A risky provocation
The Syrian military has attacked targets inside Turkey despite warnings from the Turkish government, possibly with the aim of trying to spread the crisis more widely in the region, writes Bassel Oudat in Damascus
On 3 October, a mortar shell launched from Syrian territory landed in the Turkish border town of Akcakala, killing five civilians and injuring others. The incident sparked further tensions between the two sides, and Ankara responded by firing artillery rounds at Syrian government troops, killing two officers.
The next day another rocket was launched along Turkey's border with Syria, and Turkish artillery responded by targeting the location it was fired from. Two days later, three rockets were fired into Turkey from Syria, one landing in the garden of a Turkish government building and causing material damage.
In response, Turkish troops deployed on the border with Syria and targeted military locations around the Syrian town of Tal Abyad.
Ankara has been enraged by Syria's transgression of its sovereignty, and the Turkish cabinet has asked the country's parliament for a mandate to carry out military operations beyond the country's borders. The parliament has agreed, though thus far Turkey's responses have been cautious in practical terms and limited to threatening the use of an "iron fist" if the Syrian transgressions continue.
Turkey's foreign ministry stated that Ankara "does not support the idea of war and will not go to war against Syria" but it will protect its borders. It added that political and diplomatic initiatives with Damascus were continuing, but warned that testing Turkey's patience and deterrence capabilities "would be a serious mistake by Syria."
Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan said his country "is not far from going to war with Damascus if we are provoked." Ankara also indicated that it would "exercise its rights if transgressions continue on the Turkish border from the Syrian side."
Turkish Deputy Prime Minister Besir Atalay declared that the Syrian side "had admitted what it did and apologised" and that the Syrian authorities "have promised not to repeat the incidents." However, Syria's representative to the UN, Bashar Al-Jaafari, denied these claims, saying that Syria had not apologised to the Turkish government but had only expressed its condolences. Al-Jaafari said that Syria would investigate the incidents.
Turkish Foreign Minister Ahmet Davutoglu said that the rocket that had landed in Turkey was "only used" by the Syrian army, describing statements that the attack could have been carried out by another party as "unusual." He added that the "122mm shell was launched from a D30 canon, which is only used by the Syrian army," adding that "from now on any attack targeting Turkey will be ended."
Davutoglu not only refuted Syrian denials but also provoked the Syrians by proposing a political solution to end the crisis and suggested that Syrian Vice President Farouk Al-Sharaa shoulder power during a transitional period. He described Sharaa as "a rational man" who could replace President Bashar Al-Assad at the helm of a transitional government in Syria.
The attacks led to a variety of international condemnations, with several states urging both Turkey and Syria to exercise self-control. The US said it would stand firmly by its ally, Turkey, and the latter's right to self-defence against hostile actions caused by the war in Syria. US secretary of defence Leon Panetta said Washington was concerned that the Syrian crisis could spread to neighbouring states, citing the exchange of fire between Syria and Turkey, and added that the US would use "diplomatic channels to relay its concerns to the relevant parties".
US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton also condemned the Syrian missiles landing in Turkey and expressed Washington's anger at the incidents.
A meeting of NATO was convened in Brussels to discuss the incidents, concluding with a demand that hostile actions against Turkey halt immediately and urging the Syrian regime to stop its violations of international law. The UN Security Council also condemned the incidents and urged Damascus to respect the sovereignty and security of its neighbours.
Syria's allies called on Turkey not to take any steps that could further destabilise the region. Moscow urged Ankara to exercise self-control, while Iran's military chief of staff, Hassan Firouzabadi, said that a war between Syria and Turkey would be at "US request" and urged both sides "to remain calm and not interfere in the internal affairs of the other."
"It is clear that mistakes were made, but a war would not correct these mistakes," Firouzabadi said, adding that "the presence of NATO forces in the region poses a threat to Turkey."
Iraqi Prime Minister Nuri Al-Maliki said that "the raging fire in Syria goes beyond the borders of the region and thus will be felt around the world, because this region is one of the key energy-producing parts of the world and is bound to be influenced by the repercussions and negative outcomes of this issue."
Informed Turkish sources said that the government had taken the decision to target Syrian jets if they fly closer than 10km to the Turkish border, which some analysts have interpreted as the indirect creation of a "buffer zone" inside Syria that could facilitate the operations of anti-regime forces.
The bombing of Turkish territory is the riskiest action Syrian military forces have yet taken beyond the country's borders, especially since Turkey was once an ally of the regime but has now become its enemy after reacting strongly to the violent suppression of the uprising against the Al-Assad regime that has led to the deaths of 30,000 civilians.
It is also an irresponsible act by the Syrians, who have accused Turkey of sponsoring fighters who attack the Syrian army and use Turkey as a launching pad. Meanwhile, Turkey is not just a member of NATO, but also has one of the strongest and best-trained armies in the region.
Most regional states believe that what is happening in Syria is a war by a totalitarian regime against its own people in order to remain in power. The uprising, therefore, is part of the "Arab Spring" that last year toppled several regimes in the Arab world.
They do not necessarily see the conflict as a threat to regional stability, but they are worried that the crisis, if left to its own devices, could evolve into a civil war that could consume the entire region. The majority of Arab countries share these concerns, and diplomats argue that the Syrian regime may resort to irrational violence if it feels cornered.
Syria is not capable of taking on Turkey alone because it is focused on thwarting the Syrian uprising. At the same time, Turkey does not want to confront Syria, and while Ankara has been supporting opponents of the Syrian regime by allowing them to train on its territory and urging safe zones in Syria to handle the tens of thousands of Syrian refugees who have fled to Turkey, it wants to avoid entering into any war without first gaining NATO's approval.
Any such war would be a waste of Turkish military and financial resources, and it could lead to a confrontation with Russia, Syria's main ally. There are also concerns about the attitude of Syria's Kurds, especially the armed factions associated with the Kurdish Workers Party, the PKK.
When Syria shot down a Turkish military plane last summer, Ankara protested through diplomatic channels. But the greater threats this time round and its military movements along the border with Syria now imply that it may be preparing for possible action by the international community or by NATO, even if not a Turkish-Syrian war.
Although Turkey would never take action without the support of the UN, or at least the US, it has been the most disturbed of all Middle Eastern states by the unstable political, social and security situation in Syria. While Turkey has been hosting 100,000 Syrian refugees and hundreds of soldiers who have defected from the Syrian army, it has also been suffering from attacks by PKK fighters, who have stepped up their attacks to the highest level in a decade.
There is now rising concern that the war in Syria will spread to neighbouring states, and Turkey and several Arab countries have discussed taking more assertive joint action, including military intervention. However, the absence of any united international position on the Syrian crisis could postpone any direct intervention by the West, which would be spearheaded by Turkey.