Syria’s strikes against Turkey on Wednesday seemed like they could have marked the beginning of a war against Turkey, which would have compounded the stress in the already pocked-marked region. Instead, the skirmish may end up becoming a narrative of restraint. It could almost be a playground comedy -- if it weren’t so tragic.
The strikes against Turkey killed a child and two women and injured 10 others. They occurred in the town of Akçakale in the southeast corner of Turkey, CBS reported. It is unclear if the shelling was accidental, but it is not the first time Syrian shells and bombs landed on Turkish soil during the Syrian civil war.
This time, Turkey responded with shells of its own after an emergency convening of the Ankara Parliament, hitting the border town Tel Abyad and killing an unspecified number of Syrian soldiers, the U.K.-based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights said.
The Turkish Hürriyet Daily News reported that Turkey used South Korean-designed howitzers for the attacks, with a maximum firing range of 40 kilometers (about 25 miles) and top speed of 66 km/hr (about 40 mi/hr). Turkey and South Korea have been close allies since the 1950-1953 Korean War, in which Turkey backed South Korea against North Korea.
Syria later privately apologized for the attack, via the U.N., Turkish Deputy Prime Minister Besir Atalay told Hürriyet: “Syria accepts that it did [the shelling] and apologizes. They said nothing like this will happen again. That’s good.”
Despite the private apology, Turkey declared it had to protect its borders by a 320-129 vote on Thursday to continue shelling Syria.
“This is not a motion for war but a measure for deterrence,” Atalay told reporters after the vote, according to the Turkish Today’s Zaman.
The motion reads, “The ongoing crisis in Syria affects the stability and security in the region, and now the escalating animosity affects our national security. Syrian armed forces have been conducting assaults as part of military operations into Turkish land despite our several warnings and diplomatic overtures since Sept. 20, 2012. This situation threatens our national security. In this respect, the need for taking precautions and acting quickly against any threats to Turkey has arisen,” Today’s Zaman reported.
“Turkey has no interest in a war with Syria,” tweeted İbrahim Kalın, a senior adviser to Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdoğan, “but Turkey is capable of protecting its borders and will retaliate when necessary.”
But as of Thursday morning, Turkey’s shelling of Syria was continuing, following further approval from the parliament.
Syria wants to avoid regional conflict at all costs, the Guardian reported on Thursday morning, but will probably not publicly apologize to Turkey for fear of looking weak against a country that is publicly supporting the Free Syrian Army, said Fadi Hakura, a Turkish analyst at the Chatham House think-tank.
Turkey, for its part, apparently just wants to send a message.
Michael Koplow, an analyst at the Georgetown Israel Institute, also told the Guardian that Turkey just “needed to respond in some way,” but he thought it was interesting that Turkey chose “to shell some as yet-to-be-described" Syrian targets rather than launch an air strike.
“There is a fine line between taking limited action that conveys strength and resolve,” Koplow said, “and getting drawn into a tactical mess in Syria. What I expect will happen is another round of strong condemnations, more strident threats to intervene in Syria, mobilizing tanks, artillery, planes and troops to the border … and ultimately Turkey will stay on its own side of the line.”
Turkey’s restraint is probably welcome to several other world leaders, who are essentially wringing their hands at the fighting. NATO publicly announced that it would back Turkey, but that it would do little in a military sense, the AFP said.
Assad’s backers, China, Russia, and Iran, and his detractors, the U.S. and most of Europe, had an “international consensus” to avoid “military escalation of this conflict,” Hakura told the Guardian. “If there was a real appetite for a military conflict, we would not have waited so long to see it.”
But the excessive displays of concern over the Syrian quagmire probably can’t last much longer, hypothesized Simon Tisdall, an editor at the Guardian.
“The do-nothing, hand-wringing favored by Turkey's international allies may not be politically sustainable much longer as the Syrian crisis inexorably expands not just into Turkey but into Iraq, Lebanon and the Israeli-occupied Golan Heights, too,” Tisdall wrote. “Pressure for more direct, multilateral intervention, most probably via NATO, is growing among Arab states and in the U.S.”
Indeed, latest updates say the Syrian conflict may be pushing toward Israel. In a press release on Thursday, Israeli Major General Aviv Kochavi said, “The battles between the armed [opposition] and the Syrian army are no longer occurring only far from the border [of the Golan region], but also at a distance of only several kilometers.” He added that the Israel Defense Force was preparing for “the erosion of the Syrian regime’s control.”
As for the U.S.’s response, Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton released a statement on Wednesday expressing the U.S.’s “outrage” at the attacks and its regret at the loss of life, and she said the U.S. will “continue working on” the Syrian issue. However, she mentioned nothing about a possible U.S. intervention.
Meanwhile, in Turkey, anti-war protests broke out in Ankara, the Turkish capital, as the Parliament was meeting, Today’s Zaman reported. Police fired tear gas into the small crowd of 30 demonstrators who were shouting, “We don’t want war!” and “The Syrian people are our brothers!” And in Akçakale, the city has fallen into silence, Hürriyet said. “The region is silent now,” an official from the Şanlıurfa province governor’s office said.