Why Syrian Refugees Fought for Erdogan Against the Turkish Coup

'If the coup had been a success, the revolution in Syria would be dead, because Turkey wouldn't support it anymore,' says Omar, one of the many Syrian refugees who took up arms for Erdogan on the night of the attempted military coup.

Anti-coup Syrian demonstrators in Fatih, Turkey.
Nick Ashdown

ISTANBUL – After Khaled, 18, lost his four brothers to the war in Syria, he paid a man $100 to smuggle him across the border to Turkey, taking the risk of being shot by Turkish border guards. He thought he’d escaped conflict for a while, but Khaled had no such luck.

One week later, he found himself staring down tanks, while two low-flying F-16s set off ear-shattering sonic booms and a helicopter strafed civilians during the failed coup in Turkey late on the night of July 15 and into the morning.

Khaled joined thousands of anti-coup demonstrators in Istanbul’s Fatih neighborhood, a government stronghold where many Syrians live, to defend the police headquarters against pro-coup soldiers.

Omar, a Syrian refugee living in Turkey.
Nick Ashdown

“A helicopter attacked a Turkish guy and killed him near the police station,” he said.

“[Demonstrators] blocked the tanks’ way. The soldiers got out of the tank and people hit them with their own shoes. Then the [loyalist] police came and asked us to stop hitting the soldiers, so we stepped back.”

Some of Turkey’s 2.7 million Syrian refugees, having seen what military rule looks like under Bashar al-Assad’s dictatorial regime back home, joined anti-coup demonstrators on the night of the attempted coup, which received almost no popular support.

Anti-coup Syrian demonstrators in Fatih, Turkey.
Nick Ashdown

All of the Syrians interviewed by Haaretz say they are jubilant that the coup failed, joining Turks in celebratory anti-coup marches held every night since July 15.

“I’m so happy because we’ve experienced these things in Syria and don’t want [Turkey] to be run by the military,” said Nawar, a 21-year-old Syrian pharmacist currently working as a chemistry teacher at a school for Syrians in Istanbul.

“Of course we were supporting the Turkish people. We don’t want any military in the streets.”

Shakir, a Syrian refugee living in Turkey.
Nick Ashdown

In Istanbul, home to hundreds of thousands of Syrians, many feared the worst on the night of the failed coup. “When we first heard about it we were afraid that something could happen here like in Syria,” Nawar said.

Nawar’s father died in an airstrike six months ago, one of the more than 250,000 people who have lost their lives in the civil war that’s been raging in Syria for five years.

Omar, a 21-year-old Syrian living in Turkey for two years who works in a clothing workshop, feared the situation could negatively affect Syrians here. “I was afraid that if something bad happens, they’re going to throw Syrians out,” he said.

Though the border has been effectively closed for over a year now, the Turkish government initially accepted many more Syrian refugees than any other country. It also treats them better than most, allowing them to work and providing free basic healthcare services. Many Syrians tell Haaretz they support the ruling Justice and Development Party (AKP) and President Recep Tayyip Erdogan.

“Of course I’m happy he’s still in power. As a Muslim, and as a Sunni, it makes me happy,” Omar said.

He said many Syrians fought against the pro-coup soldiers, fearing the consequences of a toppled Turkish government that supports Syrian rebels against Assad. “We thought we’d be kicked back into Syria, so we had no choice but to fight,” Khaled said.

“If the coup had been a success, the revolution [in Syria] would be dead, because Turkey wouldn’t support it anymore.”

Omar says he admires how people united to fight against the coup plotters. “What I like about Turkish people is that they all went [into the streets], rejecting the coup. Even though there are many parts of Turkish society, like Islamic people, Alevis, non-religious people, they were like one hand,” he said. “I wish we could experience something like this in Syria.”

Some 179 civilians, 62 police officers, five loyalist soldiers, and 104 soldiers supporting the coup were killed throughout Turkey during the attempted coup and its aftermath. At least one Syrian, 21-year-old Omer Halid Dervise, was shot by pro-coup soldiers in Fatih after joining the demonstrators.

Elsewhere in Turkey, pent-up resentment towards Syrians, which increased sharply in early July after the government announced it was considering giving them citizenship, exploded during the night of the failed coup.

Shakir, a 21-year-old restaurant worker who fled to Turkey seven months ago, says he and a group of other Syrians were attacked by a large mob of locals in the conservative central Anatolian city of Konya on the night of the coup. “They used the situation to attack Syrians,” he said. “They attacked me in my home. They destroyed many Syrians’ shops. They even entered my home and many Syrians’ houses.”

It isn’t clear what precipitated the violence, but the mob was heard yelling at Syrians to “go back home.” “The main reason is that they don’t want Syrians to live with them,” Shakir said.

Local media corroborate the story, reporting that at around midnight in Konya’s central Karatay district, both sides lobbed stones and five Syrians were stabbed before fighting was broken up by riot police using tear gas.

“They were breaking the windows to our houses, trying to get in, but when they couldn’t, they left our houses and went to Syrian shops,” Shakir said. “They broke into them and stole mobile phones.”

Shakir said the mob stayed in the streets all night, and some of his friends were so scared they actually crossed the border back into Syria, falsely thinking the anti-Syrian violence was all over Turkey. “It was like, ‘I could die here, or I could die in Syria, so I prefer to die in my own country,’” he said.

Anti-Syrian violence was also seen in Ankara’s Önder neighborhood, leaving three injured. Shakir himself sold his phone to buy a bus ticket to Istanbul, where he’s now staying with his uncle. “I like living here in Istanbul, because it has more security and people are more welcoming to Syrians,” he said.