Turkey and Syria: Will there be war?

Deadly cross-border shelling has escalated tensions and concerned the international community

By Natasha Lennard

Published October 4, 2012 8:37PM (EDT)

Turkey's parliament Thursday authorized military action in Syria, following cross-border shelling between the two nations this week.

Shells from Syrian government forces struck the Turkish border town of Akcale on Wednesday, killing more than 10 people, including two women and three children. Turkey fired back, killing several Syrian troops. Now, based on the bill passed today, Turkish forces are permitted by parliament to pursue military action across its border any time in the next year.

"This mandate is not a war mandate but it is in our hands to be used when need be in order to protect Turkey's own interests," said Deputy Prime Minister Besir Atalay in a statement on Turkish television. Meanwhile, the international community has expressed growing concerns about the Turkey-Syria tensions and commentators are elaborating on concerns and worst case scenarios.

NATO, of which Turkey is a member, convened and weighed in immediately following this week to condemn Syria's aggression. Turkish UN ambassador Ertugrul Apakan called it a "flagrant violations of international law," according to Reuters. Hillary Clinton, responding to the mortar bomb from Syria that hit Akcale, described the situation as "very, very dangerous."

Although Turkey has asked that the UN take action, experts believe the response will amount to little more than stern words. The U.S., among other nations, has shown resistance to direct involvement in the Syrian civil war. Writing for the Nation, Robert Dreyfuss urged that this position not bend:

The United States cannot let itself be drawn into war with Syria by virtue of its formal alliance with Turkey, through NATO. Already, Turkey has been shelling Syria. For more than a year, Turkey’s Prime Minister Erdogan has been itching for a fight with Syria, and now – following a minor incident involving a single mortar shell that crossed the Syrian-Turkish border – he may get one.

… The problem for Obama is, if he backs Turkey in what is looking increasingly like Turkish nationalist frenzy, a combination Sunni-Muslim solidarity with Syria’s Muslim Brotherhood rebels and old Ottoman Empire wistfulness, he’ll find himself involved in yet another Middle East war with no end. And if he doesn’t, count of Mitt Romney to accuse him of abandoning a NATO ally.

The Christian Science Monitor offered further background Thursday, detailing some context of the cross border tensions:

Turks have grown weary of the burden of involvement in the Syrian conflict, which includes the hosting of 90,000 Syrian refugees in camps along the border.

Yet Turkey is still loath to go it alone in Syria, and is anxious for any intervention to have the legitimacy conferred by a U.N. resolution or the involvement of a broad group of allies. Turkey is mindful in part of inconclusive ground missions, mostly in the 1990s, against Kurdish guerrillas based in northern Iraq, as well as the bitter lessons of being seen as an occupying power that are associated with the U.S.-led invasion in Iraq. Reaching deeper into history, Turkey is aware of Mideast sensibilities over Ottoman rule over much of the region.

… In June, Turkey reinforced its border with anti-aircraft missiles and threatened to target any approaching Syrian military elements after Syrian forces brought down a Turkish jet, killing its two pilots. Turkey said the plane was in international airspace, countering Syrian claims that it was in Syrian airspace.

At this point, although tensions have severely escalated between the two nations, NATO members are pushing cautiousness, and all-out war is -- as of yet -- still not on the cards. As the Guardian's Middle East editor Ian Black noted, no one wants the Syrian conflict to spread:

The Atlantic alliance wants to stay away from the Syrian quagmire. Tellingly, ambassadors meeting in Brussels invoked the article of NATO's charter that refers to solidarity rather than the one that requires member states to come to the defense of another. Turkey, which was lavishly praised for its "restraint", will not act alone.

In Damascus, the government seemed just as keen to calm the mood, quickly offering "sincere condolences" to Ankara and announcing an investigation into exactly what happened at Alkacale. Russia, its chief protector, urged the Assad regime to apologize for an "accident." Assad's overall strategy, of war to the end the uprising, will continue.

Black pointed out that the only "red line" the U.S.has drawn for intervention is Syrian use of chemical weapons: "Syria has made clear it will not use them unless attacked by an outside power. And no outside party, Turkey included, wants the conflict inside Syria to spread beyond its borders."

Natasha Lennard

Natasha Lennard is an assistant news editor at Salon, covering non-electoral politics, general news and rabble-rousing. Follow her on Twitter @natashalennard, email nlennard@salon.com.

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Bashar Al-assad Middle East Nato Syria Turkey Turkey-syria United Nations