After months and months of simmering tensions, Turkey and Syria have now stepped closer towards open military confrontation. Soon after mortar rounds fired from inside Syria today landed in a Turkish border town, killing five and wounding several others, Turkish forces replied with artillery fire aimed at Syrian military targets. "Turkey, within rules of engagement and international laws, will never leave unanswered the provocations of the Syrian regime targeting Turkey's national security," a statement released by the Turkish Prime Minister's office said.
The cross-border shelling represents the most serious and dangerous escalation yet between Ankara and Damascus, former friends which have been growing increasingly hostile towards each other since the start of the uprising in Syria last year and after Turkey started openly supporting elements of the Syrian opposition. Up until now, though, Turkey has refrained from engaging with Syria militarily, even after a Turkish jet was shot down this past June while flying off the Syrian coast.
Although, as the New York Times points out, it's still not if the mortars that fell on the Turkish border town of Akcakale were fired by Syrian government troops or by opposition forces, it's fairly clear that Ankara felt that it had to respond this time, most likely out of domestic considerations. This was actually the second time that Akcakale had been caught in the crossfire of the conflict in Syria, with mortars having fallen on the town on Sept. 28, although that time causing no fatalities. But as the Bianet website reports, today's shelling left locals angry at the government:
"People are pouring out on to the streets to protest the incident. We have been living in trepidation for the past 10 days. We could not even keep count of the bombs falling over our district during the last 10 days. Bombs keep falling, yet officials are not taking any measures," Akçakale Mayor Abdülhakim Ayhan told the broadcasting station CNNTürk.
This is the second time an artillery shell has landed in the district today, according to Mayor Ayhan.
Protesters consequently began marching toward the district governor's office, while District Gov. Eyüp Fırat left his office with an armored vehicle. Mayor Ayhan said they were trying to disperse the crowd of demonstrators.
The shelling also comes only days after Turkey's ruling Justice and Development Party (AKP) held its annual congress, where Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan gave a two-and-a-half hour speech that strongly criticized the Assad regime and laid out an ambitious plan for Turkey's role as a regional leader. Failing to respond to this latest Syrian provocation could have left Erdogan -- who is widely believed to have his sights set on becoming Turkey's next president -- exposed to charges that his words were nothing more than that.
The main question now, though, is how far is Ankara willing to take things on the Syrian front? For the most part, it would appear that Turkey is taking the Syrian regime on alone. Although Turkey is a member of NATO, it's clear that the alliance does not want to get involved militarily in the Syrian crisis, and errant mortar rounds falling on Turkish soil are likely not enough to allow Ankara to call for NATO involvement. In a guest post on the Ottomans and Zionists blog that was written shortly before Ankara struck back at Damascus, Turkey-based analyst Aaron Stein wrote that, considering the lack of support it has for military action against Syria, Turkey's best options right now remain diplomatic. From the post:
Frankly, Turkey has few military options. A small strike would achieve few, if any, real gains. The Turkish military does not have the capabilities to implement a buffer zone, thus limiting its long-term options. While striking back at Syria may appease a certain segment of the Turkish electorate, the risk of escalation is considerable. Turkey should avoid striking Syrian targets and instead focus on its broader policy objectives. It should use the incident to condemn Syria for its act and leverage the Syrian provocation to garner more international support for a political solution.
This may be good advice, but it's obvious Erdogan decided that it was time for more decisive action. The next move, it would appear, is Damascus's.