The Syrian regime has returned once more to the practice of using car bombs against its opponents. This time it has dared to do so along its borders with Turkey, sending a new message that it feels confident and will not hesitate to intimidate and threaten even its huge northern neighbor. There is a sense of confidence that Ankara will not engage in a war with the Syrian regime, after it has adopted a policy of caution for more than a year and a half.
The explosion at Bab al-Hawa a few days ago targeted Syrian opposition figures and killed at least 14 people, including Turks. It was clearly orchestrated by the Assad regime, with the Syrian information minister threatening Turkey two days before the explosion.
The irony here is that Turkish prime minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan was the first to condemn the brutality of the Assad regime at the beginning of the revolution-around two years ago-before the rebels resorted to arms. At the time, the Turkish leader was viewed as a hero by many Syrians and Arabs because he stood against Assad’s violence. But after confrontations escalated, the brutality of the regime increased, and the number of those killed by the regime-mostly civilians-became more alarming, Ankara’s voice was dampened and limited to verbal protests. Since then, a year and a half later, the Assad regime has dared to defy its northern neighbor on several occasions, either verbally or through acts of murder, as was the case a few days ago.
Syria’s land area is little more than a quarter of its huge Turkish neighbor. The Ottomans ruled Syria, their Arab gate, for centuries as a subordinate state. Yet by the end of World War I they had withdrawn after the establishment of Turkey. However, the fear of the Turkish neighbor remained prominent in the minds of the Syrian leaders that successively ruled Damascus. Hafez al-Assad was the most recent Syrian ruler to feel the heat of Turkish threats in the 1990s, when he saw Turkish tanks approaching the Bab al-Hawa border. He immediately sought to cease the activities of the armed Kurdish-Turkish opposition, and handed over its leader Abdullah Öcalan.
Another irony is that the ice of this frosty relationship did not melt until the era of President Bashar and Prime Minister Erdogan. The latter extended his hand and tried to assimilate his Arab neighbor with modern ideas and serious economic and political projects. The problem was that Bashar Assad, who is famed for his policy of playing on multiple strings, reached a dead end with all the countries he tried to outfox. Qatar, which was once one of his main allies, was the last of the countries to sever relations. As many remember, the Turkish prime minister attempted out of loyalty to extend a lifeline to Assad at the beginning of the revolution, to help him emerge from the crisis. Assad, however, turned his back on the Turks. And although Turkey repeatedly warned Assad against armed violence, its government then decided to retreat and remain neutral, apart from providing humanitarian aid to refugees and overlooking some of the Syrian rebel’s activities, especially after they seized two border crossings and vast areas in northern Syria.
It is clear that at the beginning, Erdogan sincerely attempted to help Syria and the regime avoid the tragedy we are witnessing today. But Assad is not a leader capable of making historic decisions, and this is how the country has descended into civil war. It is clear that Assad’s plan is based on an acknowledgement of defeat. He will drag the Iranian and Iraqi regimes behind him as he withdraws to the coast and establishes his state there, leaving chaos and jihadi extremists behind him. He is benefitting from Turkey’s refusal to interfere as he sows problems for the next ten years, inciting sectarian strife in northern, eastern, and western Syria. He will retreat towards the Mediterranean Sea to the home of the Alawites the sect that he has taken hostage and implicated in his crimes against the Syrian people.