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Turkey's Support for Syrian Opposition Under Fire

  • Dorian Jones

Syrians cross back into Syria at the Turkish Cilvegozu border, opposite the Syrian commercial crossing point Bab al-Hawa, in Reyhanli, Hatay province, May 14, 2013.

Syrians cross back into Syria at the Turkish Cilvegozu border, opposite the Syrian commercial crossing point Bab al-Hawa, in Reyhanli, Hatay province, May 14, 2013.

The twin car bombings Saturday in the town of Reyhanli, near Turkey's border with Syria, killed 48 and injured more than 100, and have increased fears that Turkey is being dragged into Syria's civil war. The Turkish government is facing growing criticism for its support of the Syrian opposition.

Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan has emerged as one of the most vocal leaders in the region supporting the uprising against Syria's Bashar al-Assad.

But when the violence crossed over onto Turkish soil with this past weekend's bombings, public criticism of the Turkish government's involvement in the conflict next door became more vocal.

Cengiz Aktar, a political scientist at Istanbul's Bahcesehir University, says the bombings have increased public concern over the government's policy of supporting the Syrian rebels.

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"No such bombing has ever happened in this soil of this country before. And many people see (it) as the indirect consequence of Turkey's Syria policy. I think what worries people is that Turkey can be dragged in(to) the conflict. And people are afraid that similar bombings may happen anywhere now in the country," Aktar said.

Following Saturday's bombings in Reyhanli, protests against the government were held in the Turkish border town of Antakya and the capital Ankara.

And, on Monday, the people of Reyhanli protested against the government.

Stung by the growing criticism, Prime Minister Erdogan defended his policy, warning the bombers' intention was to sow division.

The purpose of these attacks, he said, was to create "animosity and disorder" inside Turkey and place "question marks in the minds of my people."

Observers say it is unlikely Turkey's government will change its policy of supporting the Syrian opposition.

But public concern over the policy may restrict the government's options for retaliating against Damascus, says Sinan Ulgen, head of the Istanbul-based research institute Edam.

"I don't think there is public support at all towards a direct military confrontation with Syria. But when a bomb exploded at the Turkish-Syrian border, the reaction on the Turkish side had been to send special ops teams to go after the perpetrators of that attack, and those people were brought back to Turkey," Ulgen said.

When Syrian refugees first entered Turkey in 2011, they were largely well received. But attitudes have since soured. In the aftermath of the Reyhanli attack, Syrian refugees in Turkey were reportedly attacked along with their cars and homes.

Analyst Ulgen says the violence indicates a worrying trend.

"What we have seen after the terrorist attack was an attack on Syrian refugees, which was held under control. But nonetheless there is a clear sign of tension in the provinces where those Syrian refugees are, between the local population and the Syrian refugees. So this is certainly an area of the concern, and the government must find ways managing this social tensions," Ulgen said.

Observers warn that, with Syrian refugees streaming over the border, tensions between refugees and local Turks are likely to grow. Meanwhile, Ankara has urged other nations to act against the Assad government.

On Monday, U.S. President Barack Obama and British Prime Minister David Cameron reaffirmed their determination to achieve a negotiated solution to end Syria's civil war, through a hoped-for peace conference.
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