The Risks of Turkey's Policy in Syria

4 MINS READMay 13, 2013 | 15:09 GMT
Students protest the bombings in Reyhanli with signs reading "the people of Syria and Turkey are brothers" in Ankara on May 13

As the Syrian civil war intensifies, Turkey's support for Syrian rebels will continue to invite reprisal attacks. On May 12, a day after two car bombings left at least 46 dead in the Turkish border town of Reyhanli, Damascus strongly denied allegations that Syrian military and intelligence assets were behind the attacks. But the Syrian government's denial of responsibility should not be taken at face value. Several militant proxy groups in the border region benefit from the security vacuum in northern Syria and from Damascus' indirect sponsorship.

While these provocations underscore the risks Turkey is taking in Syria, Turkey will not undertake a military intervention if the United States continues its restrained policy toward Syria. Doing so would leave Turkey vulnerable to other security risks as it tries to negotiate the politically sensitive issue of a peace deal with the Kurdistan Workers' Party.

The May 11 car bombings occurred 15 minutes apart. One targeted Reyhanli City Hall, and the other targeted the town's post office. So far no group has claimed responsibility for the attacks. The bombings, which appear to have been well-coordinated, resemble the Feb. 11 car bombing between Turkey's Cilvegozu and Syria's Bab al-Hawa border crossings, just a few miles southeast of Rehyanli. Responsibility for that attack was also never claimed.

051313 Syria

Reyhanli is located in Hatay province, a long-disputed piece of Turkish territory with geography closely resembling that of Syria. Hatay originally was part of the vilayet, or administrative division, of Aleppo in Ottoman Syria. The territory includes the strategic port of Iskenderun and the historic city of Antakya. During the French mandate that governed Syria, the province was annexed to Turkey in 1939 in a controversial referendum. The annexation embittered the Syrians but enabled the French to maintain a good relationship with Turkey when concerns grew over German ambitions in the eastern Mediterranean.

Today, Hatay province is quickly filling with refugee camps for Syrians fleeing bombardments and economic desolation in northern Syria. Though this area is formally Turkish, a strong Arab current still runs through the land. The Arabs in Hatay have preserved their language, food and customs, and they maintain familial and tribal links across the border. Arabs constitute roughly one-third of the 1.5 million people in the province. They include many Alawites, who share their religion with the minority regime in Syria; Arab Sunnis, who identify with the plight of Syrian Sunni refugees; Arab Christians; Kurds; Armenians; and Circassians.

Calculated Risks

Even though Damascus denied that it was behind the attacks, the bombings are symptomatic of tensions between the Turkish and Syrian governments — due largely to Ankara's backing of the Syrian rebels. It is probably not a coincidence that groups prominent during the Cold War years, such as the Revolutionary People's Liberation Party-Front, are re-emerging as Turkey's conflict with Syria escalates. The Revolutionary People's Liberation Party-Front claimed responsibility for a suicide attack on the U.S. Embassy in Ankara in early February and for a March 19 attack on the Turkish Ministry of Justice and the ruling Justice and Development Party's headquarters in Ankara. The group and its factions have a strong link to Syria; several leaders and members are known to reside in Syria and maintain close connections with the al Assad regime.

On the surface, it may seem counterintuitive for the Syrian regime to provoke Turkey while trying to stave off a U.S.-led military intervention (triggered by chemical weapons proliferation). The Syrian regime is not trying to invite a military intervention in Syria, but it does appear willing to take calculated risks to intimidate the Turkish government at a politically sensitive time in Turkey. The ruling Justice and Development Party is trying to maintain political momentum for a peace process with the Kurdistan Workers' Party, more commonly known as the PKK.

Among the motivations behind the ruling party's peace initiative is Turkey's imperative to deny its regional adversaries a Kurdish militant opening to tie Ankara's hands. However, Turkey must also contend with the risk that many Syria-based Kurdish militants affiliated with the PKK are unlikely to fall in line with Ankara's expectations of a comprehensive peace agreement, especially with a political vacuum growing in Kurdish-populated lands in northeastern Syria that will require many fighters to hold Kurdish ground. Notably, the Turkish government has avoided publicly raising the possibility that Kurds were linked to the Reyhanli bombings, but it has instead hinted at the involvement of a Marxist group — likely an allusion to the Revolutionary People's Liberation Party-Front or its affiliates.

While the Turkish government tries to navigate the peace process among skeptical Turkish voters, the Alawite regime in Syria and its Iranian backers likely see an opportunity to exploit and encourage other militant groups in the border region to undermine the Justice and Development Party's domestic popularity and thus pressure the government to curb its involvement in Syria, especially as the United States tries to avoid a military intervention in Syria. Turks that have been directly affected by the recent attacks — the same Turks that will likely bear the brunt of Syrian reprisals — are more likely to favor a restrained Turkish approach to Syria rather than an intervention, which will only exacerbate regional security problems. This sentiment may have been precisely what the al Assad regime was aiming for with the Reyhanli bombings.

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