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Syrians, Iraqis warn Turkey of potential chaos

Syrians in Turkey see echoes of the first days of their uprising in anti-Erdogan protests.

ANTAKYA, Turkey — Lights flashed off and on across the hillside. Residents stood on balconies banging pots and pans. A crowd in the street below chanted slogans against the government of Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan.

“Dictator, resign!” the angry crowd screamed.

Residents here had joined protests in solidarity with demonstrations in Istanbul, Turkey’s largest city, over the planned demolition of a public park. A violent police crackdown on peaceful demonstrators, however, transformed the protests into a referendum on Erdogan’s rule. 

But while the crowd in Antakya, on the Syrian border, was clearly angry, there was also an air of excitement and hope. The crowds were empowered by the prospect of change that suddenly seemed within their grasp. 

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When asked if this could be the start of the next revolution, one man at the protest flashed a bright smile and declared, “I hope so!”

“The people are here! We are the people!” the crowd continued to chant. 

On a balcony overlooking the site of the protest, a Syrian couple watched the chaos.

“I remember the day I returned to Ariha [a village in Idlib province] to find the people destroying the head of a statue of Hafez Assad,” said Basel Almasri, recalling the first days of protest in his hometown in Syria more than two years ago. 

Almasri and his wife later fled their homeland, where an increasingly violent civil war has left more than 80,000 Syrians dead, for the safety of Turkey.
“That was when I knew the revolution had began,” he said. “It was a great feeling. It was like we broke through the silence.”

On Monday, Erdogan again dismissed his own country’s street protests — which have seen police battle demonstrators with tear gas, pepper spray and water cannons — as being organized by Turkey’s opposition and extremist groups, angrily rejecting comparisons with the Arab Spring uprisings.

“We already have a spring in Turkey,” Erdogan said, referring to the nation’s free elections. Erdogan himself was elected “But there are those who want to turn this spring into winter.”

In Istanbul, Iraqi refugee George Hanna sees the chaos of Iraq in Turkey’s fresh unrest. He says in 2003, when the US invaded Iraq, his community in the northern city of Kirkuk shared similar feelings of excitement and hope.

“Look at us now,” he said. “We are about nine million living abroad, expelled from our houses.”

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“And we lost 1,000 citizens just last month,” he said, referring to the number of Iraqis killed in May by growing sectarian violence there. 

But even Almasri, who looked onto the Antakya protests with nostalgia, said both Turkish authorities and protestors should show restraint. 

“We spent so many hours every day talking about what we would do when the regime ended,” he said. “But in the middle of it – when people start dying – it’s so hard. There is no turning back. You can’t turn it off. There is no escape.”

Almasri said the reasons for beginning the revolution in Syria were numerous. He says the lack of freedom they had and the absence of basic rights was far greater than it is in Turkey.

“Turkey is in a dangerous position,” Almasri said. “There is a large jihadist presence and an increasing influence from Syria.”

“At some point, the government will have to start listening to their people,” he said. “If this erupts it will not be the start of the next revolution but another civil war.”