On May 11, two car bombs in the town of Reyhanli in the Hatay province on the western end of Turkey’s 911-km [566-mile] border with Syria — extending from the Mediterranean all the way to the Iraqi border — killed 46 people and wounded more than 100, of whom 29 seriously. The devastation went far beyond the scene of the attacks and dented Turkey’s credibility in the region and international arena.
Reyhanli is a border town almost a stone’s throw from Cilvegozu, the most active border crossing between Turkey and Syria. On Feb. 11, a bomb attack on the Turkish side of Cilvegozu killed two Turkish citizens. There were claims then that the bomb might have targeted Syrian opposition leaders who were expected to cross the border at that moment.
Now three months later, blasts in the Reyhanli town center, one in front of the municipality building and the other in front of the post office, caused the largest number of casualties ever seen in Turkey. Lebanon, intertwined with Syria for years, is used to these kinds of attacks. In Iraq, the number of casualties now sustained in Reyhanli is a daily statistic no longer extensively reported by international wire services. But Turkey, a country not inured to this scale of casualties, was shaken at its roots.
This may be why the first reactions on May 11 reflected bewilderment by officials. Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan and Minister of Interior Muammer Guler, who were expected to make responsible statements about the attack, preferred to interpret the blasts as an attempt to sabotage the resolution process with the Kurds. Erdogan suggested a second possibility and alluded to ‘’sensitivities and peculiarities of Hatay and Reyhanli,’’ hinting that the Syrian regime could be behind the attack. Nevertheless, his emphasis was on “sabotage aiming at the resolution process that is progressing well with the Kurds.”
On May 12, however, Guler laid the blame on Syrian President Bashar al-Assad, saying that “according to preliminary findings the organization behind the bombing is affiliated with pro-regime organizations and the state intelligence in Syria. The organization behind the bombing and its members are linked to the Syrian mukhabarat [secret police].”
That the Reyhanli attack was just a few days before Erdogan’s long-awaited Washington visit, and given the characteristics of the location of the blast, gives credence to the possibility of the attack being a significant and strong message from Damascus to Ankara.
Reyhanli is a town where the Free Syrian Army and some Salafist groups, said to be affiliated with al-Qaeda, move around freely. It also hosts about 35,000 Syrian refugees.
The attack, beyond causing shock waves in Turkish domestic politics, also has the potential of fueling tensions between the Turks and Syrian refugees. It was no surprise when some Reyhanli youth said to be close to the nationalist Nationalist Movement Party (MHP) assaulted Syrian refugees in the town center after the bomb blasts.
The fact that MHP leader Devlet Bahceli quickly issued a statement also attracted attention. Bahceli said, “Prime Minister Erdogan’s expressions of abhorrence of Assad and his provocations against the Damascus regime are now bouncing back to our country in the shape of attacks and provocations. The privileges granted to the Syrian opposition, and assistance provided and support given to them have prepared the ground for the conflagration on our neighbors' soil to spread to our borders. Prime Minister Erdogan's war narrative against Syria, his proposal to set up a no-fly zone to attract US attention and his threats against the Damascus administration have drawn our country into a dirty and bloody maelstrom.”
Kemal Kilicdaroglu, leader of the main opposition, the Republican People's Party (CHP), called on the government to review its foreign policy. The CHP had earlier sent delegations to visit Assad. Opposition parties CHP and MHP, which are rapidly losing ground to the government in the resolution process on the Kurdish issue, are going to make up for their losses by using the Reyhanli blasts.
This recent terror on the Turkish-Syrian border, instead of promoting national unity, is likely to cause a further polarization between the government and the opposition in Turkey.
Hatay — also known in the Arab world as Liwa Iskendurun, the name dating back to the days of the Ottoman Empire — after its accession to Turkey in 1939 became known as one of “two Arab lands lost,” along with the establishment of Israel on Palestinian soil in 1948. Hatay is an ideal turf for polarization. Arab Alevis — relatives of the Alewites in Syria, including the Assad family just across the border — make up an important segment of Hatay’s population. There are also Orthodox, Chaldean and Catholic Christian communities in addition to Sunnis and Turkmen.
Hence, Hatay is fertile soil for the contradictions between the Turks and Arabs, Sunnis and Alevis, and the Syrian regime and Syrian opposition to take root and flourish. Assad who knows the characteristics of this Turkish province had made threatening statements that the Erdogan government’s support to the Syrian opposition could be costly. These statements led to interpretations that he might provoke turmoil in Hatay.
Anyone who has been following Middle East politics will know that what happened in Reyhanli is within the ‘’expertise of the Syrian regime.’’ If to be expressed metaphorically, whoever gets involved in Syria a reciprocal move by the Syrians would be to export terror to that country. This is what happened in Reyhanli.
Of course the timing is also interesting. On the eve of Erdogan’s Washington visit as rumors circulate that the recent blasts in Damascus are linked to Israel, there is now a memo in Erdogan’s brief case that reads, “If you make a deal with US President Barack Obama to turn the United States loose on Syria, then you will continue to have bombs in Turkey, just like in Reyhanli.”
Foreign Minister Ahmet Davutoglu, who was in Germany at the time of the Reyhanli bomb attacks said, ‘’Turkey will not change its resolute Syria policy,” and added, “Anyone who wants to transfer external chaos to Turkey for whatever reason will get the appropriate response.”
There is no doubt that Davutoglu addressed this message to Damascus. Likewise, there is no doubt that Assad, who knows that the polarization between the ruling Justice and Development Party (AKP) and the opposition parties CHP and MHP, which have significant Alevi constituencies, is Erdogan’s ‘’Achilles' heel,” and he would very much like to project the chaos in his country to Turkey.
Obviously, Turkey will not be at ease as long as the Syrian crisis persists. In that case, what could be the response that Davutoglu is talking about? Turkey’s military intervention in Syria? Such an option is not likely in the foreseeable future. Then, Davutoglu’s response would not be anything more than rhetorical.
Turkey’s quandary over Syria is likely to amplify the differences with the Obama administration, which is unwilling to intervene in Syria.
Cengiz Çandar is a contributing writer for Al-Monitor's Turkey Pulse. A journalist since 1976, he is the author of seven books in the Turkish language, mainly on Middle East issues, including the best-seller Mesopotamia Express: A Journey in History.
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