The Syrian government protested loudly when Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan said last August that his government doesn't view what's happening across the border as a foreign problem but rather as a "domestic" one. A year later, Erdogan's words are ringing true, although perhaps not in the way the PM meant them. With the conflict in Syria dragging out and becoming more bloody, the crisis is quickly becoming a domestic issue for Turkey, although not because of what's happening in Syria as much as because of what Syrians are doing inside Turkey.
With the number of Syrian refugees in Turkey approaching 100,000, Ankara has said it is approaching the limit of how many it can accommodate, leaving thousands of Syrian fleeing the violence in their country stranded on the other side of the border. But the Turkish government is now also facing mounting questions about how its dealing with the Syrians already in camps inside the country, particularly those in one called Apaydin, which houses a large number of defected Syrian generals and other high-ranking members of the Syrian army and which has been kept off limits -- not only to journalists but also to Turkish elected officials. A recent delegation of parliamentarians from Turkey's opposition Republican People's Party (CHP) was turned back at the gates of the camp after trying to visit it on Sunday, prompting the party's leader, Kemal Kilicdaroglu, to accuse the government of using the camp to secretly train Syrian opposition forces and to claim that Apaydin is filled with "agents and spies."
Officials from the ruling Justice and Development Party (AKP) have denied that any "secret" activity of military training is taking place at the camp, but as a report from a Bianet.org correspondent who was with the CHP delegation makes clear, it was members of the opposition Free Syrian Army and not Turkish guards that shooed the group away from the camp:
At the camp's gates, some 40 kilometers away from Hatay's Antakya district, the Turkish gendarmerie stands guard, but they seem to possess little initiative beyond opening and closing the entry doors.
When we attempted to shoot photographs of the camp, in fact, FSA troops came out and harried us out of there, also attesting to the gendarmerie's relegation to a passive role in the camp, though we could still take a few shots in the nick of time.
A regional commander from the camp told us the strict measures governing acces to Apaydın were due to reasons of security, and that they did not allow photographs to be taken because the the families of the FSA troops in the camp still continued living in Syria….
….The camps provide military drills, according to Abu Hussein, who said he was the commander of a small FSA contingent. The troops cross into Syria to fight in the morning and return back to Turkey at night, he added.
Besides giving the CHP some useful ammunition against the AKP government, the barring of the party's delegation from the camp has helped fuel what has been a growing debate in Turkey about the impact that the flood of Syrian refugees and fighters is having on the borders region in southern Turkey. As one newspaper columnist suggested recently, the Hatay area near the Syria border is in danger of becoming like what Pakistan's unruly and weapons-filled Peshwar area was during the Afghan mujahideens' fight against the Soviets in the 1980's. And as the Christian Science Monitor's Alexander Christie-Miller points out in an interesting dispatch from the city of Antakya, near the Syrian border, the influx of fighters and refugees in the area is leading to increased tensions. From his report:
Last week, some residents held a protest calling for Syrians to be removed, while Syrian activists told the Monitor they had been called to a meeting with Turkish military and municipal officials and told they would have to leave the city "for their own security." Turkish officials deny such a meeting took place.
“The people of Hatay have lived together for thousands of years without regard for ethnicity or religion,” says Mehmet Ali Edipoglu, a local member of parliament from Mr. Kilicdaroglu’s opposition party. “The fact that attempts for regime change in Syria have turned into a sectarian war is damaging that."
“It’s not the refugees who are coming to Antakya, but the Syrian militants who are being armed by the government to go back into Syria,” he says, describing those living there as "assassins."
At this point, the Turkish government appears to be in a tricky position. While Turks are not opposed to taking in Syrian refugees and offering humanitarian assistance to those fleeing the Assad regime's brutality, the appearance that the government is openly assisting the Syrian opposition militarily and allowing it to operate freely on Turkish soil could easily tap into a widespread public fear about the country being further dragged into the Syrian quagmire. If it doesn't both reign in the activity of the Free Syrian Army and other armed groups and make more transparent what kind of aid it is giving them, the AKP could find its support for the Syrian opposition becoming a major domestic political liability.