“I’m asking the Turkish people, what’s your problem with Syria? What’s the problem that Turkish citizens should die for?”

These rhetorical questions put by the Syrian President Bashar al Assad on the eve of Erdoğan-Putin summit are as hard to respond to for the ruling Justice and Development Party (AKP) parliamentary deputies as for the Turkish public. The recent fist-fight between the government and opposition deputies during a closed session of the parliament to discuss the war in Syria can be read as a dramatic reflection of this distress.

The Turkish military has deployed some 8,000 troops operating with 3,000 armoured vehicles, tanks and artillery pieces in the province of Idlib.In the absence of air support, the battle of Idlib has so far seen heavy casualties, including dozens of deaths on the Turkish side. The ideological legitimacy of these losses is mainly based on a discourse of “martyrdom”: that is, the sacrifice of life for Islam and/or “the motherland”. Embedded in Assad’s question is the difficulty of justifying the human sacrifice in a battle fought beyond the national boundaries of a Muslim country against another Muslim country’s army.

Previous cross-border operations into Syria did not face such legitimization problems, as in those instances the Turkish military was engaged mainly with the Kurdish-led Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF). Consequently they could be justified as extensions of the domestic “struggle against the PKK terrorism”. 

The current engagement of the Turkish Armed Forces and their proxy Sunni troops in Idlib province is with the Syrian military. The aim of this intervention is manifestly to stop the Syrian advance against the armed jihadists, with whom the Turkish forces often fall in the same trenches. The justification of the aims of this intervention as presented to the international community and the Turkish public is based on the prevention of a new exodus of Syrian refugees into Turkey. It is however hard to understand how refugee crises, which emerge from armed conflict, could be prevented by a further intensification of the armed conflict. 

Ottoman restoration, “national oath” and salvation

Behind the thin windows of this showroom, pro-AKP pundits have been carrying out a comprehensive ideological operation with a series of arguments. Taking on board the additional urge to legitimize the Turkish intervention in Libya, the first line of argument responds to Assad’s question with a vision of a restoration of the Caliphate and the reclamation of Turkish rule over the Middle East and North Africa. In this account, the Idlib intervention is the first step of a neo-Ottoman territorial expansion, over which Erdoğan’s “new Turkey” is to blossom with historical references and collective Ottoman/Islamic memory.

The second argument limits this vision with a modern interpretation to a “legitimate expansion” of national borders. Prior to the declaration of the Republic, in 1920 the Ottoman parliament drew the borders of the post-Ottoman Turkish national territory as their last act of legislation entitled the “national oath”. This oath, which the Kemalists failed to achieve fully, includes as part of Turkish national territory among others the province of Aleppo in present day Syrian. The argument implies that, with the recent Syrian incursions the Erdoğan administration is simply correcting an historical failure and injustice, for which the Kemalist leadership of the “national struggle” and therefore the contemporary Republican People’s Party (CHP) are responsible. 

The third argument, the overthrow of the regime that has been in use since the outbreak of the Syrian civil war in 2011, is based on an image of Assad as a brutal dictator torturing his people. In this line of argument, “the people” are often assumed to be Muslims to be saved from a Ba’thist and therefore “infidel” state. 

At this juncture, the intra-Muslim sectarian character of the violence in Syria inevitably enters into the picture. In its most appearances, the Syrian civil war has demonstrated the features of a Sunni/Salafi jihad against a mainly Alevi government. The frontiers of the civil war have simplified the multi-faith and multi-ethnic texture of Syrian society into a confrontation between the Sunnis versus Nusayri-Alevis. From a Sunni point of view, since the Ba’thist takeover of 1963, Alevis have ruled the Syrian society, while the state’s secular nature is held responsible for the regime’s brutality. In other words, behind the mask of secularism, the Sunni majority have been oppressed under a sectarian Alevi dictatorship, and therefore the salvation consists in turning the tables on this situation.

The sectarian drive and Alevi identity in Turkey

The portrayal of Turkish military’s losses as sacrifices for faith becomes possible in this intra-Islam war context. The involvement of pro-Iran Shia groups such as Hasdi Shabi and the Lebanese Hizbullah in the conflict against Sunni/Salafi jihadists for the defense of the Syrian state vindicates this perception by enriching it with a further dimension of regional and universal Iranian/Shia conspiracy. In the pro-Erdoğan print and television outlets and website publications, prominent Muslim notables systematically associate the Idlib operation with Sunni jihadism against Shia Iran and Alevi Syria regimes. 

A cursory search in Turkish on the internet of the terms “Alevi”, “Assad” and “Syria” would reveal on one’s computer screen a rich repertoire of anti-Alevi literature. Among the headlines to be found are: “Nusayri infidels in Turkey” (Alparslan Kuytul); “How Syrian Nusayri belief and Iranian conspiracy degrade the Muslims” (Kadir Mısırlıoğlu); “Syrian regime’s religion and their pervert faith” (Mehmet Emin Akın); “Esad’s anti-Muslim hostility”, “Nusayri Alevi Assad and Russians massacre of Sunnis” and, therefore, “We won’t take any prisoners” (Fatih Tezcan, a self-styled pro-Sunni cheer-leader). 

Although chilly, wartime agitation and propaganda may necessitate such discursive antagonism, but the problem is that this mindset may have dangerous domestic consequences, given that up to one third of Turkey’s population consist of Alevis. Turkish history have witnessed frequent occasions of sectarian violence targeting Alevi population, Sivas in 1993 and the Maraş and Çorum in 1979 being the recent massacres.

“Millions of people have been massacred in the history of this geography on religious and ethnic grounds”, says writer/researcher Necdet Saraç, a renowned figure of the Alevi communities of Turkey and Germany. He states that the ruling AKP’s position on the Syrian civil war has been based on a Sunni discourse: “The stigmatization of the Syrian president Assad and Republican People’s Party (CHP) leader Kemal Kılıçdaroğlu in the same hate discourse is an expression of the AKP’s hatred of the Alevi identity”.

The fact that Kılıçdaroğlu is an Alevi, originally from Dersim, makes such an association possible. Saraç is concerned that this Erdoğan-led position may encourage further the collective hate crimes against the Alevi community.

As Saraç points out, nurturing anti-Alevi sentiment in the context of the Syrian conflict has the potential to trigger a dangerous domestic earthquake along the fault-lines of Turkey’s social structure. Moreover, the Turkish state may well be in a process of de-secularization by means of the Syrian conflict, to be transformed decisively into a Sunni power. These conclusions may not provide a sufficient answer to Assad’s questions but do explain how his queries becomes invalid in the context of President Erdoğan’s and the ruling AKP’s perception, as it is disseminated over to the Sunni majority of Turkish public: a Sunni war against the Syrian army portrayed as a brutal force of Alevi sectarianism.

What is more striking is that, in this discourse, the Assad regime is portrayed as deriving its strength from a “fifth column” that treacherously sabotages the Turkish nation’s just war efforts: the CHP leadership and the Alevi population.