The twin car bombings in the Turkish town of Reyhanli near the Syrian border has put the Syria policy being pursued by Recep Tayyip Erdogan's government under the most intense public scrutiny since the start of the Syrian crisis more than two years ago.
The pressure on the government was apparent in the defensive manner Foreign Minister Ahmet Davutoglu immediately lambasted critics of his government following the bombings. “Let me put it frankly those who are trying to show Turkey as having pursued the wrong policy (on Syria) are committing a crime against humanity,” Davutoglu told reporters in Berlin.
His statement showed that the government was aware, as soon as news of the atrocity broke, that it would be facing intense public criticism and reflected a pre-emptive effort at trying to deflect this criticism and to disarm it through exaggerated rhetorical remarks. Davutoglu is nevertheless faced with a serious dilemma because the anger of a public already wary about the government’s Syrian policy is bound to increase incrementally now.
Anti-government protests are already reported in Antakya, the regional capital of Hatay Province, where the town of Reyhanli is located, as well as in Reyhanli itself. Opposition politicians visiting the region, as well as journalists reporting from there, are warning that tension is rising across the province. The mixed population of Hatay includes a large section of Turkey’s Alevis, to use the local spelling of their name, who have ties to Syria’s Calamities.
Most of the Syrians in Hatay are Sunnis fleeing Assad’s forces, and include the families of members of the armed Syrian opposition. The fear is that increasing tension between local Alevis and Sunni refugees might ignite domestic sectarian conflict. Turkey also has an Alevi-Sunni fault line that has resulted in ugly massacres in the not so distant past.
It is telling that it took only a few hours after the twin bombings for the government to announce that the perpetrators of the Reyhanli atrocity had been caught, and were found to be linked to Syrian intelligence, the Mukhabarat. Deputy Prime Minister Bulent Arinc, for his part, was the first senior member of the government to label the Assad regime as the prime suspect in the Reyhanli attacks, even before it was announced that the alleged perpetrators were caught.
The government is keen to deflect any attention away from the armed Syrian opposition and to allay any suggestion that the perpetrators had come from among the Syrian refugees. It has been constantly underlining this point since the bombings in a clear attempt to reduce tensions between locals and refugees across Hatay, especially in towns along the nearly 900-km border with Syria.
But the haste with which the arrest of the alleged perpetrators was announced, together with persistent declarations that the Free Syrian Army (FSA) is not involved in these attacks, has only increased public suspicions, and the official news blackout on reporting from Reyhanli has not helped the government’s credibility either.
The news blackout has not prevented the social media from being overtaken with rumors spread by angry people accusing radical elements within the armed Syrian opposition of carrying out the attacks on the eve of Erdogan’s visit to Washington. The speculation is that the attacks were carried out to influence the Erdogan-Obama talks to the advantage of the Syrian opposition.
Ertugrul Kurkcu, a deputy from the pro-Kurdish Peace and Democracy Party (BDP), tweeted from Reyhanli, which he visited immediately after the bombings, that locals were blaming the FSA for the attacks, and noted that it was not just Alevis but also Sunnis, who make up the majority in the town, who were doing this.
What is clear is that with the news blackout imposed by a local court, suspected of having acted on orders from Ankara since this decision appears beyond the competence of a small town court, it will become harder for the media to get to the bottom of the matter, while officials spin the story in a manner favorable to the government.
Meanwhile, Erdogan and Davutoglu continue to blame the Assad regime, and are insisting that Turkey will respond to this attack at the right time and the right place. But Erdogan’s call for “calm” and his exhortations on behalf of “reason” also indicate that no Israeli or US type of retaliation should be expected from Turkey any time soon.
Erdogan’s dilemma is that if Ankara were to retaliate this could invite more counter strikes on Turkish territory by pro-Assad elements, while increasing the possibility of open conflict with Syria, which opinion polls indicate the majority of Turks are strongly against.
Al-Monitor’s Cengiz Candar wrote for Turkey Pulse on May 12 that the Reyhanli attack, “instead of promoting national unity, is likely to cause a further polarization between the government and the opposition in Turkey.” Al-Monitor’s Tulin Daloglu also underscored this point in her May 13 article for Turkey Pulse, arguing correctly that if the Turkish government decided to take military action against Syria, “Erdogan will not find the nation uniting behind his decision 100%.”
The Reyhanli attacks have, in short, made a shambles of Erdogan and Davutoglu’s Syria policy, making it even harder to defend this policy at a time when it has already resulted public consternation following the deadly car bomb attack in February at the Cilvegozu border crossing between Turkey and Syria.
Fawaz A. Gerges, the director of the Middle East Center at the London School of Economics, was quoted by The Associated Press after the bombings suggesting that although the Assad regime has strongly denied being behind the Reyhanli bombings, it can not be too unhappy about the outcome. "For Assad, this is an optimal option. He is the main beneficiary because he has made it very clear that if Syria implodes, the Syrian fire would consume neighboring states," Gerges said.
The Turkish public, which is increasingly aware of what Gerges is suggesting, has been bracing for blowback due to Ankara’s uncompromising policy based on ousting Assad by military means, and effectively rejecting any political settlement to the Syrian crisis.
Concerns have increased even more now after information was leaked to the media following the Reyhanli attacks indicating that the real target of the bombers was Ankara, and that the Kocatepe Mosque, the largest in the Turkish capital, as well as a crowded shopping mall, had been staked out for this purpose.
According to the leaked information, police investigations have revealed that three vehicles were purchased and stacked with explosives smuggled into the country by sea, and so an intense nationwide search is said to be under way for the third vehicle, the other two having been used in Reyhanli.
Despite official efforts at political damage control after the bombings, which include an attempt to deflect attention away from the Syrian opposition, and calls for calm against Syrian refugees, it is clear that the government’s Syria policy is going to loose further credibility for the Turkish public now.
Meanwhile, analysts are warning of the potential for clashes between locals and Syrian refugees. Huseyin Yayman, an academic and leading columnist on security matters who writes for daily Hurriyet, wrote on Tuesday [May 14] that Hatay province, which is currently hosting tens of thousands of Syrian refugees, has “intentionally been turned by provocateurs into a gunpowder barrel ready to explode at any moment.”
Citing a Turkish saying, Yayman went on to criticize the government’s policies by saying, “Let us sit crooked but talk straight. All of these developments point to a mistake.”
Ironically, Ankara’s open-door policy toward Syrian’s fleeing Assad may turn out in the end not provided the security for the refugees they expected to find when streaming into Turkey. Many are already said to be cowering in their temporary shelters amid reports that locals have started attacking refugees.
Compounding Ankara’s dilemma is that it is not only facing the ire of the Assad regime, and Syrian Alawites today, but also the increasing resentment and anger against Turkey among the Middle East’s Shiites, who look on the Erdoğan government as one of the principle sponsors of the armed Sunni-led resistance by the Syrian opposition.
The recent warning by Hassan Nasrallah, the leader of the Lebanese Hezbollah, that they will not allow Assad to fall, shows that Erdogan and Davutoglu’s continued determination to work for the overthrow the Assad regime is increasing enmity in the region toward Turkey. The bottom line is that Turkey has more enemies today than it did before Davutoglu unfolded his ambitious “zero problems with neighbors” policy.
Looking at this more and more, Turks, and not just members of the opposition, are asking how the Erdogan government can still declare its Syrian policy to be a success when it has started costing innocent Turkish lives.
Semih İdiz is a contributing writer for Al-Monitor’s Turkey Pulse. A journalist who has been covering diplomacy and foreign-policy issues for major Turkish newspapers for 30 years, his opinion pieces can be followed in the English-language Hurriyet Daily News. His articles have also been published in The Financial Times, The Times of London, Mediterranean Quarterly and Foreign Policy magazine.