Turkey and Syria are locked in a conflict that neither wants but is unable, it seems, to prevent. Graham Usher reports from the United Nations
The Middle East's next war has edged closer with Turkey's shelling of military targets inside Syria. The escalation followed the death of five Turkish civilians, including a woman and her three children, killed when an apparently stray Syrian mortar fell on the Turkish border town of Akcakala. It was the clearest sign yet of how rapidly the Syrian civil war can morph into a regional conflict. It was also a fuse waiting to ignite.
Ever since rebels in Syria seized a strategically vital crossing point into Turkey a month ago the Syrian army has used mortar and sniper fire to wrest back control. Many of the shells "overshot" and landed in Akcakala, causing dozens of residents to flee. On 3 October one of these killed the family.
Bashar Jaafari, Syria's UN ambassador, expressed his country's "deepest condolences" to the victims' families, but made no apology. A Syrian government spokesman referred to a "tragic accident".
Recep Tayyip Erdogan, Turkey's prime minister seethed.
"One time is an accident, but how is it an accident when it happens eight or nine times?"
Turkey massed tanks and anti-aircraft missiles in Akcakala, with instructions to fire at military targets each time a Syrian missile landed on Turkish soil. By 4 October several Syrian soldiers had been killed.
Even more significantly Erdogan received from the Turkish parliament authorization to send troops onto Syrian soil: previously the army's cross-border mandate had been restricted to the hot pursuit of anti-Turkish groups like the Kurdish PKK movement.
The tremors of war were felt even in New York. UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-Moon warned that the risk of regional conflict had grown. Erdogan hedged. "Ankara did not want conflict," he said. On the other hand, Turkey "is not far from war". He insisted however that the new parliamentary mandate was "solely aimed at deterrence".
Erdogan also called for "necessary action" against Syria by the UN Security Council. Given the rift between countries like the US that want a change of regime in Damascus and those like Russia and China that want regime preservation, "action" was always unlikely.
But in a rare show of unanimity on 5 February the Council did issue a statement which "condemned in the strongest terms" Syria's shelling of Akcakala, describing it as a "violation of international law". The statement also "highlighted the grave impact the crisis in Syria has on the security of its neighbors and on regional peace and stability".
While clearly blaming Syria, the statement struck a compromise between the antagonists on the council.
Russia and China ceded to "international law", a category they dislike to see applied to any conflict. America and the European states agreed to accept the phrase "regional peace and stability". An earlier draft had said the Syrian crisis represented a threat to "international peace and security", a formula that can be used to justify Security Council intervention.
What Turkey wanted, however, was UN buffer zones in Syria to protect both Syrian and Turkish civilians. Proposals for such safe havens have gone nowhere. Russia and China are opposed because buffer zones would be a violation of Syrian sovereignty. America and Europe are opposed because both see such intervention as the beginning of an Iraq or Afghan like entanglement. Whatever the rhetoric on the Council, "it's very clear that the Americans don't want to lift a finger until the US presidential election in November and maybe after November as well," wrote Asli Aydintasbas, a Turkish columnist.
There is also little appetite for the call among some Turks to arm rebels with heavy weapons. Western states fear such weaponry could end up with the jihadi wing of the resistance and be used against them: an apprehension deepened by the recent attacks on US missions in Libya and elsewhere in the region over a blasphemous film about the Prophet Mohamed.
This highlights one of the flaws at the heart of the Turkish strategy of deterrence: it lacks international and popular support. Perhaps the only point of accord on Syria between America, Russia and China is all that agree that outside involvement is neither feasible nor desirable. And while there was initial domestic support for Turkey's backing of the rebels, that support has diminished the messier the civil war has become.
Most Turks see their government's partisan role in the Syrian civil war as hurting the economy, forcing the hosting of 100,000 refugees and bringing the conflict into Turkey. There is also a growing sense that the return for this investment has been international isolation and abandonment.
In an influential piece in Turkey's Milleyet newspaper, columnist Melih Asik summed up the national mood after Akcakala.
"We are now at a very critical juncture," he wrote. "We are not only facing Syria, but Iran, Iraq, Russia and China behind it. Behind us we have nothing but the provocative stance and empty promises of the United States".