Ahead of Washington talks, Turkey ‘all in’ with the Syrian opposition
Turkey suffered a shock over the weekend as nearly 50 people were killed and over a hundred injured in a double car bombing near the border with Syria.
While the regime of Bashar Al Assad was almost immediately blamed for the attack, nine Turkish citizens were the first people to be detained in connection with the bombing. This suggests that the Syrian regime maintains a sophisticated spy network in Turkey. I wrote about this for The National.
While Syria denied any involvement yesterday, there have been numerous allegations of Syrian regime agents operating in southern Turkey.
Most have been alleged attempts to kidnap Syrian opposition figures and defectors on Turkish soil and take them back across the border into Syria.
The bombing took place in Reyhanli, a town adjacent to the border with Syria where many Syrian refugees live. Reyhanli also serves as a hub for numerous aid workers and members of the Syrian opposition who go back and forth across the border.
Elements loyal to the Syrian regime were almost certainly behind the attack. It comes just days before Turkey’s Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan is scheduled to meet United States President Barack Obama in Washington. The Syria crisis is at the top of the agenda. The message from the regime to Ankara is that pushing for additional Western support for the opposition will mean more violence inside Turkey.
The regime is aware that Ankara’s support for the Syrian opposition is an unpopular policy in Turkey. Turkish citizens feel that their government is unnecessarily endangering their lives and meddling in the affairs of others.
But Ankara is ‘all in’ backing the Syrian opposition. How it will contend with further attacks on Turkish territory remains to be seen. It is likely that the government still feels that instability brought on by the conflict in Syria is a relatively short-term problem. Even if Turkey’s allies do not step up their activities in Syria by creating some form of buffer-zone for opposition forces, Ankara is likely to send more covert special operations teams into Syria in an effort to police its borders.
The most difficult issue for Turkey is how to deal with its own citizens who act on behalf of the regime, such as the ones suspected in Saturday’s bombings.
Suspicions are likely to focus on the country’s Alawite minority, who remain sympathetic to the Assad regime. It is noteworthy that Saturday’s attacks took place in Reyhanli, an all Sunni town, as supposed to the larger city in the area, Antakya, which is mixed Alawite and Sunni.
A bombing in Antakya would likely have created even more chaos than the one in Reyhanli, but it would not have been so specifically targeted. Reyhanli is home to many opposition Syrians. Almost all the Syrians and Turks that live there are Sunni.
I spoke with Syrians in Reyhanli in the aftermath of Saturday’s bombings:
After the explosions, Turks vented their anger by vandalising cars with Syrian number plates and attacking some refugees.
Aref al-Karez, a 22-year-old Syrian, was a few streets away when the first bomb exploded. He said that some Turks went “crazy”, adding: “Any people from Turkey that caught a Syrian person, there was a fight.”
Police fired guns in the air as they tried to restore order. Mr Karez said that he was staying in his apartment in the town and was too afraid to go out. “No Syrians are walking the roads,” he said. He had planned to leave Reyhanli and travel to another town, but Mr Karez said that no Turkish taxi driver would take him.
Mr Karez said that large numbers of people were crossing the border between Syria and Turkey illegally, suggesting that the attackers might have followed this route.
“A lot of people get into Turkey – I don’t have a passport, I don’t have anything, I just go over the border,” he said. “I think intelligence agents from the regime got into Turkey, took a bomb, and put it in the cars.”