Militant Syrian 'Refugees' Test Turkey's Efforts to Stay Neutral

Article Summary
Allegations that some Syrian opposition forces are using refugee camps in Turkey as a haven to stage cross-border attacks are putting Turkish officials in a difficult position. Tülin Daloglu writes that their refusal to stop the incursions could give Syria a pretext to retaliate.

The longer the Syrian crisis continues, the harder it becomes for Turkey to turn a blind eye to the militant activities of the Syrian opposition on its soil. For a country that claims to be the rising regional power, the Turkish government is playing a poor game of geopolitical chess.

For example, there are serious and growing allegations that Syrian rebels are using refugee camps in Turkey that house 25,000 Syrian refugees as a haven for cross-border attacks. Members of the opposition Free Syrian Army (FSA) have told the media — both local and foreign — that they are crossing the border into Syria to fight Syrian forces, then return to safety in Turkey.

Speaking to Al-Monitor recently, a senior official at the office of Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan said, “We neither control the Free Syrian Army nor allow them to do any hit-and-run strikes in Syria.”

Despite the denial, speculation mounts that such strikes are taking place with regularity.

Faruk Logoglu, deputy chairman of CHP, the main opposition party, said that inquiries by his members into the truth to these allegations get no government response, so they are left in the dark.

“We are also following the news in print and on television, where the Free Syrian Army members’ statements and visuals point to a highly likely possibility that these allegations may indeed be true,” he said.

As Turkey’s former ambassador to Washington, Logoglu is well-versed in international law. He told Al-Monitor that permitting the FSA to use Turkey as a sanctuary “is against all international norms; against all neighborly relations.”

The issue, he said, is not how cruel Assad is to his own people or whether it is now time for Turkey to make Syria pay for its support of the PKK's Kurdish separatist guerrillas between 1984 and 1999. Instead, he said, it is a basic rule that countries must respect the sovereignty of others.

Logoglu argued that Turkey is giving Syria a pretext to retaliate.

“If a country allows armed groups to attack our security forces, we hit back; we will move heaven and earth,” he said.

Indeed, things have gotten more complicated as the Syrian opposition becomes increasingly better armed. In this context, a recent incident on the Turkish-Syrian border that caused casualties on the Turkish side can be seen in a different light.

Erdogan immediately called the April 9 incident, in which Syrian forces fired on Syrian rebels and killed at least one person in a refugee camp at Kilis, a violation of Turkish territory. He threatened to take "all necessary measures" and called for invoking NATO’s Article 5, which states that an attack on one member country is an attack on all.

But in the view of Erdogan’s critics, the comments went too far and beg the question of whether Turkey is stepping into volatile Middle Eastern politics at an entry level rather than one which reflects its long imperial experience in the region. Is Turkey miscalculating its real strengths? 

It is important to understand what actually happened. FSA members were trying to take territory from the control of the Syrian forces. Outgunned, they fled into Turkey, drawing fire into the refugee camp. The Syrian forces were not specifically targeting Turkey.

When asked whether the Syrian opposition expects Turkey to support them at all costs, Bassma Kodmani, a member of the opposition Syrian National Council, told Al-Monitor, “This is a very sovereign decision by Turkey.”

Sure it is. But it is also mind boggling that Turkey may actually have no control over the FSA, and that the rebels’ actions, however understandable, risk drawing Turkey into the fight. Many Turks fear that such involvement would have a disastrous effect, particularly on the economy, and that an exit strategy would be hard to find.

The Erdogan government says it has no intention of acting unilaterally. Yet for a country like Turkey, which has in the past argued passionately against foreign military intervention in the region, it seems strange to invoke NATO’s Article 5 over a one-time border violation. The incident happened and ended quickly, and there was no direct threat to Turkey’s territorial integrity. Instead, FSA members jeopardized the lives of civilians in the camp who had come to Turkey to escape such violence.

Syrian President Bashar al-Assad knows well that NATO has no appetite for military engagement with his forces. Turkey’s threat to invoke Article 5 probably did not frighten him. But it undercut Turkey’s political capital.

Few here have any faith that the latest iteration of a UN peace plan will have any effect. The best thing for the Erdogan government to do would be to talk less — at least until it becomes clearer which direction the international community will take to deal with this escalating crisis.

Tulin Daloglu is a journalist and foreign-policy analyst based in Ankara, Turkey.

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