Turks query government’s Syria policy

Turks query government’s Syria policy

The government is trying to calm the public down after the bomb attacks in Reyhanlı in an effort to prevent tension between locals who have suffered heavy losses in these attacks and Syrian refugees whose presence had already stirred trouble in the region. Clashes that have already occurred between locals and Syrians clearly provide an ominous portent of how things can get ugly.

The quick manner in which the government announced that the alleged perpetrators of the Reyhanlı attack were arrested and made to confess that they were connected to Syrian intelligence, the “Mukhabarat,” is also telling. The haste in announcing these arrests points to an effort at deflecting attention away from the armed Syrian opposition, whose ranks include radicals Islamist elements that have used car bombs in Syria in the past.

The Reyhanlı attack also coincides with reports that the al-Nusra Front, a radical, anti-al-Assad group related to al-Qaeda that has enjoyed support from Ankara despite being listed as a terrorist organization by Washington, is to be outlawed by the United Nations as well.

There will no doubt be many questions to ask in the coming days once the nationwide shock over the Reyhanlı atrocity subsides, and the dust starts settling down. The arrest of two journalists, on the grounds they violated reporting restrictions after the bombings, shows that the press may have its task cut out as it tries to find out the truth of the matter.

What is clear, however, is that a seriously agitated public will be asking why their country is now faced with attacks reminiscent of attacks in Damascus, Baghdad or Kirkuk. It was bad enough when the car bomb went of at the Cilvegözü border crossing with Syria in February, but the Reyhanlı attack is of a different caliber and much scarier magnitude.

A defensive-sounding Foreign Minister Ahmet Davutoğlu was quick to say, in response to reporters’ questions after the attack, that those who linked this atrocity to the government’s Syrian policy were committing a crime against humanity. Unfortunately for him, this is exactly what Turks are going to increasingly do now, asking more and more why their country has been dragged into the Syrian crisis in this manner.

People remember, after all, that Turkey managed the eight-year Iran-Iran War in the 1980s, the First Gulf War in 1990-1991 against Saddam, and the Second Gulf War which toppled Saddam in 2003 – all of which happened next door – without importing the kind of security threat that we see now coming from Syria.

Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdoğan’s and Foreign Minister Davutoğlu’s intense lobbying for what amounts to an attempt to overthrow Bashar al-Assad by military means, and the cool manner in which they have approached suggestions of a political settlement to this crisis, can only have been read as enmity by Baathists back in Syria.

This is what makes it likely that they are behind the Reyhanlı atrocity, regardless of whether the upper echelons in Damascus sanctioned this or not. The bottom line in all this is that the Turkey that set out to create friends in the region only a few years ago with its “zero problems with neighbors” policy has ended up increasing the number of its enemies.

People will therefore also be asking why secular Turkey got embroiled in the growing sectarian fight in the Middle East where enmities along the 1,400-year-old Sunni-Shiite fault line can be deep and lasting. There are other questions that will no doubt be asked by the public once the shock of this tragic event is overcome.
The strange thing in all this is that the government appears not to be taking in the message coming out of opinion polls indicating that Turks are concerned about Ankara’s Syrian policy and do not want to see Turkey embroiled in a conflict with this country.

The Reyhanlı atrocity should nevertheless provide Prime Minister Erdoğan and Foreign Minister Davutoğlu an opportunity to reflect on what is happening and to re-evaluate their Syrian policy by weighing very carefully what it has achieved to date, and what it is likely to cost Turkey given the way events are unfolding.