Much at Stake for Turkey: Border Violence Meant to Be a Defining Point

By Ramzy Baroud

‘We expected a greater Turkish response than this, but you know, every country has its own special affairs.’ Taken alone, the remarks by Bashir Hajjo, introduced by BBC Arabic TV last Thursday as the spokesperson of the Tawhid Brigade, are no cause for alarm, except, of course, when placed within context. By “we”, Hajjo was referring to the Tawhid Brigade — and other rebel groups — perceived as a division in the loosely-defined Free Syrian Army (FSA).

Based on Hajjo’s forthright remarks, one can effortlessly deduce that the Tawhid spokesperson was disappointed by the meek Turkish response to mortar shells originating from Syria. The shells fell on a Turkish border town, killing five, including three children. Hajjo perhaps expected an all-out Turkish military intervention in Syria. Some deem that as one of few options that could break the deadlock in fighting between the Syrian army, which is still largely loyal to the regime of Bashar Al Assad and the thousands of fighters dedicated to the Baath regime elimination.

Turkey’s Anatolia news agency reported of an official Syrian apology soon after the shelling, but circumstances remain hazy. The Syrian government promised an investigation, the seriousness of which remains doubtful. The Turkish military was quick to retaliate, as the parliament voted to extend a one-year mandate to the military in order carry out cross-border military action. Irrespective of the skirmishes on the Syria border, the mandate was originally aimed at Kurdish fighters in northern Iraq and it had already been set for a pre-scheduled vote in mid-October. Many in the media overlooked the recent history of the mandate and placed it entirely in relevance to the ongoing violence in Syria. Some wished to see it as a declaration of war.

Turkey’s Deputy Prime Minister, Besir Atalay, asserted that the authorization was not a declaration of war. It was an assurance that was then repeated by Turkish Prime Minister, Recep Tayyip Erdogan, who said that Turkey had no intention of starting a war. But it is all moot now, for Turkey is currently roped into the sinking Syrian boat.

It is possible to trace back Syria’s tragedy and all of its gory details. One is also compelled to assign the blame: The brutality of the regime has been particularly revolting and indefensible. But one would be naive to ignore as extraneous the rush to destroy Syria by regional governments that are as democratic as the apartheid regime of South Africa was fair and nondiscriminatory. What started as an uprising, conspicuously evolved into an armed rebellion and consequently morphed into civil war. If those who are feeding the violence are not somehow extricated from Syria’s political equation, the path ahead for Syria is even grimmer than the last 18 months. And yes, there is still room for greater calamity.

While some fear perpetual conflict, others may welcome it out of desperation or for financial gain. The Syrian leadership, fully mindful of the unspeakable crimes committed in the post-Muammar Gaddafi Libya, know well that the time for a peaceful transition is long gone. The level of vengefulness of the Baath party’s enemies can be seen on numerous videos. They are as difficult to watch as the ruthlessness of the regime itself. The regime will fight to the bitter end, even at the expense of the geographic unity of Syria.

The rebels are hostage to the same logic. But they are also detained by the political agenda and aspiration of other countries in and outside the region. A simple analysis that blames the Syrian National Council (SNC) — established one year ago — for failing to unite behind a clear political agenda is matched by the naivety of accusations lobbed at the FSA. The fact is that the diversions of SNC’s agendas are a mere reflection of the competing agendas of those who fund them. The FSA is even more splintered.

Money invested in sustaining the Syrian war must be astronomical if Syria’s Foreign Minister, Walid Mua’alem, was alone offered $100 million (Dh367.8 million) to defect. Money made in this cruel conflict through an enormous and growing network of political peddlers, middlemen, arms dealers, smugglers and assassins must be quite considerable. To ensure its profitability, the bloody show must go on.

Writing for the Guardian from Aleppo, Gaith Abdul Ahad drew a complex but very telling picture of the fight underway. Men of many languages and nationalities, bands of fighters, each with one or even several translators, roamed the streets. They were fighting against the regime, but at times each other. They are known as the “muhajiroun brothers”. A single paragraph drew an unmistakable portrait of what many in the media insist on depicting in simple terms: “Abu Omar (“the Chechen”) gave an order in Arabic, which was translated into a babble of different languages — Chechen, Tajik, Turkish, French, Saudi dialect, Urdu …”

Speaking of FSA and of an independent political body can be misleading. It is meant to create an impression that Syria will not fall into the same bottomless chaos suffered by Iraq after the US invasion in 2003. Paul Bremer, the then Iraq governor from the US, had disbanded the Iraqi Baath party, the army and most of the country’s institutions. But Iraq is yet to emerge out of its protracted nightmare. Syria will suffer an even worse fate because there is no powerful authority to centralize efforts and promote for a definite political agenda. Without political centrality, Syria will serve as a point of departure to all sorts of regional conflicts for many years to come.

With few genuinely championing political solutions (Egypt’s Mohammad Mursi’s initiative was partly shot down by his own contradictions), opportunists are doing their best to ensure that no non-violent resolution is possible. Weakening Iran is a unifying call for some. Plots are hatched regularly to achieve that end. A recent decision by Washington to remove the Mujahideen-e-Khalq (MEK) from its terrorist list, was hardly removed from the turmoil in the region. Neither is a more recent call by Israeli Foreign Minister, Avigdor Lieberman, for an Arab Spring that must be supported — most likely by some of the powers at work in Syria.

Lieberman must be content to watch Turkey getting entangled in the bloody Syrian mire. Until recently, Turkey was an avowed enemy to his country’s regional ambitions. Turkey is of course responsible for many of its decisions concerning Syria. It should have not allowed its infinite fears of Kurdish empowerment in northeastern Syria to blind it from basic political wisdom. Its border nightmare is likely to double. Erdogan has much soul-searching to do as he serves his last term as the head of The Justice and Development Party, which saw Turkey’s political evolution and economic rise. Turkey’s “zero problems” with neighbors policy has been shot and buried at the Syrian border, but the alternative cannot possibly be feeding a conflict that promises no end in sight. Too many people have died that way.

Middle East historian and political scientist Jeremy Salt advised Turkey in a recent article to “get out of this mess without delay … to get back to where it was and begin the process of repairing the damage done to relations with near neighbors.” There are many of course, who would advise Turkey otherwise. The border violence is meant to be a defining point that will make or break Erdogan’s legacy and the future appeal of his party.

– Ramzy Baroud ( is an internationally syndicated columnist and the editor of His latest book is My Father Was a Freedom Fighter: Gaza’s Untold Story (Pluto Press, London).

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