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After a week of cross-border artillery and mortar exchanges between Turkey and Syria in response to Syrian shelling, a top military commander today said Ankara would launch an even tougher response if Syrian shells continue to land in Turkey.
“We retaliated immediately, we also inflicted losses,” a Turkish news agency quotes Gen. Necdet Ozel, chief of the Turkish general staff, as saying about the shelling, which killed five in a Turkish border town last week, reports Bloomberg. “If it continues, we will make a stronger response,” Ozel said.
Ozel didn’t expand on the kind of added force Turkey could use against Syria, but his statement comes almost a week after Turkey’s parliament authorized military offensives into foreign countries, including Syria. And yesterday, NATO said it was drawing up plans to defend Turkey in the case that Syria’s war spilled over the border again, reports Reuters.
“We have all necessary plans in place to protect and defend Turkey if necessary,” NATO Secretary-General Anders Fogh Ramussen said in Brussels, noting that the 28-member NATO alliance, of which Turkey is a member, was holding out hope that an alternative path could be found.
Turkey has reinforced its 566-mile border with Syria, but tensions have escalated as Turkey has reached out to Syrian rebel groups fighting President Bashar al-Assad over the course of the 19-month conflict.
Today, several mortars landed in Turkey across from the Syrian border town of Azmarin, and heavy gunfire could be heard from Turkey, according to a separate Reuters report. Whether the shells are intended for Turkey – or are simply due to Syrian troops overshooting their rebel targets – is unclear.
The United Nations and activist groups place the death toll of the Syrian conflict between 20,000 and 30,000 people. An estimated 100,000 refugees fleeing the violence in Syria are now housed in Turkish camps. But Turks living near the Syrian border have experienced the day-to-day terror of Syria’s ongoing conflict as well, as described by Reuters:
Just outside Hacipasa, nestled among olive groves in Turkey's Hatay province, the sound of mortar fire could be heard every 10 to 15 minutes on Tuesday from around the Syrian town of Azmarin. A Syrian helicopter flew over the border.
Villagers used ropes and boats to ferry the wounded across a river into Turkey.
Rebels with AK-47s slung over their shoulders carried an Free Syrian Army officer down to the river bank on the Syrian side, using a carpet and two poles as a makeshift stretcher….
The seriously wounded are ferried across to Turkey, while those less severely hurt are patched up at a makeshift first aid centre on the river bank and sent back into Syria.…
"We are living in constant fear. The mortar sounds have really picked up since this morning. The children are really frightened," said Hali Nacioglu, 43, a farmer from the village of Yolazikoy near Hacipasa.
Unlike the flat terrain around Akcakale, the border area in Hatay is marked by rolling hills with heavy vegetation. Syrian towns and villages, including Azmarin, are clearly visible just a few kilometres away.
"It's only right that Turkey should respond if it gets fired on but we really don't want war to break out. We want this to finish as soon as possible," said Abidin Tunc, 49, a tobacco farmer also from Yolazikoy.
Though Turkey was the first nation to retaliate militarily against Syria, Syria is not looking for a military confrontation, Jihad Makdissi, Syria’s Foreign Ministry spokesman, told Bloomberg in a phone interview today.
“Syria is in a self-defensive mode and we will act accordingly, but we are not looking for any military confrontation,” Mr. Makdissi said. “What happened was an incident not an attack. This incident is because of the presence of armed groups in that area.”
But others say Turkey and the international community should be wary about participating, even tangentially, in Syria’s civil war, sending weapons to rebel fighters, or even nonlethal aid. The Independent’s Robert Fisk compares perspectives on the Syrian conflict to those held about Northern Ireland and the IRA during that conflict:
Odd how these things get forgotten. Now it is plucky little Turkey, hosting the opposition to the Syrian regime, funnelling weapons and armed men across the border into Syria – encouraging the overthrow of Bashar al-Assad – which is the victim. The IRA's' "terrorism" against the occupying Brits has been transmogrified into the valiant Syrian resistance against a vile Alawite-led regime whose Baathist acolytes must be crushed in order to bring democracy to Damascus, etc, etc.
Now the usual caveat – which will be forgotten by those who wish to accuse the writer of being a member of the Syrian intelligence service: Bashar al-Assad is a despot, his regime is awful, its policemen torture on a scale that would stun the RUC thugs who beat up their Catholic prisoners in Castlereagh, and Syrian militias fill mass graves; there were no mass graves in Northern Ireland.
BUT. When it comes to international law, to moral compromise, to sheer hypocrisy, the Western powers take the biscuit. La Clinton raves on about Syrian depravity when Syrian shells slaughter a Turkish woman and her four children – which they did – but gives succour to the gunmen who torture and kill and suicide-bomb the regime's supporters inside Syria.
On Monday, President Abdullah Gul advocated for the international community to be “more active” on Syria as the war-torn country faces “the worst-case scenario,” reports the WSJ.