Conflict Between Turkey and Syria – Everything You Need to Know

This article is written to clear up some misunderstandings about the situation, and misinformation created abroad by biased media organizations like BBC. So, if you are living in Turkey, and following up with the latest events carefully, you might not want to read them again, but some comments of mine might help understanding the recent events. If you have no idea about the region, nor about the recent events, I urge you to go on reading.

Bashar Al-Assad has been massacring Syrian people. He had basically “inherited” the country from his father like a toy, and he satisfies all of the criteria to declare someone a “dictator”. Especially after the movements called “the Arab Spring” that began in Northern African countries, he promised he will apply some reforms, to gain more time in his dictatorship. There has been no significant reforms since then. An armed group called the Free Syrian Army, supported by Muslim Brothers and some other Sunni Muslim organizations (we are going to come back to this issue) rebelled against the Assad regime. They are trying to overthrow Assad by force, while Assad’s forces are attacking many districts harboring the FSA members and supporters.

The area is not at ease right now, and Assad’s forces do not seem to care who they attack, even for unarmed civilians. On the other hand, there have been many sources claiming that the FSA is pressuring local people to rebel against Assad’s regime, and threatening the lives of civilians who do not want to take part in the armed conflict. Many civilians who are still in the area, or escaped from the area confirm these claims. Other than this information, I assure you, no one seems to know what is going on there. But we know that people are dying, so, to say that -as a neighbor country- Turkey has nothing to do with the situation would be definitely wrong. It is a humane response to intervene with Syria’s internal matters if people are dying. The situation is also threatening the overall peace and security in the region.

However, the nature of the intervention is also important. Turkey is claimed to be supporting the FSA with weapons. After the recent events, Syrian administration put it clearly and said: “Turkish border is a long one, and Turkey should not support terrorist organizations by providing them with weapons, letting terrorists through our border. Syria respects its neighbors’ solidarity and security, and expects the same from them for itself.” Turkey, for many months now, has been a temporary home for the rebels who had claimed that their lives were in danger. This is also a humane response, and a logical/legal one. On the other hand, we know and see people on news shows with their guns in their hands, on Turkish soil. They come and go for interviews, etc. Technically, we are harboring “armed” people who have been declared as terrorists by the Syrian state, and letting them through the border, into Syria, which is -again- wrong. It is any country’s duty for humanity to help people in need, but if there is an armed conflict, the action to take is not to support one armed group, but to try to take the word “armed” out of the conflict, and doing it responsibly.

Turkey recently established “temporary” camps for the Syrian opposition. I gave some details above. These camps seem to be in very good conditions, which is also the correct way. The temporary-asylum seekers are given shelter, their basic needs are satisfied, and they are provided with prepaid cards to buy food and other materials from local stores. The objections of the local people start with these details. When a significantly big earthquake hit the Eastern province of Van, and the government could not provide and distribute the tents and the disaster relief material properly, they said “we were trying our potential.” Especially local people got angry with the issue of helping Syrian citizens, while -according to them- the government could not, and did not help its own citizens properly. The local people are wrong in this, but so is the government. It is only natural to help people in need. The “incorrect” behavior is not “helping Syrians”, it is “not helping Turkish citizens.” However, as natural as helping people in need is, the public did not take it easily, seeing that Turkey is pretty much able to quickly help tens of thousands of people on demand, and chose to try its other potentials when it came to its own citizens.

Local citizens’ conflict with the temporary-asylum seekers do not end with the reasons above. Again, according to many reports from the region, most of them reliable, the Syrian refugees are witnessed to attack local police officers, insult and bully local shopkeepers, etc. They are recorded to be wearing military uniforms in the camps, and carrying weapons. Local restaurant and shop owners say they do not accept Syrians to their restaurants and shops because they refuse to pay for the goods and services they get. Many locals claim that the Syrian refugees behave like they have established a new small country in the camps, and they are constantly bullying the locals. Turkey seems to be helping them “just enough”, while the refugees seem to want more and more, and demanding additional privileges above the local citizens. They go to hospitals and ask for extra treatments not included in the relief plan and “bully” doctors and hospital employees when they cannot get these treatments for free. They also do not want doctors who are Alevites. They offend the Alevite citizens who constitute the most of the population in the area, because the Assad family and regime represents Nusayris, who are basically Alevites. In this sense, a significantly big additional population constantly bullying the local, established population because of discriminatory reasons even increases the locals’ reactions and attitudes towards refugees. Refugees who are wearing military uniforms, and carrying guns. They are also known to have taken the Turkish flag down at the camps, and taken up their own flag. This is a really serious issue for the conservative Turkish population, and as far as I know, a very strong offense against a country’s solidarity, therefore a crime in terms of international law.

A photo from the day when the Syrian refugees took police officers as hostages and replaced the Turkish flag with their own.

After all these arguments and conflicts, the Syrians were given rights to continue their education in local universities, which is also a humanitarian, legal and logical action. But because of the conflicts mentioned above, and some misinformation in the media, the distance between the refugees and the entire society of Turkish citizens even grew bigger. And again, about the education thing, let us also note that some Syrian students already residing in Turkey were kicked out of their universities because they supported the Assad regime, at least so they claim. Some of them claim that they were forcefully removed from their homes and were being taken to the Hizbullah (to be killed), but they somehow managed to go back to their country. At this point, it is much more obvious that the Turkish government has already taken a side, and is taking political decisions against civilians who have nothing to do with the armed conflict. You may have noticed that I repeatedly used the word “temporary” in front of the phrases like “asylum seekers” above. Currently, the people in the mentioned camps are not granted rights to asylum. They have “extendable temporary visa” to enter the country. So, they are “probably” going to return to their country in the case that the FSA takes over the country. This might explain why they do not try hard to get along with the locals. Now, to the issue of what happened in the last few weeks…

Akçakale, a small town in the Southeastern city of Şanlıurfa, is just near Turkey’s border with Syria. As the armed conflict between Assad’s military and the FSA goes on, it is pretty noticeable from this side of the border. For the last few weeks, many bullets coming from the Syrian side were found on walls, agricultural areas, and areas that do not have many people living on. This was, yes, a threat against Turkish citizens’ security in the area, but did not take much attention as the bullets were not found in largely populated areas. Last week, again very close to the border, a village was thrown into panic by an accident -supposedly. A shell from a cannon hit a building, fortunately not harming any people. Turkey warned Syria that it will not tolerate anything that threatens the safety of its citizens. Syria chose to play blind, and said there were not such troops of the Assad regime in the area to cause such an accident. Bullets and shrapnel pieces continued to fall on Turkish soil. The affected area was not evacuated. Then two days ago, the town of Akçakale was shelled, and the shell was coming from the same place: Syria. The shelling caused five deaths and thirteen injuries. The Turkish troops shelled 16 points in Syria which are said to be the points the shelling came from, about 50 times, as a response.

The North Atlantic Treaty Organization, the United Nations, and many countries condemned the attack. The Prime Minister, Recep Tayyip Erdoğan immediately proposed a measure to allow a cross-border operation against Syria. The measure was discussed and voted for yesterday. It passed by a significantly higher rate of votes in the Grand National Assembly. Many people were opposed to it, because they did not want any kind of war including Turkey. I am also against any kind of war including any country, but at this point, the passing of the measure was necessary. The measure does not imply any kind of action that leads to “declaring war” against Syria. It basically means “I will cross your border, and respond to you in kind, that is, if you get aggressive again.” For some experts, the response of Turkey for the last incident was not “lawful defense”. Because, according to international laws and agreements, an act of this scale does not constitute an “armed attack”. However, international community, and organizations like NATO, UN, etc., and some countries seem to accept the response as “lawful defense”, but, as the NATO meetings about the situation was on the ambassadors level, it does not seem to require a response pursuant to the 5th article of the North Atlantic Treaty, according to NATO. For the ones who have no idea, the 5th article is as it follows:

The parties agree that an armed attack against one or more of them in Europe or North America shall be considered an attack against them all and consequently they agree that, if such an armed attack occurs, each of them, in exercise of the right of individual or collective self-defence recognised by article 51 of the charter of the United Nations, will assist the party or parties so attacked by taking forthwith, individually and in concert with the other parties, such action as it deems necessary, including the use of armed force, to restore and maintain the security of the North Atlantic Area.

Anyway, from here, it seems the “incident” was considered an “armed attack”, but its significance and application to the 5th article was not agreed upon. So, here, we should also remember that Syria had shot down a military aircraft of Turkey near its border before. So, this is not the first sign of aggression shown by Syria. The FSA representatives claim that the plane was shot by fire from a Russian base in Syria, and not by the forces of Assad. Combining these facts with the facts above, we can say that the Syrian administration is doing its best to get into a war with Turkey; and if we listen to what some government officials say, Russia is who they trust in. On the other hand, Russia claims it is against any kind of operation towards Syria, which, in the “political” language, pretty much means “if you are in this that way, I am in, too”. On the “other” other hand, Turkey seems to have done its best to get into a war with Syria, too. I wish, like almost everyone wishes, that it had not come this far. But unfortunately it already has, and it cannot be reversed easily.

In this sense, the measure to allow a cross-border operation against Syria was important. As we have “unfortunately” come this far in this, without such a measure, Syria would be “expected to” show new signs of aggression, and Turkey would not have anything to respond to it legally. In such a case, Turkey would again respond in kind, under the name of “lawful defense”, or “self-defense” if you may, but such a potential would not be dissuasive against Syria, who now clearly seems to want a war. With this measure passed, Syria now know that Turkey will be “legally” expected to respond with a much more aggressive cross-border operation, instead of having only the so-called “self-defense” card, which did not prove to be a significant tool of dissuasion. Lastly, Syria said this: “We are sorry for the deaths of people. We will investigate and discuss the issue,” and continued with the explanation of respecting each other’s solidarity and security that I quoted well above. As much as some leaders and media organizations want to interpret so, this was clearly not an apology.

Some international media organizations seem to be purposefully misinform the public about the situation. Especially BBC is giving news stories like Turkish people going into demonstrations against Syria. I will kindly ask you to not be stupid about this. Any Turkish person, or even Google Translate can translate these protests and demonstrations for you. I will shortly explain what they are.

The local protests were not about the local people’s hate and aggression against Syria. They walked to the government buildings to protest the local government who did not evacuate the villages and towns near the border despite the clear threats on their lives. Some of them protested against the FSA, as they thought their country was dragged into a war that has nothing to do with them.

The other protests mostly on the 4th of October was also not against Syria, or out of hate and reaction for Syria. The theme of those protests and demonstrations were basically this: “say no to war.” So, these were people who are against war at any costs and in any way.

If I need to comment on the near future, and I believe I do, I can only try to be optimistic. We still witness much disturbing “footage” where supposedly the FSA or Muslim Brothers members burn, behead or torture people who are either civilian supporters of the Assad regime, impartials who want nothing to do with the conflict, homosexuals, or people converted to Christianity, etc. These organizations do not confute the claims that these violent people belong to their “communities”, nor do they clearly condemn such acts. I see the so-called Arab Spring movement as an act of the public. So, this is what the people want, and giving all the credit to imperialist interference would not be right, and it would be disrespectful to the public in those countries. But, again, clearly, what the public wants is partly “wrong.” Overthrowing dictatorships is good for the long term, but overthrowing them by introducing Sharia is wrong, and the public cannot be more wrong than this about what they want. Introducing any kind of Sharia law to any country requires the minorities that are not Muslims, or that are not in the same sect of İslam to be subjected to İslamic law. So, even if the most humane format of Sharia is applied, these people will be governed by a philosophy they do not in any way support or believe in, and will never be equal to the other citizens who are alright with such an order.

It is obvious that the Free Syrian Army is on its way to bring such an order. It is also obvious that Assad’s regime have been creating problems for the Sunni Muslim citizens, especially recently. But with the current vision of the Free Syrian army, in a case that they have the complete control of the country, then it will be the Nusayri/Alevite citizens who have problems with the order. Now, there does not seem to be any solution to the current internal conflict in Syria that brings relief for all the parties involved. Turkey, as a neighbor country should have tried to supply a more humane, unarmed and democratic solution to the country, instead of promoting a side in an armed conflict, and supporting them with border access.

In this sense, Assad might not want to go down without a “bigger” fight, which might explain why he seems to want an armed conflict with Turkey. He seems to seek sympathy from his allies about such a conflict. So, he even might intend to use this issue to “stay”, and not go anywhere because of the current internal conflict.

Finally, Turkey has many other economic and political internal problems of its own. I do not believe there will be a war in the near future. Any sane and averagely intelligent person living in Turkey can figure out that with the existing problems, an all-out war will make the public suffer.

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