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Syria border bombing: How will Turkey respond if attacks continue?

Turkey has worried about Syria's war creeping across the border since the uprising began. Yesterday's bombing at a border crossing indicates it may finally be happening.

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People and ambulances seen near the Cilvegozu customs gate at Turkey-Syria border near Reyhanli, Hatay, Turkey, Monday, minutes after a car bomb exploded.

Gaia Anderson/AP

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A day after a bomb blast killed 14 people and injured dozens on Turkey’s border with Syria, it remains unclear who was behind the attack. But for Turkish officials, the bombing itself, not the culprit, is the real issue.

Turkey has worried about violence in Syria spilling over the border since the outset of the uprising. Already Syria and Turkey have exchanged artillery fire, and NATO recently placed Patriot surface-to-air missiles defense systems along the border at Turkey’s request. 

Yesterday’s bombing at the Bab al-Hawa border crossing, a major transit point for people and supplies moving in and out of opposition-controlled Syria, raises the question of how Turkey is likely to respond if terrorist-style attacks continue to happen on the border or potentially deeper inside the country.

“The bombing, regardless of the perpetrators, basically reinforces the anxiety in Ankara that the Syrian conflict has already spilled over into Turkey and could intensify and escalate with devastating consequences,” says Fawaz Gerges, director of the Middle East Center at the London School of Economics. “Since the Turkish foreign policy was based on Assad’s days being numbered, the longer the conflict continues, the greater the risk to Turkey.”

The blast occurred when a vehicle with Syrian license plates detonated at the crossing in the Turkish town of Reyhanli. The Turkish government has called the incident a terrorist attack, but said they were still investigating to determine who was behind it.

The opposition Syrian National Council claimed that some of their members crossing the border were the target of the attack, which they blamed on forces loyal to the government of President Bashar al-Assad. The Syrian side of the border there is controlled by the opposition, making it unclear how government loyalists could have infiltrated that deep. But there's also no obvious reason why opposition groups would conduct such an attack along the border, given the strong support Turkey has provided.

The uncertainty surrounding attacks like the Bab al-Hawa bombing underscore Turkey’s deepening concerns for its own stability as Syria’s conflict drags on.

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The Syrian opposition, which has long struggled to present a unified front, is now at risk of fracturing even further, with many Syrians concerned that these tensions could eventually erupt into violence. This could be of particular concern to Turkey, which hosts members of the opposition along with more than 170,000 refugees.

“You don’t know who all these refugees are. You don’t know whether these people are members of the Nusra Front or opposition figures who are more acceptable to the West,” says Christopher Chivvis, a senior political scientist at Rand Corp., referencing Jabhat al-Nusra, an opposition group recently classified as a terrorist organization by the US.

“The refugee crisis is their primary concern. It’s a burden to begin with, for the cities to have to absorb these refugees,” adds Mr. Chivvis.

The more immediate concern of hosting tens of thousands of refugees is quickly becoming the economic cost. In recent remarks to the media, Turkey Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan said his country has already spent $600 million housing and feeding Syrian refugees.

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