For months, the border between Syria and Turkey has been in a delicate situation, courtesy of the uprising in the Arab country.
Refugee camps had already been established to host thousands of people fleeing the bloodshed and destruction; Syrian troops had already approached the international border in their pursuit of rebels, with shots fired into the camps on occasion.
Earlier this summer, Syria shot down a Turkish jet in an incident that was contained relatively smoothly. However, Syrian mortar bombs landed in Turkish territory Wednesday, killing five civilians, which set off alarm bells in Ankara. Turkey’s parliament has granted the government a one-year period to cross the border, if necessary, to respond to any further Syrian attacks.
The Syrian regime has been here before, and in nearly all directions.
Last year, it helped encourage a gathering of Palestinians near the Golan Heights, in what some observers said was a signal to its southern neighbor that Damascus was ready to up the ante; Syrian military activities have also taken place near the Iraqi border. Syrian troops and artillery have made themselves felt in Lebanon, sometimes with deadly consequences, while the specter of clashes between Syrian and Jordanian forces has never disappeared.
The north is possibly the most volatile border, and missteps there serve as an invitation to intervention by regional and international powers, most notably NATO, which met in emergency session to discuss the situation.
One can argue over whether the Syrian forces’ lobbing of mortar bombs into Turkey was deliberate, but if it was intentional, then Damascus is playing with fire. The international community is looking on with horror at the events inside Syria, but lacks the will or desire to act forcefully.
By engaging in a dangerous game of cross-border tension, Syria is likely to change the game, and not in the way that it imagines. In any case, tension in Turkey has been on the rise of late, due in part to the presence of thousands of refugees, putting pressure on the government of Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan. But the government has now received authorization from Parliament to act in the future, which does not seem like a move that is in Syria’s interest.
But if it wasn’t deliberate, then it’s a worrying sign. The Syrians should know that allowing commanders in the field to act in a way that invites international outrage and possible counter-moves is detrimental to the stability, as bad as it is, of the region. Their military should be kept under a certain level of control, in the interests of even further chaos. There is no shortage of third parties that want to stir things up, and eliminating the chance for a conflagration should be a priority. Roiling the waters of an already turbulent region is the kind of move that has no guaranteed outcomes, and the costs of bad surprises could be enormous.