Tensions persist between Turkey, Syria after cross-border military exchange
By Liz Sly,
BEIRUT — Turkey’s parliament on Thursday authorized the Turkish government to take military action against Syria, as the international community scrambled to defuse tensions heightened by a Syrian artillery strike a day earlier in which five Turkish civilians died.
Syria told the United Nations that two of its soldiers had been injured in retaliatory shelling launched overnight by Turkey against a military base near the Syrian town of Tal Abyad. The shelling, which continued until dawn Thursday, marked the first instance of international military action against Syria since the uprising against President Bashar al-Assad’s rule began 19 months ago.
The Turkish parliament’s measure did not mention Syria by name, but it gave the government blanket approval to conduct operations beyond Turkey’s borders for the coming year, potentially opening the door to unilateral Turkish military intervention in the bloody civil war unfolding next door.
Neither Turkey nor Syria has expressed any appetite for war, however, and there was no indication that the allies of either country would be prepared to support one.
World powers sought to calm both sides, amid growing concerns that the trajectory of events risks fulfilling long-standing prophecies that the Syrian war could ignite a wider regional confrontation.
State Department spokeswoman Victoria Nuland made it clear that the United States thinks Turkey has already sufficiently retaliated for the shelling incident, calling the response “proportionate.”
“Our understanding is that the Turks have responded. The Turkish parliament has also given the government the capacity to respond again if there are future such violations of Turkish sovereignty,” she said in Washington.
Speaking in the town of Akcakale, where the shelling occurred, Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan indicated Thursday night that Turkey has no wish to escalate the situation, although he also stressed its readiness to respond to provocation.
“We want peace and security and nothing else. We would never want to start a war,” Erdogan said. “Turkey is a country which is capable of protecting its people and borders. No one should attempt to test our determination on the issue.”
In a letter to the U.N. Security Council, Syria reminded the world that it had acted with “self-restraint” after the Turkish shelling. It also offered condolences to the families of the five people who were killed and to the “brotherly” people of Turkey.
But in a reminder of how fraught the Turkish-Syrian relationship has become, the letter, delivered by Syria’s U.N. Ambassador Bashar al-Jaafari, offered no apology for the incident and did not acknowledge Syrian responsibility, despite a plea from its ally Russia for it to do so.
Syria faces a threat, the letter said, from “terrorists” whose activities have been aided by lax controls across Syria’s borders — a clear reference to the latitude Turkey allows rebel Free Syrian Army fighters in the border area.
“There are undisciplined armed terrorist groups spreading on those borders which . . . pose a threat to the security of Syria, also to the security of the countries of the region,” the letter said, citing as evidence a double bombing in Aleppo on Tuesday in which 34 people died.
The letter urged Turkey to respect Syrian sovereignty and “to cooperate in border control and prevention of the infiltration of insurgents and terrorists.”
Earlier Thursday, Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov said the Syrian authorities had told him the incident was “a tragic accident” that would not happen again, and he urged Syria to “state that officially,” according to the Russian news agency RIA Novosti.
Nonetheless, in a sign of the continued divisiveness of the Syrian crisis, Russia also blocked a toughly worded U.N. Security Council resolution that would have condemned the shelling in Turkey as a breach of international law, out of concerns it might open the door to international military intervention in Syria.
Late Thursday, the Security Council agreed on the text of a statement condemning the Syrian shelling and urging Syria to cease “such violations of international law.”
Wednesday’s incident, in which at least four shells fired from Syria landed in Akcakale, illustrated just how combustible the border region has become since the Syrian revolt erupted last year and Turkey threw its support behind the rebels challenging Assad’s rule, overturning a decade of warming ties.
The shells most likely strayed across the border during battles between rebels and government forces who have been seeking to recapture Tal Abyad since it fell to the Free Syrian Army last month. A number of apparently errant mortar shells had exploded on the Turkish side of the border over the past 10 days, prompting Turkish warnings of retaliation.
The deaths of the civilians — a woman and four children — forced Turkey to act on its warnings, firing artillery at the sources of the shelling, a government official said, speaking on the condition of anonymity because of the sensitivity of the subject.
Turkey has no immediate plans for further retaliation, he said, but will continue to respond in kind to further such incidents.
“We received artillery shelling, and we responded with shelling,” he said.
Turkey has in the past demonstrated its willingness to cross international borders to defend its interests. It regularly carries out airstrikes against Kurdish militants in a remote northern area of Iraqi Kurdistan, and Turkish troops have retained a small military presence nearby since they intervened in the 1990s in a civil war between Kurdish factions. However, amid deteriorating relations between Baghdad and Ankara linked in part to tensions created by the Syria crisis, Iraq’s parliament voted this week to close the Turkish bases.
As the families of the victims buried their dead in Akcakale on Thursday, the scope of the Syrian threat to Turkey was starkly apparent. Nearly three-quarters of the town’s residents have fled for fear of stray missiles and bullets, schools have been closed for a week, and those residents who remained complained that the government had failed them.
“What is being done to protect us is not enough,” said Ali Sonis, 47, a cook. And as the sun set, the battles on the other side of the border started up again. The sound of explosions and gunfire echoed through the streets, and at least one stray bullet struck a road.
Colum Lynch at the United Nations and Justin Vela in Akcakale contributed to this report.