ISTANBUL: Turkey’s prime minister warned Syria Friday not to make a “fatal mistake” by testing its resolve, as its army retaliated for a third day running after more mortar rounds from Syria landed on its soil.
In a belligerent speech to a crowd in Istanbul, Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan warned Syrian President Bashar Assad that his country would not shy away from war if it were provoked.
The speech followed a Syrian mortar barrage on a town in southeast Turkey that killed five people Wednesday.
Turkish artillery bombarded Syrian military targets Wednesday and Thursday in response, killing several Syrian soldiers, and the Turkish parliament authorized cross-border military action in the event of further aggression.
“We are not interested in war, but we’re not far from war either. This nation has come to where it is today having gone through intercontinental wars,” Erdogan said in his speech.
“Those who attempt to test Turkey’s deterrence, its decisiveness, its capacity, I say here they are making a fatal mistake.”
At least two mortar bombs fired from Syria landed in Turkey’s southern Hatay province Friday – one of them around 50 meters into Turkish territory – and a military unit responded immediately, Hatay Governor Celalettin Lekesiz was quoted as saying by the state-run Anatolian news agency.
A government official told Reuters there had been similar incidents over the past ten days due to intensifying skirmishes on the Syrian side of the border, and that the Turkish army had been responding in kind.
But he said Wednesday’s fatal strike on the town of Akcakale had been of a different magnitude.
“If there was gunfire, we returned the gunfire, if there was a shell we returned two or three shells, to warn them and deter them. Until Akcakale we were not very concerned that they were deliberate,” the official said, asking not to be identified.
“Wednesday was different. There were five or six rounds into the same place. That’s why we responded a couple of times – to warn and deter. To tell the [Syrian] military to leave. We think they’ve got the message and have pulled back from the area.”
Turkish broadcaster NTV said Syria had given the order for its warplanes and helicopters not to enter an area within 10 km of the Turkish border and had told its artillery units not to fire shells in areas close to the border.
There was no confirmation of this from the Syrian authorities.
At the U.N., the Security Council condemned the original Syrian attack and demanded that such violations of international law stop immediately.
The U.N. condemnation was issued after two days of negotiations on an initial text rejected by Russia.
Consensus within the council on Syria-related matters is unusual and it has been deadlocked over the conflict, with veto-wielding Russia and China rejecting calls to sanction the Damascus government.
The United States has said it stands by its NATO ally’s right to defend itself against aggression spilling over from Syria’s war. Russia, a staunch ally of Syria, appealed to Turkey to stay calm and avoid any action that could increase tensions.
Russia said Thursday it had received assurances from Damascus that the strike on Turkey had been a tragic accident but Erdogan dismissed it, saying this was the eighth time Syrian mortar rounds had hit Turkish ground.
The cross-border violence was the most serious so far in the conflict, now spanning 19 months, and underscored how it could flare across the region.
Turkey, once an Assad ally and now a leading voice in calls for him to quit, shelters more than 90,000 Syrian refugees in camps on its territory and has given rebel army leaders sanctuary.
There is little public appetite in Turkey for sustained military intervention in Syria, but government ministers have struck a combative tone.
“If Turkey had been a country that was interested in going to war, when the plane was downed it could have used that as an excuse and flattened Syria,” EU Affairs Minister Egemen Bagis was quoted as saying Friday, referring to Turkey’s restraint when Syria shot down a Turkish reconnaissance jet in June. “Thankfully Turkey’s military power today is at the point where it could destroy Syria within a few hours. But we don’t have any problem with the Syrian people,” Bagis was quoted as saying by the Radikal newspaper.
More than 30,000 people have been killed in the revolt against Assad, which began with peaceful street protests but is now a full-scale civil war also fought on sectarian lines.
The opposition Syrian Observatory for Human Rights gave an early death toll of 54 people nationwide Friday, including 28 soldiers, 14 civilians and 12 rebel fighters. A day earlier, about 180 people were killed, including 48 government soldiers, the British-based monitoring group said.
The rebels said they had captured an air defense base with a cache of missiles outside Damascus Thursday, a boost to their campaign after a series of setbacks in the capital.
Video posted on YouTube of the aftermath of the assault showed dozens of rebels dressed in army fatigues celebrating as black smoke rose from a military installation behind them.
A middle-aged man holding a rifle says the attack was carried out by a rebel battalion from the town of Douma.
It also showed rebels at a weapons cache, which included what appeared to be part of a surface-to-air missile.
It was not possible to independently verify the videos. Access to Syria for foreign journalists is restricted by the Syrian government.
Although fighting often takes place in the Damascus suburbs, rebel forces have been unable to hold areas for long in the face of government artillery and air power.
They have staged devastating bomb attacks on government and military offices in the heart of the city, however.
Syrian warplanes and artillery pounded the central city of Homs Friday, subjecting the rebel stronghold to its heaviest bombardment in recent months, activists said.
Observatory director Rami Abdel-Rahman told AFP the bombardment of Khaldiyeh district was the most intense of Homs in five months, and the first time the regime has deployed fighter jets against the city.
Activist network the Syrian Revolution General Council said a series of large explosions rocked the neighborhood after the bombing raids.
Also Friday, amateur video posted by activists showed what appeared to be a Syrian government helicopter hurtling to the ground with a trail of white smoke behind it. The Observatory said it was told by rebel fighters that they shot down the helicopter over Saqba, a town east of Damascus.