On Wednesday, stray bullets from Syria struck homes and the police station in the Turkish border town of Ceylanpinar, killing two people, including a teenage boy. The following day, the Turkish army returned fire. The incident, following a deadly bomb attack in Reyhanli earlier this summer, fueled widespread fears of further spillover into Turkey.
We asked Gokhan Bacik, an analyst and associate professor of international relations at Ankara’s Ipek University, to weigh in on Turkey’s current stance on Syria.
Syria Deeply: What is the major Syria issue facing the Turkish government?
Gokhan Bacik: Border security — it’s a border of 800 km, which means you need millions of dollars and thousands of people to protect it. There’s no way to protect these borders, it’s too expensive. So first issue is security, and the second is the Kurds. Turkey needs some strong and efficient allies in the region. Is it Iraq? Is it Israel? And part of [its strategy going forward] depends on how the U.S. is going to update its position on Syria.
In the beginning it was the opposition against the Assad regime. Right now it’s about Kurdish autonomy, and the Syrian problem has become very mixed in with other problems. Turkey is realizing that the international community is not in a hurry like Ankara is in dealing with Assad. It’s easy to say that Turkey is trying to help the opposition, but in practice, it’s beyond Turkey’s capacity. Syria is the most difficult item on the Turkish prime minister’s agenda.
SD: Will this week’s events change the Turkish stance on Syria?
GB: It’s now typical, because it’s not the first case. Just after the [Reyhanli] attacks a couple months ago, the prime minister said Turkey had changed engagement rules. But now it’s the sixth, seventh, eighth case [of the fight spilling across the Turkish border]. We have some reports of jets over Turkish areas. It’s not the target, the other side of the border is complicated. There’s no data on who is killing who — [was the spillover] caused by the regime, by the opposition or by Nusra groups? It’s a postmodern situation, very different from what it was before. What the Turkish government is doing [by firing shots back into Syria] is just to satisfy the public.
In general, since the beginning of the conflict, the Turkish public has been against Assad’s regime, but also critical of how Turkey is handling the issue. The general public is not happy about what’s happening in Syria, or about the Kurd issue and the PYD [the Syrian arm of the PKK, Turkey's Kurdish militant group].
SD: If what happened this week was mere spillover, it seems it would be hard for Turkey to justify a larger retaliation than firing warning shots.
GB: There’s a specific public, people living close to the Syrian border, who need a stable environment — like in Gaziantep. So people living close to the border are particularly tense right now. They’re very anxious. In general, the public is not happy about [refugees] crossing the border, about the killing of Turkish citizens. But Turkey cannot fully retaliate. Turkey can fire [across the] border, but the guys who are doing this on [the Syrian side] don’t care about Turkey.
There’s no way for the Turkish army to go into Syria. Reinforcements are now coming in from Pakistan, [so are] some members of the Taliban. There’s no logic on the ground. It’ll be the most important problem for Turkey in the coming years. So will the issue of rising Kurdish autonomy — maybe Turkey is going to be forced to cooperate with the emerging Kurdish authority. The Turkish government is going to first try to give Kurds autonomy. Turkey is unclear on how to deal with PYD-controlled areas.