museum, smells of slow decay. "By the end of the Second Interbellum, Europe's motto "United in Diversity" had become quite the overstatement in terms of unity, and an understatement in terms of diversity," I am informed in Esperanto -- the exhibition's main language -- as well as French, Dutch, and English. "Throughout the Great Recession it became painfully clear how little people had learned from the past, how much they had forgotten the meaning of war. In uncertain times, the evils of the past proved more contagious than the Dream of a United Europe."

Two maps of Europe graphically describe how the twin "evils" of extremism and regional separatism combined to kill off the EU dream towards the end of the second decade of the 21st century. The first shows the inexorable rise of right-wing populist parties like Vlaams Belang in Flanders, Golden Dawn in Greece, and the Lega Nord in Italy. The second highlights the splintering of nation-states -- Scotland, Corsica, and Catalonia are now all independent -- as a result of separatist movements.

After the European Parliament elections of 2014 saw a spectacular breakthrough for nationalist parties advocating a repatriation of powers from Brussels, the European Union went into free-fall, we are told. "Fortress Europe -- illustrated by a menacing border guard and German shepherd dog -- kept immigrants out but Europeans stopped having babies themselves, leading to ‘Demographic Bulimia.'" Finally, the "Great Recession" and the collapse of the Eurozone "heralded the beginning of the end of European integration." One exhibit shows a forlorn-looking German chancellor peering out from what looks like a toilet pan, but is -- I am informed -- in fact, a real-life lemon squeezer. Another features the main protagonists of the Eurozone drama -- including balaclava-clad protestors -- in a Greek theater stage diorama. Clearly it's a tragedy. "As the former Member States increasingly turned inward, Project Europe lapsed from a tangible daily reality to the memory of an intriguing experiment," the curators explain.

The final room is totally dark except for a shaft of light from a window slit illuminating a deeply moving and richly poetical real-life note written by exhibition creator Thomas Bellinck to a close friend who committed suicide due to a crisis-related bankruptcy.

These are indeed bleak times for the European Union. The bloc's economies are mired in recession, public support for the EU project is at an all-time low, xenophobic far-right parties are on the rise, and European leaders openly discuss the break-up of the union. Speaking at a press conference marking his first year in office in mid-May, French President Francois Hollande said that "If Europe does not advance, it will fall or even be wiped off the world map." And in February,  European Parliament President Martin Schultz warned that the European Union's very survival was threatened. "When people turn away from a project or an idea, then at some point it will come to an end," he told Germany's General Anzeiger newspaper.

So, is the collapse of the European Union in the cards? I ask Bellinck -- who, in keeping with the retro-communist vibe of the museum, is busy serving visitors Romanian blueberry brandy, Hungarian wines, and Czech beers in a tatty, makeshift bar at the end of the exhibition. "This is not science-fiction," says the jovial Flemish theater director. "It might be a possibility. It is important to consider the worst case scenario -- a scenario that is becoming more and more possible every day."

Bellinck says he was inspired by contemporary museums about life in the former communist bloc, as well as articles and books written before the outbreak of World War I, almost a century ago. "People thought war was impossible because of economic links and blood ties between the nobility," he says. "It scares me to think we're back at the point that we no longer consider the possibility of war in Europe."

Although tongue-in-cheek allusions to the "former European Union" would appear to play to into the hands of euroskeptics, Bellinck is at pains to point out that it is a "very critical but ultimately pro-European exhibition" that uses dark humor rather than pro-EU propaganda to make its case. Former Belgian Prime Minister Guy Verhofstadt clearly agrees. After visiting the exhibition last week, the Liberal politician described it as "fantastic" and recommended it to his legion of Twitter followers.

Bellinck and his co-conspirators at the Friends of a Reunited Europe have certainly managed to unearth a horde of light-hearted relics from the wreckage of the EU edifice. The complexity -- and absurdity -- of EU laws is lampooned by framed charts outlining the maximum curvature of bananas, size of tomatoes, and noise levels of lawnmowers. And in a room explaining how Brussels became the "Lobbying Capital of the World," hundreds of business cards are mounted inside glass frames like butterflies in a natural history museum, while the essential tools of the lobbyist -- Blackberry phone, iPad, a fast car, fancy menu -- gather dust inside a display cabinet. There is even a sneaky reference to the closure of the official House of European History several years after its opening and the transfer of most of its collection to the House of European History in Exile after the collapse of the European Union.

"I hope it is very clear from the exhibition that I'm a huge believer in the EU project and its values," director-turned-barman Bellinck tells me as he pours another shot of Polish vodka for a visitor. At first, this admiration is not entirely obvious -- the EU's Byzantine decision-making procedure, for example, is ridiculed by flow-charts resembling a complex mathematical equation. But leaving the exhibition, one understands why Bellinck named the final room "Fear of Loss": For all the European Union's many faults, few in Europe want to return to a continent divvied up into a patchwork quilt of competing cities, regions, and nations, each with their own passport controls, environmental policies, import duties, and train gauges. Some relics of the past really do deserve to belong in the soon-to-be-opened House of European History -- providing the European Union doesn't splinter by then, of course.