Syria war at the gates of Turkey

Syria war at the gates of Turkey

Hours after Turkey’s semi-official Anadolu Agency reported that Turkish troops near the Ceylanpınar town on the Syrian border had responded to fire from the other side of the border on July 17, Fırat News Agency - as the outlet of the outlawed Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK) - reported that the armed wing (the YPG) of their sister group (the PYD) in Syria had taken control of the border gate. Perhaps we should say they had taken control for the second time. When the PYD took control of the Syrian side of the border gate in 2012, it was before Tayyip Erdoğan’s initiative to start dialogue with the PKK in search of a political solution to the Kurdish problem. Back then, the PYD was also fighting on behalf of Bashar al-Assad’s regime in Damascus against the Free Syrian Army rebels, who were backed by Turkey. Since then, the balances turned upside down. A radical group called al-Nusra emerged from within the Ikhwan-i Muslimin, or Muslim Brotherhood-oriented, rebel forces, which evolved into the sister organization of al-Qaeda in Syria within months. As a result of the Kurdish peace talks in Turkey, the PYD, or the PKK in Syria, shifted its fight against al-Assad. By that time, al-Nusra had captured the border gate, the same one that is understood to have been retaken by the Kurdish militants yesterday.

Ceylanpınar is placed almost half way along the 910 km-long Turkish-Syrian border, extending from the Mediterranean Sea in the west to the joint border with Iraq in the east. Thus, Ceylanpınar is not the only point where the Syrian civil war has been violating Turkish gates. The east end, north of Iraq, is already controlled by the Kurds; more by the PKK along the Turkish border, and ruled by the federative Kurdistan Regional Government (KRG) anyway.

The west end is more complicated. Having been annexed by Turkey as a result of a plebiscite in 1938, Hatay province has been turning into a proxy battlefield between Ankara and Damascus since the beginning of the civil war, and Turkey took sides on behalf of the opposition forces in 2011. Hatay has a complicated population from both the ethnic and sectarian points of view. Some of the towns there are mostly Sunni populated, while some are populated by Alevis and Nusayris (they are two different identities, despite being close to each other and often mixed, intentionally or not). Most Sunnis are of Turkish origin, but there are Kurds, too. And some of the Alevis are of Turkish origin, whereas most of the Nusayris are of Arab origin. When you add the refugee camps, each of them holding tens of thousands of Syrians who have escaped from the war, to allegations that training has been given to rebels in some of them, you end up with the bloody attacks in the Reyhanlı town near the border gate in May, which claimed dozens of civilian lives. The whole picture is further complicated with the recent Egyptian coup, where the Ikhwan-backed elected president Mohamad Morsi was toppled by a coup, which might have delivered a blow to the moral of the opposition forces other than groups affiliated with the PKK and al-Qaeda, which are fighting each other anyway.

The Syrian civil war has three pegs regarding Turkey: the first one is the most apparent one, which is directly related to the clashes themselves. The second one is related to the Kurdish issue. The third one is the Alevi issue. The first one will have only a negligible effect in the coming election season in Turkey, but the remaining two will have a major effect in the vote distribution. They are thus being taken seriously in Erdoğan’s game plan for his political walk, directed at Turkey’s presidency.

We are observing a situation in which domestic and international politics, and Turkey’s internal and external security, are intermingling terribly.