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Turkey and Syria -- the Boiling Pot and Its Implications

Reyhanli is a town on the Turkish side of the border with Syria. Nothing special to write about this sleepy coastal town, until two days ago that is. Out of the blue, two car bombs exploded there, leaving a trail of blood and misery with 43 innocent civilians dead.

The Turkish government, judging by its official communiqué, had no hesitation as to putting the blame squarely on the Syrian regime of Bashar Assad. The Syrians were quick to deny it, but Syrian announcements of any kind do not seem to have any stock these days with the government of Tayyip Erdoghan in Ankara; which, like Israel, but contrary to the U.S., was adamant in blaming Bashar Assad for using chemical weapons against his own people.

The immediate fallout of the latest outrage revolved around unconfirmed reports about Turkish troop movements in preparation for a full-fledged invasion into Syria. In the case of Syria, tell us who publishes what and we can figure out the authenticity and veracity of news reports. So it is also in this case, as Syrian rebel reports about an impending Turkish attack seem to be premature, though clearly reflecting wishful thinking on the part of the rebels.

In many ways, Turkey is already heavily involved in the civil war, even without any formal declaration of war, but in almost any other measurable and noticeable way. The Turks have many reasons to wish to see another government in Damascus, and at the same time, they also understand the possible implications of a complete breakdown in Syria. They know full well that they could be on the receiving end of some of these implications, for example the creation of an Iraqi-style Kurdish self-rule region in northeast Syria. Such a region is in the making, like it is in the south of Syria, where the Druze minority is preparing itself to the post-Assad era, a potential problem for Jordan and Israel.

But back to Turkey and the Kurds: the Erdoghan government is engaged now in a serious effort to come to some kind of settlement with its own Kurdish rebels, the P.K.K, which declared recently a ceasefire in the decades-long war with Turkey. The history of Turkish-Kurdish relations is one of promises and their violations. No need, at this stage at least, to believe that this time the promise will be fulfilled. Time will tell, but in the meantime the Turks will have to deal with another potential repercussion of the Syrian crisis, and that is the Alawite problem; and with that, we are back in Reyhanli, and with a lot that was not reported about it as extensively as the reports about the two car bombs.

Reyhanli is part of the Turkish province of Hatay, and here is where the story gets more complicated and possibly more ominous. Hatay was called Alexandretta in the past, and was part of the French-mandated Syria after 1920. Situated along the Mediterranean in the northwestern corner of Syria, the province was populated by Sunni Arabs, Turks, Armenian Christians who came as refugees after the genocide of the First World War and also Alawites. Turkey demanded the territory, as of the mid-1930's claiming the right of self-determination of the ethnic Turks in the region.

France, the custodian of the territory on behalf of the Syrian people and the future independent Syrian state betrayed its mandatory obligations and handed the region over to Turkey in 1939. Clearly, the bells of war in Europe and their possible repercussions in the Middle East made it imperative for France to prefer big, independent Turkey over smaller, dependent, weak Syria.

From a Syrian perspective, the loss of Alexandretta added up to the overall sense prevailing there that its territorial integrity was violated due to western imperialistic machinations. But, while not accepting the annexation, successive Syrian regimes resigned to the reality of the fait accompli. Still, the Syrians had a foothold there with hundreds of thousands of Alawites (the Turks never volunteered exact figures) living on the other side of a border cutting them off from the main body of the Alawite people in Syria.

Not much has been known about the dynamics of Turkish-Alawite relations in the newly-established Turkish Province of Hatay. At least one Alawite from Hatay, Zaki Arsuzi, was one of the historic founders of the Syrian Ba'th Party; but in the Turkey of the days prior to the rise of the Islamic A.K.P Party and the Erdoghan government, any ethnic-oriented activity, other than Turkish, was a gross violation of a fundamental principle of the Kemalist legacy.

Yet, things have started to change in recent years, as there were reports about tensions in Hatay, greatly exacerbated by the influx of Syrian refugees and the Alawite-Sunni civil war in Syria, in which Turkey has taken the side of the Sunnis.

In the aftermath of the car bombs, there were riots in Hatay, ostensibly against the Erdoghan government. It is not clear who exactly stands behind the demonstrations, nor also who is responsible to the car bombs in Reyhanli. But it is increasingly likely that Sunni-Alawite tensions along one side of the border can hardly be contained there. Here is another possible complication originating from the Syrian civil war. Much more will follow.