Turkey’s Syria quagmire takes a new turn

Among the many questions raised by the recent attack, Turkey has been accused of intentionally neglecting border security to allow the Free Syrian Army and international jihadists to use Turkish soil along the border as a base.

Firdevs Robinson
15 May 2013

The two car bombs that killed at least 50 people and ripped through the Turkish border town of Reyhanli left behind them not only widespread devastation but several unanswered questions.

Within hours of the attack, the Turkish authorities announced that they knew and arrested those responsible:  members of a Turkish left-wing group with links to Syrian intelligence. 

After what seemed certain to be an obvious lapse of intelligence and security, the speed and efficiency in solving the crime didn’t look credible.

When a local court in Reyhanli quickly imposed a nationwide ban on reporting, this blatant censorship only added to people’s disbelief.  The decision which was conveyed to the media by the Radio and Television Supreme Council (RTUK) meant that all pictures and news relating to the on-going investigation were banned. 

Turkey’s mass media organisations embraced this order without resistance.

Local people directed their anger both to the government and to the media. Reporters on the ground were hassled and accused of being puppets of the government. There were calls for a boycott of the press.

More worryingly, the resentment and fury turned against the Syrian refugees living in town.  There were some ugly incidents against Syrian civilians and signs of growing tension between the locals and the refugees.

The terrorist attack in Reyhanli is the worst example so far of a long-feared spill-over of the Syrian civil war into Turkish towns and villages.

It was also an unmistakable reflection of how things have become in recent years under Justice and Development Party rule.  

The tragedy of Reyhanli  holds a mirror up to the nation and the picture isn’t pretty.

Security risks of uncontrollable borders  

In a recent report titled Blurring the Borders: Syrian Spillover Risks for Turkey, the International Crisis Group called on Turkey to re-secure its border and ask Syrian opposition fighters to move to Syria:

Turkey has no capacity to solve intractable problems inside Syria alone, and it is not considering significant military intervention. Stepped-up arming of opposition fighters seems unlikely to enable them to topple the regime quickly. And Turkey’s wishful thinking about the Ottoman past and a leading historical and economic role in its Sunni Muslim neighbourhood is at odds with the present reality that it now has an uncontrollable, fractured, radicalised no-man’s-land on its doorstep”  it said.

Whilst commending Turkey for opening its doors to up to 450,000 refugees, the ICG  called on Ankara to allow UN agencies and international humanitarian organisations greater access.

Similar views have been expressed by a handful of Turkish commentators. Among them  columnist Kadri Gursel , writing in Al-Monitor accused Turkey  of intentionally neglecting border security in order to allow the Free Syrian Army and international jihadists to use Turkish soil along the border as a  base:  

A blind eye had to be turned on border security to enable Syrian and foreign fighters of the FSA and Jabhat al-Nusra, which publicly announced its al-Qaeda affiliation, to freely cross from Turkey to Syria, fight there and return with no hassle. Of course, such freedom was also needed to move guns and equipment from Turkey to opposition forces” he said.

Government’s first response both to the Reyhanli bombing  of May 11 and the previous fatal attack in the border crossing of nearby Cilvegozu in February  11 was to deny any security and intelligence lapses by their forces.

No group has claimed responsibility, but in both cases, Turkish officials immediately suggested Syrian involvement. After the Reyhanli attack, the prime minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan initially talked about the possibility that the bombings may be related to Turkey's peace process  with Kurdish rebels,  aiming to end a  30-year-old conflict. This line of explanation was quickly dropped.

In response to criticism that the borders were porous and militants moved freely among the refugees, there was even stronger reaction from ministers:

Those who want to say the incident was carried out by refugees, and that Turkey has carried out the wrong policies on Syria, they are committing a crime against humanity,” Turkey’s foreign minister Ahmet Davutoğlu retorted.

The most baffling response came from the military. In a statement posted on their website, Turkish General Staff made it clear that it wasn’t the military that was responsible for the security of border crossings. They strongly condemned the attack saying that:

it was perpetrated by those who have not learned anything from humanity, who have seen everything red and whose consciences have become dark, against innocent individuals”, adding “they wished for God’s mercy to those who were killed in Reyhanli on Saturday and wished speedy recovery to those wounded”.

Exposing fault lines

Before leaving for Washington to meet President Barack Obama, Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan used a more measured language. Still putting the blame on the Syrian regime, and rejecting the possibility of a security lapse, he nevertheless accepted that there may be lack of communication between the security forces and the intelligence agency. He announced that he has assigned the Prime Minister’s Inspection Board to uncover any possible negligeance.

Could this be the exposure of another fault line? Are we seeing another sign of the long-suspected rift between the National Intelligence Organization (MİT) and the police? Is this an unintended consequence of the power struggle between Mr Erdogan and the country’s  most influential Islamist community leader Fethullah Gulen, living in Pennsylvania but commanding loyalty from the judiciary and the police force in Turkey?

The latest attack which was rather ruthlessly described by the veteran columnist, Cengiz Candar as “the inevitable cost of becoming an effective actor in the Middle East”, raised many more yet unanswered questions. Most important among them are whether Turkey will reconsider its partisan, sectarian policy towards the Middle East and whether it can avoid those sectarian tensions spilling into its own border province of Hatay.

The tragic events of Reyhanli  have helped to reveal Turkey’s increasingly Islamist social and political agenda.

Violence that costs dozens of Turkish lives most probably was the work of the agents of Assad whose sense of impunity has no boundaries.  

However, the responsibility for the safety of its citizens firmly rests with the Justice and Development Party government.

Its reluctance to be fully accountable and transparent has been made starkly apparent with its attempts to impose a news black-out.

A less than independent mainstream media also failed in its duty to inform and serve the public interest.

Opposition parties, from both left and right, have only inflamed already virulent anti-American, anti-Israeli sentiments, with their clichés of anti-imperialist conspiracies. . .

In a country that has been crudely polarized by its political leaders for years, it is difficult to predict how things may turn out in Turkey.

The government may have declared the victims of the attacks ‘martyrs’,  but after Reyhanli, it will take more than the promise of heaven to persuade its people that its over-ambitious, short-sighted policies will take them to a better place in the here and now.

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