BEIRUT/AKCAKALE, Turkey: Turkish guns were trained on the Syrian town of Tel Abyad Thursday night following the most dangerous cross border escalation of the 18-month Syrian civil war.
Turkey stepped up retaliatory artillery strikes on the Syrian border town, killing several Syrian soldiers, while its parliament approved further military action in the event of another spillover from the conflict, after Syrian government mortar bombs killed five civilians in southeast Turkey Wednesday.
Turkish Prime Minister RecepTayyip Erdogan said the fundamental aim of parliament’s mandate was as a deterrent and insisted his country did not want to go to war with Syria.
“We as Turkey just want peace and security in our region. We could never be interested in something like starting a war. The consequences of war are plain to see in Iraq and Afghanistan,” Erdogan told reporters at a news conference in Ankara.
He said the shelling was the eighth attack of its kind from Syria, but that the previous incidents had only caused material damage and Damascus had ignored Ankara’s warnings on the issue.
“The Turkish Republic is a state capable of defending its citizens and borders. Nobody should try and test our determination on this subject,” he said.
Turkey’s government said “aggressive action” against its territory by Syria’s military had become a serious threat to its national security and parliament overwhelmingly approved the deployment of Turkish troops beyond its borders if needed.
Seeking to unwind tensions, Damascus apologized through the United Nations for the shelling and said it would not happen again, Turkey’s Deputy premier Besir Atalay said.
Syria’s staunch ally Russia said it had received assurances from Damascus that the mortar strike had been a tragic accident.
At the United Nations, Russia blocked the adoption of a draft statement condemning the Syrian shelling of Akcakale and proposed a text that would call for “restraint” on the border without referring to breaches of international law.
Western diplomats complained that Russia’s proposals, if accepted, would weaken the statement to an unacceptable degree.
U.N. Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon was “alarmed by escalating tensions” between Syria and Turkey and warned that the risk of the 18-month-old Syrian conflict embroiling the entire region was growing, his spokesman said.
China’s Foreign Ministry urged Turkey and Syria to exercise restraint.
Turkey hit back after what it called “the last straw” when the mortar hit Akcakale, killing a mother, her three children and a female relative.
Three armored personnel carriers were positioned on the southern edge of Akcakale, their guns trained on Tel Abyad a few kilometers across the frontier. The Syrian Observatory for Human Rights said three Syrian soldiers were killed by Turkish shelling of a military post nearby.
Syrian state media has not reported any casualties.
The southern edge of Akcakale, right on the border, resembles a ghost town. Houses stand empty and shops are shuttered. Much of the population is ethnically Arab and many men walk around in the traditional Arab jalabiyya and red and white headscarves.
“Everyone is gone, look around,” said Ibrahim Cilden, 33, who lives only a few houses away from the one which was hit. A new camp for Syrian refugees sits on the edge of the town but nobody has yet moved in.
“Where have they built it? Right at the exit to our town. So the Syrians fire mortars at us. We act like a magnet,” he said.
Turkey’s parliament already had been due to vote Thursday on extending a five-year-old authorization for foreign military operations, an agreement originally intended to allow strikes Kurdish militant bases in northern Iraq.
But the memorandum signed by Erdogan and sent for parliamentary approval also said that despite repeated warnings and diplomatic initiatives, the Syrian military had launched aggressive action against Turkish territory, presenting a “serious threat.”
“At this point the need has emerged to take the necessary measures to act promptly and swiftly against additional risks and threats,” it said.
But analysts said Ankara’s move did not indicate a move to act unilaterally on Syria, after failed diplomatic efforts to end the crisis.
Turkey’s military response contrasted with its relative restraint when Syria shot down a Turkish reconnaissance jet in June. Ankara increased its military presence along its 900-km border with Syria and called a meeting of NATO’s North Atlantic Council.
At the time, Erdogan warned any Syrian element approaching Turkey’s border and deemed a threat would be treated as a military target.
“What is happening are certain changes in response to Syrian aggression,” former Turkish diplomat and visiting scholar at Carnegie Europe, Sinan Ulgen told The Daily Star.
“This is a strategy of deterrence and they certainly don’t want to escalate,” Ulgen said.
“It should not be read as an intention to send troops but a more credible signal that Turkey is willing to act.”
Ulgen said Turkey would “certainly” consider striking isolated military targets in Syria under the new mandate, but would not act without U.N. backing for broader military intervention, such as the setting up of buffer zones inside the country.
It was not clear who fired the mortar into Turkey, but security sources said it had come from near Tel Abyad and that Turkey was increasing the number of troops along its border.
Syria said it is investigating the source of the mortar bomb and urged restraint. Information Minister Omran Zoabi said his country respected the sovereignty of neighboring countries.
World leaders condemned the mortar strike but urged restraint.
The United States said Turkey had taken “appropriate” and “proportional” action in firing back at Syria, but urged that tensions should not escalate.
“From our perspective, the response that Turkey made was appropriate,” State Department spokeswoman Victoria Nuland said, adding Ankara had long made it clear that it would respond to any violation of its territory.
“It also was designed to strengthen the deterrent effect, so that these kinds of things don’t happen again, and it was proportional.”
British Foreign Secretary William Hague told Reuters the Turkish response was “understandable” but warned against an escalation, while EU foreign policy chief Catherine Ashton called on Syria to respect the territorial integrity of its neighbors.
NATO said it stood by member-nation Turkey and urged Syria to put an end to “flagrant violations of international law.”
The U.S.-led Western military alliance held an urgent late night meeting in Brussels to discuss the matter and in New York, Turkey asked the U.N. Security Council to take the “necessary action” to stop Syrian aggression.
Israel which is technically at war with Damascus and occupies the Golan Heights that it seized in the 1967 war and later occupied, said the Syrian mortar strike should be considered an attack on a member of the NATO alliance.
“One has to say that according to the NATO treaty, it was an attack on a member of NATO, and that means France,” Israel’s Deputy Prime Minister Dan Meridor told reporters during a visit to Paris.