Turkey Should Follow the Rules In Syria

As Turkey continues to change tack on Syria and form regional alliances, Mete Cubukcu outlines the essential rules that countries dealing with the Middle East ignore at their peril.  

al-monitor A man waits in front of the closed Cilvegozu border gate near the town of Reyhanli on the Turkish-Syrian border in Hatay province, Feb. 12, 2013. A deadly minibus blast on Turkey's border with Syria was meant to target a Syrian National Council opposition delegation, the group said. Photo by REUTERS/Umit Bektas.

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turkish intervention in syria, turkish foreign policy, turkey, syrian revolution, syrian opposition, syrian crisis, syrian conflict, syrian-turkish relations, syrian, border

Feb 22, 2013

To get so deeply involved in the Syrian crisis, or to become a party to it and to avoid discussing the supervision of borders, could all bring about a plethora of dirty games.

For the Middle East, three rules of the game are often cited. These are the rules anyone entering Middle Eastern politics must learn by heart from the outset. There is some realism in them. First, as much as you enter the Middle East, the Middle East enters you. Second, the Middle East is a slippery and shifting ground. Third, you can’t do politics alone in the Middle East.

Perhaps we should add another one: In the Middle East, your exit plan is more important than your entry plan. When you look at these rules as a whole, you may discern that Turkey’s Middle East ambitions are still in their early stages, because politics in this region is not shaped only according to our intentions. Our intentions cannot be the sole determinant of developments. In a region where equations constantly change, if you don’t think hard about the next move, troubles are inevitable.

Turkey’s Syrian adventure is moving along this course. The car bombing at the Cilvegözü border crossing is but one indicator. Of course there is no objection to Turkey forming relationships with Middle Eastern countries. We can even say we are late to do so. But our methods are open to debate, especially if what is at stake is war or intervention in another country. When Turkey, deeply committed militarily and politically to the war in Syria, decided that its sole objective was the disposal of the Assad regime, it is no wonder it lost traction on the slippery ground of the Middle East.

Open borders

That attack on the border was not a surprise. Since the beginning of the civil war, seven border crossings have been taken over by the opposition. Some were abandoned and control was lost over some others. Even if there are controls and supervision on the Turkish side, you can’t say the same for the Syrian side, as the opposition forces in charge of the crossings are not equipped to run them properly.

In some areas, apart from a railroad track, there is no physical barrier of any kind between the two countries. Before the Cilvegözü bombing there were divergent claims regarding clashes at Ras al-Ain and Cilvegözü. Some said FSA militants fighting against the Kurds at Ras al-Ain were coming via Turkey and returning to Turkey after fighting. There were even accusations that Turkey was supporting the armed opposition militants fighting the Kurdish PYD. But the opposition won at Ras al-Ain. In a way, what Turkey wanted did not happen.

The Cilvegözü border crossing is the most important gate for Turkish assistance to Syria. That is why there is a serious control mechanism in place on the Turkish side. You can’t say the same for the Syrian opposition running the other side. This is an important point. As soon as the reports came of the Cilvegözü bombing, the first suspect that came to mind was the Syrian intelligence. This is an apparatus of the Assad regime, which is said to be aware of all that happens. It could have arranged the bombing. But as details emerged, it was seen that there could have been other culprits. The bombing could have been by one opposition faction against another. It could have been a multipurpose action. How? While eliminating some of the opposition, the focus would be on the regime in Damascus and Turkey would be provoked.

Who would set off the bomb?

The Syrian opposition is made up of three main components: the National Coalition for Syrian Revolutionary and Opposition Forces, the Syrian National Council (SNC) and the Syrian Kurdish National Council. The National Coalition is the largest umbrella organization, set up by a joint US and Qatari initiative. The pretext for that was that the SNC — under Turkey's supervision — was Muslim Brotherhood-oriented and too heavily Sunni. The SNC went under the coalition umbrella and Turkey's influence diminished. Moaz al-Khatib was elected as the leader of the coalition.

In the meantime, the US put Jabhat al-Nusra, a Syrian armed opposition group, on its terror list. The coalition griped a bit at the beginning, and the Turkish-controlled SNC reacted to the Jabhat al-Nusra decision. Turkey is not uncomfortable with Jabhat al-Nusra. Soon after taking over, Khatib declared that he would be willing to talk to the Syrian regime. He then met with Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov and flashed the green light to the regime. Thus, the issue of bringing the opposition and the regime together to find a solution to the transition process that has been supported by Russia and the US was back on the table.

On the day of the bomb attack, SNC leader George Sabra had met with the opposition in Turkish camps and was about to deliver the SNC’s decision to support Khatib to Syria. But the bomb was set off half an hour before the SNC leader and his delegation reached the border.

The groups that will be affected most negatively by the negotiation process are Salafists led by Jabhat al-Nusra. For the Syrian opposition to meet with Damascus would be against the interests of these groups, as the US has long been advocating the expulsion of these groups from the ranks of the opposition. In other words, one group supported by Turkey may well be working against another group also supported by Turkey.

But, as we have been saying all along, to get so deeply involved in Syrian chaos or to become a party to it and to avoid discussing the supervision of borders could all bring about a plethora of dirty games. In that case, Middle East rules will prevail. Those entering the Middle East will have to adopt Middle East rules, which mean no transparency and no oversight. Foreign Minister Davutoglu’s remarks on the bombing were meaningful: “It could be by those trying to drag Turkey into Syria. It could be a provocation of the regime.” Turkey is officially almost in a war. Look at the borders.

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