This post was updated twice.
In the Turkish parliament yesterday, I had a conversation with an MP from Hatay, the province on the Syrian border that is hosting many refugees in camps and in local communities and where on May 11 a car bomb killed 51 people. The US media tends to paint the Syrian conflict as a sectarian one between Sunnis and Alawites, but the MP insisted that there is no such split. That there are plenty of Sunnis (as well as other groups like Christians) supporting Assad and that the recent large influx of well-armed radical non-Syrian jihadis financed by Saudi Arabia and the Gulf and, he argued, supported by Turkey, has further driven moderate and secular Sunnis into the Assad camp, or simply into a limbo of fear, not necessarily into the non-jihadi opposition. He believes that if Assad had fallen early on, Syria might not have separated into warring sectarian camps, but elections could have been held. The influx of jihadis, like an invasive virus that is taking over the DNA of the country, makes the prospect of elections seem increasingly impossible. Yet the alternative to retaining a post-Assad government is a chaos of competing armed groups.
The uprising was originally begun by secular liberals who demonstrated for more rights, but these people have long since been decimated by the Assad regime. The resulting violence meant people of all kinds fled for their lives and, in their search for safety and stability, want a stable, non-Assad government, but not a life under the unstable and increasingly radical (“heart-eating”) militias that are fighting Assad.
He and other MPs (including some in the AKP) are very disturbed by Turkish government (and military police) support for these jihadi militias, allowing them into Turkey to cross the border into Syria at will, and, they suspect, allowing them free rein to be predators, especially in Turkish Alevi communities. They point to a recent Red Hack release of Gendarmerie Intelligence documents, the authenticity of which the government has not denied, that were prepared after the Reyhanli bombing and appear to show that the police knew in advance that an operation was being planned against Turkey by anti-government groups in Syria with links to Al-Qaeda. The Turkish government has maintained that the Reyhanli bombings were not related to this and were carried out by individuals linked to the Mukhabarat, the Syrian intelligence agency. An investigation is underway into possible negligence for not preventing the attack.
The take-away is that Syria’s war did not have to be a sectarian war, and that western visions of a new post-Assad government under the leadership of the gangs of ’secular’ and ‘jihadi’ militants, assuming they could tell them apart at this point, is not a formula that would be accepted by Syrians who see themselves as “caught between two devils”. Bringing down the regime (rather than the narrower goal of replacing Assad) is more likely to lead to a failed Syrian state run by jihadist mobs somewhat in the mould of Somalia, rather than a stable, liberal, rebel-led government. It didn’t work in Iraq or Libya, why would we expect it to work in Syria?
But the recent vast increase in Al-Nusra and other franchise jihadi groups (and their support by regional countries working in their own interests, not Syria’s) have undermined any good choices. The most important way to make an awful situation slightly less awful — that is, increase stability and and improve Syrians’ choices — would be to inoculate Syria against the jihadi virus by cutting off their funding, but regrettably outside interests aren’t concerned with the terrified civilians of Syria (much as the Palestinians have been used for decades as a political tool by a variety of countries and organizations who care little for actually resolving their plight).
Meanwhile, Turks on the border are frightened. An MP told me that in a Turkish border town the mayor told the MP that there were foreign Al Nusra jihadis living there and that they were involved in “dark affairs” like making bombs in basements. In the same town, conservative Turkish women dressed in charshaf said they were worried because the jihadis had apparently received a directive to shave their beards, so Turks could no longer easily identify them. In other towns, Turkish Alevis and Christians are moving away, fearing reprisals. They are worried about their extended families in Syria and what might happen if one side or the other “wins”. The Al Qaeda virus is infecting Turkey’s border towns. If it wasn’t a sectarian conflict before, it will be one soon.
Update 2: I’ve received confirmation from a Washington source that indeed Turkey is supporting Sunni jihadis in the Syrian resistance and that these jihadis are already establishing themselves inside Turkey. I should also mention that Lebanese Hezbollah is now waging an outright war in Syria on the side of the Assad regime. so now we have Al-Qaeda-linked and Muslim Brotherhood jihadis fighting Hezbollah as proxies for Sunni versus Shia and Saudi Arabia, Egypt etc versus Iran. As for the Syrian people….