The focus of Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdoğan’s May 16 talks with US President Barack Obama may be on Syria, but with public rage growing in Turkey over two deadly car bombs in the Syrian-border town of Reyhanlı, the chief aim of the discussion now may be how to limit a potential Turkish domestic backlash.
Worryingly for the Turkish government, the May 10 attacks, which killed 51 and injured over a hundred, have put its policy of strongly backing both the political and armed Syrian opposition under critical domestic scrutiny. “The bombing will have significant political repercussions,” warned Sinan Ülgen, head of the Istanbul-based Center for Economic and Foreign Policy Studies, known as EDAM. “What the bombing did is actually to lay bare the risks involved in Turkey’s Syria policy, which is already, to start with, not a popular policy. The people blame this strong assertive Syrian policy for putting the lives of Turkish people at risk.”
Thirteen people, all Turkish citizens allegedly linked to illegal leftist groups with strong ties to the Syrian regime, have been detained in connection with the blasts, which Ankara blames on Syrian intelligence. One of the implicated groups, the Marxist DHKP-C, took responsibility for February’s suicide attack on the US embassy in Ankara. (Like Damascus, it denies involvement in the Reyhanlı bloodshed.)
Against that backdrop, Erdoğan is expected to use the Reyhanlı attacks as leverage for a more robust American stance against Damascus.
“Syria was going to be [the] number-one issue on the agenda,” commented political scientist Çengiz Aktar of Istanbul’s Bahçeşehir University. “Now with the bombing, it will dominate the talks, and the prime minister’s message will be ‘now is the time to act’ to prevent the conflict spreading across the borders.”
Erdoğan made clear ahead of his four-day US visit that he expects President Obama to take such steps. But with diplomatic efforts to resolve the Syrian civil war recently re-energized, few in Turkey expect any immediate change in US policy.
Rather, the bombing may play instead into President Obama’s hand as he looks to Ankara to persuade the skeptical Syrian opposition coalition to join a peace conference next month that could include Syrian government officials. The Turkish government’s increasing domestic vulnerability on Syria could weaken any power of resistance against such appeals.
Even though few voices question Damascus’ role in the May 10 attack, protests in and around Reyhanlı, as well as in Ankara, have all targeted the Turkish government. “We don’t want war in our country,” read one protestor’s banner. Other demonstrators chanted “Syria will be Erdoğan’s grave.”
Realizing the attack’s potentially far-reaching repercussions, the government has gone into damage-control mode. The Turkish Radio and Television Supreme Council, the state body that regulates the media, is still enforcing strict controls on reporting about the car bombings. While traditional media have complied with government restrictions, social media networks, featuring eyewitness accounts and commentary, have become an outlet for rising public anger.
The strength of those emotions is seen as a factor behind Prime Minster Erdoğan’s unprecedented decision not to visit the site of the attack. On May 13, Kemal Kilicdaroğlu, the leader of Turkey’s main opposition group, the Republican People’s Party, jumped into the void by traveling to Reyhanlı, but the visit received scant media coverage.
The government, though, could not escape the wrath of opposition-party leaders in their weekly-televised addresses to their parliamentary deputies. In a rare show of unity on May 14, all targeted the government’s Syria policy. “The AKP [Justice and Development Party] government should apologize to the Turkish nation for its Syria policy, which has been destroyed,” thundered Devlet Bahçeli of the right-wing National Action Party.
The government “has to retaliate quickly to assuage public anger,” underlined analyst Ülgen, adding that Erdoğan’s options for dispersing this political head of steam are few. “There is little public support for military action and the government cannot change its Syrian policy because then it would have to admit it was wrong.”
One potential alternative to military action against Damascus would be to capture those accused of organizing the attack, which Turkey claims are residing in Syria. Such an operation would hardly be precedent-setting: Turkish special forces collaborated with Syrian rebels to capture the alleged perpetrators of February’s fatal car bombing at a Turkish-Syrian border crossing.
Speaking to reporters on May 13, Erdoğan seemed to play for time. ”We won’t fall for the trap, but we will give the necessary response at the necessary time. We will not refrain from this. Everybody needs to know this.”
But Turkish newspapers are awash with grim predictions. “It is unfortunately possible that Reyhanlı-like incidents may be repeated,” warned Radikal newspaper’s political columnist Çengiz Candar. Such a prospect could now make any solution to the Syrian conflict attractive to Ankara.
Dorian Jones is a freelance reporter based in Istanbul.