Nation & World

Bombs in Turkish border town kill dozens, intensify Turkish-Syrian tensions

A pair of car bombs killed at least 40 people and raised tensions between Turks and Syrians in this city on the Syrian-Turkish border that is a hub for refugees fleeing the fighting and rebels who use the area to resupply fighters inside Syria.

The first of the bombs appeared to target the municipal offices in Reyhanli. A second, larger bomb went off near a traffic circle in a neighborhood that has in the past year become home to thousands of Syrians fleeing the war. The second blast tore off one side of a five-story building and destroyed a number of cars, as well as starting fires.

Some Turkish residents of Reyhanli vented their anger toward Syrians after the blasts. Turks and Syrians both were reportedly among the dead.

“Damn all of you!” one Turkish man shouted at a Syrian man near the site of the second blast, before becoming slightly calmer and urging him to get off the street before someone attacked him.

Down the street from the site of the first explosion, members of the media office for a Syrian rebel group preemptively drew and locked their shutters as Turkish men across the street chased a Syrian man and one person could be observed throwing rocks at cars with Syrian license plates.

No group claimed responsibility for the blasts, though suspicion immediately fell upon the Syrian government and some Turkish officials blamed the Syrian government directly. Nor has there been a claim of responsibility for a car bombing in February at the Syrian-Turkish border crossing a few miles from Reyhanli. That explosion killed 12 people.

About 200,000 Syrians live in refugee camps run by the Turkish government in southern Turkey, and tens of thousands more have come to the area. That’s created tensions particularly in Hatay Province, where Reyhanli is located.

Until 1939, Hatay was a part of Syria, and contains a significant population of Alawites, adherents of the same sect of Islam to which Syria’s ruling family belongs. Perhaps nowhere in Turkey is there greater opposition to the Turkish government’s support of the Syrian rebellion than in Hatay, and particularly so in Antakya, the provincial capital, west of Reyhanli.

Reyhanli, however, does not have a significant Alawite population, and the anger directed at Syrians today was indicative of a more general feeling amongst Turks here that the refugees have brought trouble with them. Some landlords refuse to rent apartments to Syrians, and last year the Turkish government moved to restrict Syrians to the refugee camps, a decision that quickly fell by the wayside as difficult to enforce.

It’s easy for Syrians to cross the border illegally into Turkey, and aid from the Turkish side enters Syria through a number of unofficial border crossings in the province, in addition to the official ones. Even with such lax border controls, the Turkish government is preventing thousands of Syrians from crossing into the country as it lacks sufficient space in the camps.

Earlier this month, Turkish residents of Reyhanli fought with Syrian residents of the city after Syrians burned a Turkish flag there, an act that some Syrians said was carried out by supporters of the Syrian government in a deliberate attempt to stoke tensions.

There also was tension last week on Turkey’s eastern border with Syria, as gunmen from the Syrian side of the border killed two Turkish police officers near Acakale, an event possibly related to cross-border smuggling.

All photos by David Enders