Lethal explosions in a Turkish border town at the weekend highlight the dilemma Turkey faces over Syria as Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan prepares to discuss the issue with Barack Obama.
Officials on Sunday blamed Syrian intelligence and Turkish collaborators for Saturday’s car bomb blasts in the town of Reyhanli, which killed at least 46 people and left many more wounded. The authorities said nine people, all Turkish nationals, had been arrested, including the mastermind of the attack.
In comments that seemed to hint at the dangers of a military response and inter-ethnic clashes, Mr Erdogan called for patience and restraint. “We have to be extremely calm against all kinds of provocations that are trying to pull us into the swamp in Syria,” he said.
Although Damascus denied all involvement, Muammer Guler, Turkey’s interior minister, said the investigation had revealed the attack – which damaged 735 shops, 121 homes and 62 vehicles – was carried out by a “terrorist organisation in close contact with the Mukhabarat Syrian intelligence agency”.
Reyhanli shelters many Syrian refugees, but most of the casualties were Turkish.
“This really does put Turkey in a tight spot,” said Soli Ozel, at Istanbul’s Kadir Has university, who argued that Ankara lacked the intelligence and electronic capabilities that allowed Israel to strike Syria this month and had more to fear from escalation of the violence.
“It shows Turkey’s vulnerabilities . . . Turkey is now more fully part of the Syrian civil war.”
Ankara is constrained by the domestic unpopularity of its stance on Syria, with opposition leaders responding to the attacks by immediately calling on the government to review its policy.
As well as taking in an estimated 300,000-450,000 refugees, the country is also one of the most prominent backers of both the political and military opposition to Bashar al-Assad’s regime, with particularly strong ties to Muslim Brotherhood groups.
But, despite almost two years of campaigning against Mr Assad and increased tension with his ally, Tehran, Ankara has found it difficult to respond to a series of deadly incidents, instead urging the US to take the lead, as Mr Erdogan is expected to do at a White House meeting with Mr Obama on Thursday.
Turkey has responded in only a limited fashion to events over the past year that have included Syria shooting down a Turkish jet, the deaths of Turkish citizens in cross-border artillery fire and a car bomb in February, which killed 14 people on the frontier itself
“We want the US to assume more responsibilities and take further steps . . . We are going to talk about this,” Mr Erdogan told NBC television last week. He added that it was “clear” the Syrian regime had used chemical weapons and missiles, crossing a “red line” set by Mr Obama, and said Turkey had long backed a no-fly zone.
To date, however, Mr Obama’s administration has shown little appetite for direct military involvement. Although US officials have raised the possibility of supplying weapons to Syria’s rebels, as Gulf states do through Turkish territory, the focus of Washington’s activity is a joint effort with Russia to convene an international conference on Syria.
Speaking on Sunday, Ahmet Davutoglu, Turkey’s foreign minister, said the same perpetrators were behind the attack in Reyhanli and the recent mass killings reported in the coastal areas of Syria, which activists say were directed by regime forces.
“Whoever committed the Baniyas massacre organised these bombings,” Mr Davutoglu said, describing Saturday’s attack as a provocation intended to turn Syrian refugees into scapegoats.
Syrians in Turkey said they were fearful of being attacked in the area. “People have warned us to stay away from Reyhanli,” said one. “It’s not safe for us.”
Additional reporting by Abigail Fielding-Smith in Beirut