With fighting between Syrian rebels and government troops nearly spilling across the border, those in Turkey concerned about the war’s impact have begun to question whether their government should rethink its approach to the regime of President Bashar Assad.
Intense fighting between troops and rebels came within inches of Turkey’s southeastern district of Akcakale on Wednesday when rebels seized a border crossing. The gun battles sent bullets flying into Turkey and prompted authorities to shut local schools and ask people to stay inside.
At least 54 people were killed on Thursday alone. More than 29,000 have been killed in the conflict since March 2011, when anti-government protests broke out as an outgrowth of the Arab Spring, the organization announced on Thursday.
In recent years, neighboring Turkey – under Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan – had been a staunch ally of Syria, but Erdogan pulled back and grew critical when the extent of the brute force being used by Assad against his own citizens became clear.
More recently, Erdogan accused Assad of creating a “terrorist state,” has afforded asylum to major Syrian opposition figures, and has even pushed for a foreign-protected safe zone inside Syria. But the Turkish prime minister has stopped short of intervening militarily, or endorsing plans for other international bodies to do so. With the death toll mounting, refugees streaming into Turkey and Ankara fearing that the crisis has caused an uptick in Kurdish separatist militancy, there is more pressure on the Turkish government to take action.
More than 83,000 Syrian refugees have entered Turkey, according to the UN High Commissioner for Refugees, making it the country with the highest number of those fleeing the conflict.
The influx of refugees and the general instability of the border area has many Turks debating the possibility of intervention and wondering whether Erdogan has chartered the right course.
While most Turkish citizens think their country should stay out of the conflict, according to opinion polls, many analysts say that on the contrary, Turkey cannot bury its head in the sand – and perhaps ought to do more to help rebels trying to overthrow Assad.
Fehmi Koru, one of the more influential opinion-makers in Turkey and a columnist who is considered close to Erdogan’s Islamist Justice and Development party, says that perhaps Turkish policy should be reworked to more actively help the rebels.
“What I suggest is that we should change our policy, and provide arms to the insurgency,” Koru, a columnist at The Star newspaper in Istanbul, told The Jerusalem Post. However, he noted, there are reports that since the Turkish government opened its doors to thousands of Syrian refugees, the border area has become a porous region flush with insurgents and militants.
Given the sudden increase in confrontations between Turkish soldiers and Kurdish operatives along the country’s southeastern border, many are concerned that their enemies are seizing an opportunity amid the chaos. Other extremists maybe be arriving in the area, Koru adds.
“It seems that some people read into our policy that anybody who comes from a different parts of world to join the jihad can come on over. If that is the kind of people passing through our borders, we should stop allowing that,” he says.
“When everything settles down we will be facing a new Syria and we will not be sure what will happen next. This heavy weaponry that the rebels are being provided with by the West, how will it be used and against whom?” Koru said he was also calling on the UNHCR to take over some of the responsibility for the refugees.
“The news coming out of those camps is that they use them for other purposes, and they use camps to train some insurgents, and letting that happen doesn’t make sense to me,” he said.
Indeed, Turkey’s biggest concern is what comes next.
“After Bashar Assad and his cronies leave the country, then Syria becomes something we can’t predict.” The longer the conflict carries on, he said, the more troubling it is for Turkey.
“The US and some other Western allies say Assad has to go – but they do nothing to make that happen.”
The Turkish government has suggested that it might consider a military intervention. But the results of a new survey by the German Marshall Fund sheds doubt on the government’s claim to have public support for its Syria policy, the Hurriyet Daily News reported. Of those questioned, 57 percent said Turkey should not get involved in Syria militarily.
“We’re in a very difficult position with the refugees. There are already a great number of Arabs residing in Turkey, there is a deep discussion of this today in terms of domestic policy and how it will affect Turkey internally,” says Nihat Ali Ozcan, lecturer at TEPAV, The Economic and Policy Research Foundation of Turkey, an Istanbul think tank.
“The majority of the people don’t support the government’s policy. Most people say things like ‘we shouldn’t have touched this issue at all.’ According to the majority of Turkish people, the Turkish government made a mistake to get involved.”
Turkish analysts seem to fear that the southeast region – across the border and inside Turkey itself – could turn into another Afghanistan, awash in weapons and freelance fighters looking to do battle against both Western and secular interests.
Turkey’s concern, as it has been for years, is that weapons sent to the area to help the rebels could wind up in the hands of the PKK (Kurdish Workers Party), which Turkey considers an outlawed terrorist group.
“The PKK can exploit this logistical opportunity against Turkey, as will other global jihadist groups,” Ozcan told the Post. “We can imagine a moment when Western countries might blame Turkey for the growth of these groups, and the US will say, ‘We’re fighting them in Afghanistan and Yemen, and now they’re meeting in you backyard.’” Casualties from Thursday’s air strike were difficult to confirm.
The strike, which hit the town of Ain Issa, was reported to have hit a gas station, killing anywhere between 10 and 150 people, according to different estimates, NBC news reported.
In Damascus, Syrian security forces surrounded and raided a rebellious southern district, arresting more than 100 people, Reuters reported, sourcing state television and opposition activists. The round-up shows the extent to which the Assad regime is fighting to hold on to power, apparently convinced it can quash the rebellion despite heavy losses and defections of senior leaders.
Syrian state media said soldiers had killed 100 Afghan “terrorists” in the northern city of Aleppo.
Rebels in the area said that report was government propaganda, and that the district of Bustan al- Qasr – where the attack supposedly took place – has not been entered by Assad’s troops.
The Syrian minister of national reconciliation said the military operation against armed militias was “satisfactory and progressive,” the website albawaba.com reported. The minister, Ali Haidar, made the remarks at a press conference in Damascus.
Commenting on the new mission of the joint special representative of the UN and the Arab League for Syria, Lakhdar Brahimi, Haidar said Syria was trying to “fully cooperate” with the envoy.