Tension escalates along Turkey-Syria border
HACIPASA, Turkey — The turrets of Turkish armored vehicles rise from the cotton fields outside this border village, guns trained toward Syria.
Infantry units flank the banks of the Orontes River as Syrians escaping the fighting in their homeland maneuver across its muddy waters in rowboats. Overhead, Turkish fighter jets periodically buzz the skies.
The two nations’ more-than-500-mile border has become a tinderbox that many fear could become the spark for a regional war that no one seems to want but that appears to be closer than ever.
Turkey has found itself — often uncomfortably — on the forefront of international efforts to confront Syrian President Bashar Assad’s regime. A series of incidents between the two nations has threatened to export Syria’s civil conflict beyond its borders and pull other powerful players into the struggle.
Last week, the escalating tension took a new turn and drew in superpower Russia after Turkish F-16 fighters intercepted a Syrian passenger jet out of Moscow that, Turkish officials alleged, was ferrying munitions to Damascus. The episode angered Russia, a major trading partner that Ankara had been wooing after decades of Cold War hostility, while Washington backed the actions of Turkey, eastern bulwark of the North Atlantic Treaty Organization.
The airliner incident came after almost a week of cross-border shelling and followed Turkish lawmakers’ decision to grant war powers authority allowing Ankara to deploy forces outside Turkey’s boundaries. Bellicose rhetoric from the Turkish side has ratcheted up as Turkish tanks, troops, artillery emplacements and antiaircraft batteries have been rushed to the border.
“We are here, and we are standing tall,” Turkish Chief of Staff Gen. Necdet Ozel told reporters last week during a visit to the border town of Akcakale, site of an Oct. 3 mortar strike — apparently an errant Syrian shell — that killed a Turkish woman, three of her daughters and their aunt.
Syria’s geopolitical significance in the heart of the combustible Middle East has inevitably drawn in a host of powerful players with competing interests.
For some time, Syria’s raging conflict has been a proxy war pitting Assad’s government and its allies, Russia and Iran, against an anti-Assad coalition including Turkey, the United States, the European Union and Persian Gulf states.
Turkey took an early stand against its former ally, calculating that Assad, like other strongmen challenged by the rebellions of the “Arab Spring,” would fall relatively quickly. That didn’t happen, and Turkish territory emerged as the key staging ground and logistics hub for Syria’s armed opposition. For Turkey, though, there is no going back.
“Turkey has become the spearhead of the international community in terms of opposition to Assad,” said Soner Cagaptay with the Washington Institute for Near East Policy. “If there is one country that cannot, and will not, live with Assad, it is Turkey.”
Assad has received valuable support from Moscow and Tehran. Russia has used its position on the United Nations Security Council to limit international intervention against Assad’s government. Iran, determined to hold on to its major Arab ally, is widely believed to have provided economic and military assistance to the faltering Assad administration.
Despite belligerent oratory from Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan, there is deep disquiet in Turkey about the prospects of a wider conflict. Polls have shown Turks adamantly opposed to a war with Syria.
Many voice fears that Ankara is mostly going it alone in Syria these days, a perilous undertaking in such an explosive region, even for a nation with NATO’s second largest armed forces.
Turkish analysts have noted Washington’s desire to stay clear of a battle that is drawing legions of Sunni Islamic militants eager to topple Assad, whose minority Alawite sect is viewed by some extremists as heretical. The Obama administration has resisted arming the rebels, in part out of fears that sophisticated weaponry may end up in the hands of Al Qaeda or other militant groups. Rebels complained that arms funded with Persian Gulf money are not sufficient to do the job.
Many Turkish citizens fear being caught up in a Syrian quagmire.
“Why should we play the ram head in taking down the minority regime in Syria when there is no strong appetite in the international community for facilitating the overthrow?” columnist Abdullah Bozkurt asked Sunday in the English-language version of the Zaman newspaper. “Turkey does not need to be a Don Quixote here. Let’s face the facts. The U.S. has no desire to commit itself deeply to the Syrian conflict, as it must be abundantly clear to everybody by now.”
Turkey has pushed for some kind of buffer zone in Syria to protect refugees — and provide some insulation for the Turkish border. But Washington has signaled that it is not willing to commit the military resources, such as warplanes, needed to protect such a safe haven.
Meantime, refugees continue to pour into Turkish territory, straining resources and creating social stress in border areas.
Antiwar protests have become commonplace in Turkey, including a rally Saturday in Antakya, near the Syrian border, which featured demonstrators carrying placards proclaiming, “We don’t want Al Qaeda.” The city and surrounding Hatay province are home to considerable numbers of Alawites, from the same sect as Assad. Many support the Syrian leader and denounce Turkey’s backing of “terrorists” in neighboring Syria.
Within Turkey, experts say, there seems to be considerable public support for “proportionate” Turkish retaliation for perceived Syrian provocations, such as the mortar round that killed the five Turks this month. At the moment, war does not appear imminent. But another deadly incident like the strike in Akcakale, causing additional Turkish casualties, could push Turkey down a path of ever-escalating responses, with unknown consequences.
For a decade, Turkey has prospered in part because of its stability and distance from the turmoil roiling much of the region. Now some fear that period of progress and relative peace could be ending as Turkey is increasingly drawn into a conflict that has no clear end, and may get worse before it gets better.
“The danger is that Turkey could set up tripwires that lead to ever greater escalation,” said Hugh Pope, project director for Turkey and Cyprus at the International Crisis Group. “The risk of an accident is great.”
Special correspondent Rima Marrouch contributed to this report.
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