Ten days after the U.S. Embassy in Ankara was attacked by a suicide bomber, allegedly in protest against Turkey’s Syria policies, a car bomb exploded today [Feb. 11] on the Syrian side of the Turkish border, at the Cilvegozu crossing point, about 3 p.m. local time.
According to Turkish officials, 13 people are dead, 10 Syrians and three Turkish citizens. More than 30 people are reported injured, and 15 cars were burned.
“There was an explosion at the American Embassy last week, which is one of the best protected places in Turkey,” Adnan Korkmaz of the Eastern Mediterranean regional customs directorate said on CNN Turk. “It’s not even clear how this bomb came so close to the border. We will have more details in the coming days as to how this incident occurred, and only then we can talk about as to whether there was any security vacuum at the border.”
He said that the car that exploded was parked to the side and bore a registered Syrian license plate. “Let’s make one thing very clear," he said. "This car was not coming from Turkey or had gone through its customs control to get into Turkey.”
Speaking to Al-Monitor on condition of anonymity, a Turkish security officer near the explosion said, “It’s still early to tag this as a suicide attack, but we also don’t know why there was a car loaded with explosives there.”
The Cilvegozu crossing point is a key location for the Syrian opposition. While the opposition by-and-large controls the Syrian side of the border, humanitarian aid from Turkey to Syria is transferred to the Syrians at this crossing point.
“We don’t allow Turkish citizens to leave for Syria through the border gates, but there is no limitation for Syrians to come and go as often as they like to Turkey,” Korkmaz said. “Therefore, all the humanitarian aid that comes from Turkey is transferred to the Syrians and Syrian registered licensed vehicles there. On a daily basis, people nearly load about 100 trucks per day. It’s a crowded crossing point.”
After wrapping up a nearly seven-hour meeting of the council of ministers, Bulent Arinc, spokesman for the Turkish government, told journalists, “There is an investigation ongoing about this explosion. We will understand what happened there and will inform the public.”
Arinc also said that he regrets statements coming from the opposition party deputies that have called for calm and demanded that Ankara not use the situation as an excuse to engage in military intervention into Syria.
“We strongly condemn this incident and express our sympathies to those who lost their lives and the wounded,” said Faruk Logoglu, a Republican People's Party (CHP) deputy and the former Turkish ambassador to Washington. “Despite all our warnings, the government has been insisting on its aggressive and wrong Syria policies, and it should not use this event as an excuse to take yet another wrong step.”
But Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan argued that "this incident is very important for revealing as to how right we have been in our determinations and sensitivities both concerning terrorism and the developments in Syria." Arinc has thus far refrained from labeling the incident an act of terror.
On Feb. 7, The New York Times reported on the deep division between the White House and departments of state and defense over how to deal with the rising violence in Syria, as the latter two departments proposed arming the opposition. “The plan that [CIA Director David] Petraeus developed, and that [Secretary of State Hillary] Clinton supported, called for vetting rebels and training a cadre of fighters who would be supplied with weapons," the Times reported. "The plan would have enlisted the help of a neighboring state.”
The Turkish opposition believes that the “neighboring state” referred to is Turkey, and that Turkey is already helping to arm the Syrian opposition. The Turkish opposition has warned Ankara that these weapons can't be guaranteed to work only in one direction, and that any weapons could ultimately be used to target Turkish citizens and to hurt Turkey’s interests.
Since the Syrian uprising started two years ago, nearly 200,000 Syrians are living in Turkey in refugee camps or in homes rented or owned across the country. Turkey has spent more than $400 million on Syrian refugees and remains adamant that it will not share control of the border camps, which would allow it to receive financial aid from the international community.
Although it is still too early to know what this explosion means or whether it relates to the Turkish government’s Syria policies, one thing is clear: Syrian President Bashar al-Assad remains in power, and the civil war continues to cause unbearable bloodshed. Given this, it would be best if Erdogan remained silent about the incident until the facts are clear. Syria downed a Turkish reconnaissance flight in June 2012, killing two Turkish fighter jet pilots, and it killed another Turkish citizen in August 2012 over a cross-border firing in Akcakale. It’s fine if Erdogan speaks loud and clear — but he also needs to be careful that his words are tested at each turn. Turkey can't afford to fall into the Syrian quagmire.
Tulin Daloglu is a columnist for Al-Monitor's Turkey Pulse. She has written extensively for various Turkish and American publications, including The New York Times, International Herald Tribune, The Middle East Times, Foreign Policy, The Daily Star (Lebanon) and the SAIS Turkey Analyst Report.