On May 11, two powerful car bombs ripped through the Turkish town of Reyhanlı on the Syrian border, killing at least 51 people. This was not only the worst cross-border spillover of the Syrian conflict to date—it was also the deadliest terror attack in Turkey’s recent history.
But if you were watching Turkish television or reading the national papers the next day, you could be forgiven for thinking that nothing had happened in Reyhanlı. Dominating the airwaves instead were the season finale of a popular talent show and the derby match between Fenerbahçe and Galatasaray (which was marred by racial slurs against Gala’s Ivorian star striker, Didier Drogba, and the fatal stabbing of a teenage Fener supporter).
This is because immediately after the bombings, a local court imposed a media blackout on all reporting from and about Reyhanlı, which the Justice and Development Party (AKP) government supported. Two journalists were subsequently detained while documenting the extent of the devastation, while police clashed with and arrested scores of demonstrators protesting the attack in the northwestern town of İzmit.
How can we make sense of this horrific act of violence and the government’s reaction to it? In an apparent justification of the blackout, Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdoğan suggested that the attack had been an attempt to derail the “sensitive process” of reconciliation between the Turkish state and the Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK). Indeed, in a potentially historic turning point for the three-decade conflict, PKK fighters in Turkey have begun withdrawing to their bases in northern Iraq as part of a ceasefire agreed in March. Mindful of the fact that previous ceasefires were sabotaged by spectacular acts of violence that led to popular outbursts of nationalistic fervour, the government’s desire to keep a lid on provocative news reporting might be understandable.
But what Reyhanlı reveals—and the government seems eager to conceal—is not really about the Kurds or the PKK. (The pro-Kurdish Peace and Democracy Party declared solidarity with the government shortly after the attack.) It is about Syria, and Turkey’s involvement in its civil war.
Within hours of the bombings, a succession of Turkish officials placed the blame on the government of Bashar Al-Assad, the AKP’s friend-turned-foe. The interior ministry then announced that suspects with links to Syrian intelligence had been detained. This sequence of events raises a number of important questions.
According to the interior minister, the authorities had been alerted to plans for a terrorist attack in the area as early as May 8. Since it took less than a day to apprehend the culprits, we must ask whether the attack could have been averted in the first place. Moreover, if there was a breach of security—as there seems to have been—was it merely accidental, or could it have been intentional? There is still no news on whether there will be a thorough public investigation to identify what went wrong and hold those who are responsible—if there are any—to account.
Crucially, we do not know the primary target of the attacks. It may have been the Turkish government, or the local population of Reyhanlı, which has had an increasingly tense relationship with the growing number of Syrian refugees resident in the town. Alternatively, the twin blasts may have been directed at the refugees themselves, who count among their ranks fighters from the Free Syrian Army (FSA) and the Al-Qaeda-affiliated Al-Nusra Front.
What does the bombing say of the Turkish government’s performance of its duty to safeguard its borders and protect its citizens? This is an especially timely question, since members of the Al-Nusra Front have become an atrocious fighting force challenging the already-flimsy authority of the FSA. Is the Turkish government allowing Al-Nusra fighters and Syrian intelligence agents to freely roam across its borders? If, as it is claimed, the Syrian government has the ability to carry out such a spectacular attack inside Turkey after successfully passing through the ostensibly rebel-controlled border region, the attack could be telling of the present course of the Syrian civil war and the likely success of the Turkish (and Western) policy of supporting the anti-Assad opposition.
In the absence of mainstream media coverage of the developments, the dissemination of pictures and reports from Reyhanlı, as well as the public debate on Syria in general, has been taking place in online discussion forums and social networking sites. On the positive side, this demonstrates yet again the difficulty of keeping the public in the dark in the age of Facebook and Twitter. The social media can also be an effective platform for dissent: creative and poignant expressions of criticism (such as the images created by bobiler.org) have been shared thousands of times within the space of a few hours.
On the negative side, it underlines the crucial need for a traditional media that is perceived as sufficiently credible, independent and trustworthy. As the Reyhanlı case has shown, its absence can easily give rise to the dangerous polarization of opinions based on viral rumors, conspiracy theories and false news stories. One of the most widely shared stories on Facebook involved a post that quoted non-existing reports from Western sources like the BBC, The Telegraph and Le Monde, claiming that the Syrian rebels were behind the bombings and that the casualties had exceeded 200.
By trying to stifle the discussion on Syria the Turkish government risks contributing to a toxic atmosphere of public paranoia and delusion, where rival camps do not merely differ in their interpretation of the facts, but believe in totally different facts altogether. What Turkey urgently needs is a healthy and constructive debate on its Syria policy and how the looming train wreck can be prevented. Permitting an open evaluation of its decisions would only strengthen the AKP government, not weaken it. And, surely, an atmosphere of dialogue and openness is necessary if one hopes to see peace and reconciliation at the end of this “sensitive process.”