Syrian Conflict Nears Turkey, Threatening to Spark Ethnic Upheaval

The explosions near the Syrian border that claimed 46 lives exacerbated tensions between between locals and Syrian refugees - and among Hatay Province's ethnic groups.

Ethnic tensions among Turkey's ethnic groups and between Turkish citizens and Syrian refugees came to a head after twin car bombings killed 46 people and wounded more than 100 in the Turkish border city of Reyhanli Saturday. The bombings occurred days before Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan’s planned trip to Washington Thursday to discuss with United States President Barack Obama how to prevent the Syrian civil war from undermining stability in the entire region.

Turkish citizens in Reyhanli shouted at Syrian refugees gathered to aid those wounded in the inferno of the bomb blasts Saturday, telling them to get out of town. Syrian doctors who work in the local hospital were asked to hastily return to their homes and drivers who arrived in the city with cars from Syria were asked to remove their Syrian license plates. The lethal twin blasts quickly drew hundreds of Turkish soldiers and police to the city, which straddles the Turkish-Syrian border, fearing not only an outbreak of violence against thousands of Syrian refugees, but also the eruption a sectarian war in Turkey's Hatay Province.

The province is home to a mosaic of different ethnic groups and languages. Arabic-speaking Turkish citizens live there – both Sunni Muslims and Alawites (who are not identical to Syrian Alawites) – along with Kurds and other minorities. Together, they have lived routine lives for decades, even though some of them view the region as a “stolen” part of Syria, which Turkey annexed in 1939.

Thousands of Syrians have joined the region’s local population in the past two years, adding to the 300,000 to 350,000 Syrian refugees now living in Turkey. Local residents have claimed in Turkish media that the refugees have begun to act as if they control the area, instead of like guests. "They have eaten in restaurants without paying," residents told Turkish media. "They have received medical care at the expense of area residents while Turkish citizens have been forced to wait and they have brought with them the social ills of Syrian society including prostitution and drug trafficking."

The tension between the refugees and residents has thickened as Turkish citizens have accused the refugees, who have unrestricted freedom of movement, of theft and robbery, harassing women and, more fundamentally, upsetting the demographic balance of the province. Most of the refugees are Sunni Muslims, while a large portion of the province's Turkish residents are Alawite, who in contrast with the Turkish government, support the Assad regime and have even held several demonstrations in support of the Syrian regime.

Sunni Turkish citizens have claimed that the Assad regime is trying to recruit Turkish Alawites to the Syrian civil war or at least as intelligence agents to report on the movement of Syrian refugees. The result is that the tension and suspicion that characterize relations between the refugees and Turkish citizens have begun affecting relations between Turkish Alawites and Sunnis, contributing to several violent brawls between the two Turkish groups.

The Turkish reconciliation initiative with the Kurdistan Workers' Party, known by its initials as the PKK, has been recently added to this volatile brew. The plan has provoked opposition among nationalistic Turkish elements as well as Kurdish extremists. In line with the plan, armed Kurds began leaving the country, and when the process ends, negotiations will begin regarding the package of rights Turkey's Kurds will receive to strengthen their cultural identity. This plan is perceived by nationalist groups as a Turkish surrender to terror and as "abandoning the blood that was spilled.” They do not believe it will bring peace and tranquility to the country. Within Turkey's ruling Justice and Development Party, many believe these groups have an interest in undermining the country’s stability, as evidenced by the continuing terror activities. Even before Erdogan singled out "Syrian elements" or Syria's intelligence agency, the Mukhabarat, he said someone wanted to undermine the reconciliation process and this person was responsible for the terror attacks.

In the meantime, one of Erdogan's deputies, Besir Atalay, reported that Turkish intelligence already knows who carried out the terror attacks and that they were Turkish citizens not Syrians. This contrasts with a statement by Erdogan's other deputy prime minister, Bulent Arınc, who stated that the identity of the attackers is still being ascertained. But it is not the identity of those who carried out the attack that is important, but who planned the attacks and why.

The finger of blame is pointed toward Syria as the party with a direct interest in exporting its own war to its neighbors, particularly Turkey and Jordan, to prove Assad's claim that without him the entire region will go up in flames. But even if this hypothesis is correct, there are more than a few Turkish figures who want to utilize the terror attacks to promote their own political agendas. This is what concerns Erdogan, who is preparing for his trip to Washington Thursday, where he will meet with U.S. Presidents Barack Obama.

Erdogan will try to persuade Obama to expand American involvement in Syria and announce the establishment of no-fly zones on Syrian territory to aid in the creation of sanctuary areas for Syrian refugees. Only in this way, Erdogan thinks, will it be possible to return Syrian refugees from neighboring states and cool off the volcano that is about to blow in Lebanon, Turkey and Jordan. It appears that this time Erdogan will succeed in persuading Obama, given that the American administration has already recognized the need to provide military aid to the Syrian opposition and that the odds are low that an international conference will be convened to solve the crisis, as was jointly proposed by U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry and Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov.