After cross-border mortar fire from Syria killed five civilians, Turkey has responded with heavy shelling — a step that threatens to widen the conflict by drawing NATO into the equation.
Turkey, a member of NATO, pressed all the red buttons on Wednesday that could draw Syria into a larger military confrontation with the West. After an emergency meeting with his inner circle on Wednesday, Turkish Foreign Minister Ahmet Davutoglu called U.N. Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon, U.N. envoy to Syria Lakhdar Brahimi and NATO Secretary-General Anders Fogh Rasmussen, blaming the Syrian government for the firing. On Thursday, the Turkish Parliament cleared the way for military intervention in Syria by passing a resolution that “authorises the government for a year to send Turkish troops to foreign countries”.
Syria had apologised on Thursday for the shelling that caused civilian deaths in the town of Akcakale, said Turkish Deputy Prime Minister Besir Atalay. Earlier, Syrian Information Minister Omran Zoabi offered “sincere condolences to the families of the victims and to our friends the Turkish people”.
Mr. Davutoglu’s exertions triggered a chain of events. NATO ambassadors met in Brussels, and without examining the possibility that the incident could have been an accident, or more sinisterly, a false flag attack deliberately carried out by the foreign militants operating in Syria, went ahead to accuse the government of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad for the tragedy. “The Alliance strongly condemns Syrian aggressive acts against Turkey,” tweeted Mr. Rasmussen.
The response was even shriller from Washington, which once again called for “regime change” in Syria. Pentagon press secretary George Little slammed Syria for demonstrating “depraved behaviour” by attacking Turkey. He cited the firing as another example of “why it [the Syrian government] must go”. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton said she was “outraged” by the mortar attack in Turkey.
While NATO and the U.S. officialdom have gone ballistic, Russia had a day earlier warned the West not to seek pretexts for direct intervention in Syria. “In our contacts with partners in NATO and in the region, we are calling on them not to seek pretexts for carrying out a military scenario or to introduce initiatives such as humanitarian corridors or buffer zones,” Deputy Foreign Minister Gennady Gatilov told Interfax news agency in response to a question.
Speaking at a media conference on Thursday in Islamabad, Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov said the mortar attack from Syria was accidental. He stressed that “it is of fundamental importance for Damascus to state that officially”. However, he expressed regret that there were terrorist acts being perpetrated in Syria, which the U.N. Security Council seems not to notice.
Despite the heightened tensions, the Turkish side, focused on establishing protected enclaves inside Syria, may not yet be prepared for a full-scale war. Ibrahim Kalin, a senior adviser to Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan, tweeted that Turkey was not interested in a war with Syria, but “is capable of protecting its borders and will retaliate when necessary.” In a separate message, he said: “Political, diplomatic initiatives will continue.”
The Turkish authorities have also to consider a growing domestic opposition to a war against Syria. On Thursday, police used teargas to stop a small group of anti-war protesters from approaching Parliament, which was debating an authorisation for using military force against Syria. “We don't want war!” and “The Syrian people are our brothers!” chanted the protesters in front of the Parliament building in Ankara. A much bigger and powerful anti-war movement is also brewing in cyberspace. The hashtag #savasahayir (no to war) is going viral through social networking sites far beyond the borders of Turkey.