Turkey shells Syria: Will NATO be drawn into conflict?

Turkey shells Syria in retaliation after Syrian fire kills 5 civilians in a border village, and experts say NATO’s subsequent statement of support could make Ankara even bolder.

Rauf Maltas/Anadolu Agency/Reuters
Smoke rises over the streets after an mortar bomb landed from Syria in the border village of Akcakale, southeastern Sanliurfa province, October 3.

The United States expressed “outrage” at the deadly shelling of a Turkish border village from inside Syria Wednesday. But even as Turkey retaliated against Syria, the resulting heightened tensions are unlikely to translate into military action by the US or any of Turkey’s NATO partners.

NATO’s strong formal statement of support for Turkey late Wednesday, however, even after Turkish forces responded by shelling targets in Syria, suggests to some regional experts that Turkey will now feel emboldened to confront the regime of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad in the event of further provocations – or perhaps even without them.

“Assad will see that it would be suicidal for him to provoke any further the NATO powers strongly backing Turkey, so he will step back,” says Soner Cagaptay, an expert on Turkey at the Washington Institute for Near East Policy. “But that will mean that, down the road, Ankara will see that it has more opening to retaliate against any Syrian actions or even to move first militarily against a particular threat if it feels it has to.”

Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton joined NATO Secretary General Anders Fogh Rasmussen and United Nations Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon in warning the Syrian regime over the potential dire consequences of provocative actions such as the morning shelling that killed five civilians in the Turkish village of Akcakala.

“We stand with our Turkish ally,” the White House said in a statement. In a phone call with Turkish Foreign Minister Ahmet Davutoglu, Secretary Clinton pledged US support for Turkey in the UN Security Council.

The Syrian shelling, apparently by government forces, was not the first fatal attack from Syrian territory to strike Turkey this year. Cross-border shootings have resulted in Turkish deaths, and in June the Syrian military shot down a Turkish jet that strayed across the border.

Indeed, Mr. Cagaptay says he suspects that Turkey seized on Wednesday’s border incident to strike back in retaliation for the June shootdown. Turkey had said at the time that Syria’s aggressive act was causing it to change its rules of engagement, and that henceforth it would retaliate in such cases.

Now confident of NATO’s backing, Turkey will remain cautious but will feel freer to take action when it feels it has to, Cagaptay says. He notes that Akcakala, the border village, actually straddles the border and is comprised of both Turkish and Syrian neighborhoods, and that the Syrian government apologized for what it said was a mistake.

But Cagaptay says Turkey’s quick retaliation suggests it decided to overlook the apology and send a signal of strength to Assad instead.    

The border incident occurred as a number of countries, including Iran, have recently warned of the potential for the Syrian war to descend into a broader regional conflict. US and Western officials have also recently put Iran on notice that its arming of the Assad regime – and provision of “boots on the ground” in the form of military advisers – risks igniting a wide confrontation.

Russia warned NATO and other Western powers the day before Wednesday’s border exchange not to “search for pretexts” for intervention in Syria’s conflict. Russia said the West should not be looking to enter the conflict through initiatives like humanitarian corridors or border buffer zones.

Despite such worries, Cagaptay says there is one party to the conflict that was undoubtedly buoyed by Turkey’s intervention against Assad, and that’s the Syrian opposition and rebel forces.

Noting that the shelling that struck Turkish Akcakala was what opposition strongholds in Aleppo, along the border, and elsewhere in Syria face every day, he says, “This [Turkish action] was good news for the Syrian opposition, because it was the first time anyone from outside Syria has done something about Assad’s aggression.”

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