The terrorist attack and Erdoğan’s Syria policy
The terrorist attack in Reyhanlı that killed more than 50 was not a surprise. Considering the tension in Turkey-Syria relations and the security problems caused by the Syrian civil war, this was an expected outcome. There may be similar attacks on the road ahead.
The towns and cities along the Turkish-Syrian border have never been so active. Their inhabitants discuss the social, cultural, economic and security problems caused by the refugees rather than political-ideological issues. The place is filled with intelligence officers who look like humanitarian aid workers, members of paramilitary groups, suspect foreigners and curious reporters.
The Bashar al-Assad regime accuses the Turkish government of supporting the rebels, whereas the Turkish government accuses al-Assad of killing his own people. As misinformation intensifies and the propaganda war rages on, the Reyhanlı attack has shed light on a new aspect of the debate. The Turkish government announced that the terrorist attack was a covert operation of Syrian intelligence, whereas al-Assad denied the charges just like a professional would. Public opinion, on the other hand, is kept busy with several conspiracy theories.
This terrorist attack was a powerful “costly signaling.” The message to the Turkish government was that its Syria policy needs revision. But the uncertainty is so high that it is not clear whether the message was to encourage Turkey to change its Syria policy or to increase the pressure on the al-Assad regime.
A great majority of the Turkish people have not been supportive of the government’s Syria policy since its beginning. The current developments confirm that in this matter public opinion was on the mark. Now the idea of keeping away from war is gaining more supporters.
The attack could have transformed the tension between locals and refugees into a conflict, which would have destroyed the Syria and refugee policies of the government. Thus, the government took strict security measures in the region.
The attack will also test the government’s capacity to respond. Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdoğan seems to have postponed his response until after the U.S. visit, where Syria will be the first topic on the list. However, President Barack Obama’s cautious stance on even a limited military intervention might put Erdoğan in a difficult position. Erdoğan, who is under time pressure due to the Kurdish problem and elections, might face harsh domestic opposition. No doubt al-Assad will not miss the opportunity and will put new plans in action to damage Erdoğan’s political charisma after the visit.