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Turkey approves Syria raids, but disapproves of war
Turkey’s parliament has authorised military operations inside Syria following Wednesday’s deadly shelling of a Turkish town. But Turks have voiced their opposition to a war, and Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan appears to have heard them.
The roar of war was getting louder over the past few weeks in Akcakale, a tiny Turkish town right on the Syrian border, with mortars crashing into buildings and the rumble of distant tank fire accompanying announcements from the local mosque warning residents to stay home.
That’s exactly what Zeliha Timucin was doing on Wednesday evening when her family was huddled in their modest Akcakale home. But the shelling got her – and her three daughters, as well as her sister – anyway.
In a matter of hours, Akcakale turned from nondescript border town to the focus of international attention.
As Turkish troops took up positions across the area, international news teams descended on the area to cover the funerals of the first Turkish civilians to be killed by Syrian fire since the uprising against President Bashar al-Assad began in March 2011.
Turkey’s patience wearing thin
Suddenly, the drums of war turned deafening. Hours after the Syrian shelling, Turkey fired at positions inside Syrian territory in a clearly directed message to Syria and the international community: Turkey’s patience was running thin.
“The bombardment continued this morning,” said FRANCE 24’s Jasper Mortimer, reporting from the Turkish capital of Ankara early Thursday. “Turkey is signalling that last night’s retaliation was not simply a knee-jerk reaction. Turkey is very angry with Syria over its repeated violations of its borders.”
By noon, Turkey’s parliament had approved a bill extending authorisation for cross-border military operations. Originally intended for Turkish raids on Kurdish rebel bases in northern Iraq, the new bill included text that described Syrian military action in Turkey as a "serious threat".
Thousands of miles away, in Brussels and New York, the diplomatic drum rolls were also beating.
At a NATO meeting in Brussels called by member state Turkey, the 28-member military alliance issued a statement condemning Syria’s “flagrant breach of international law”, which represented a “clear and present danger to the security of one of its allies”.
In New York, Turkey asked the UN Security Council to take the "necessary action" to stop Syrian aggression.
‘We don’t want war’
But beyond the diplomatic tough talk and the occasional cross-border attack on Syrian positions, Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan’s hands are tied, with most Turks displaying little appetite for war or an escalation of a likely messy military conflict.
On Thursday, as parliamentarians were debating the bill on cross-border military operations, dozens of anti-war demonstrators protested near the parliament building chanting, "We don't want war".
In the commercial capital of Istanbul, around 5,000 people joined an anti-war protest, which rapidly turned into a demonstration against Erdogan’s AK Party.
"The AKP wants war, the people want peace," protesters chanted, followed by cries of, "No to war, peace right now."
Recent polls show a clear majority of Turks oppose a military intervention in Syria. The Turkish army is already stretched by its 28-year war against rebels of the outlawed Kurdistan Workers Party (PKK) and Turks have little appetite for a military occupation along the lines of the US-led missions in Iraq and Afghanistan.
Most experts agree that Turkey is not likely to declare an all-out war against Syria despite its military superiority.
“There will never be a war between Turkey and Syria because both countries have no interest in it,” said Fabrice Balanche, director of GREMMO (Groupe de Recherches et d'Etudes sur la Méditerrannée et le Moyen-Orient), a Paris-based think tank.
For its part, Syria has maintained that it does not want an escalation of violence with Turkey and in a letter delivered to the UN Security Council, Syrian Ambassador to the UN Bashar Ja'afari offered his country’s “deepest condolences'' to the families of the victims and to Turkey.
Noting the relatively subdued Turkish response to the June 22 downing of a Turkish fighter jet by Syria, Balanche maintained that Turkey’s retaliatory bombings and calls for emergency meetings at NATO and the UN “are all ways for the Turks to show their discontent."
Lack of international ‘initiative’
A conservative Sunni Muslim, Erdogan has allowed Syrian rebels to set up bases in Turkish territory, although Turkey officially denies arming the rebels.
A tough-talking politician who grew up in the rough Kasimpasa neighbourhood of Istanbul, Erdogan has volubly heaped opprobrium on Assad’s crackdown on the Syrian uprising.
But he has also vocally complained about the desultory international backup he has received on the Syrian crisis.
In an interview with CNN before the UN General Assembly meeting last month, Erdogan said Washington “lacked initiative” in dealing with the issue. "Maybe it's because of the elections -- maybe it's because of the pre-election situation in the US,” he said.
Responding to Turkey’s retaliatory attacks on Syria Thursday evening, the US echoed international condemnation of the Syrian attack -- followed by calls for restraint.
Speaking to reporters in Washington Thursday, a US State Department spokeswoman said the US regarded Turkey's response to Syrian fire as “appropriate, proportionate and designed to deter any future violations of its sovereignty by Syria”.
Turkish moves to secure a safe zone at the UN have also met with resistance from Russia and China even as NATO has displayed no appetite to monitor and implement a no-fly zone, the way the alliance did during the 2011 Libyan uprising.
While NATO has been quick to condemn the Syrian shelling in Akcakale, Balanche notes that “nobody in NATO will risk the Syrian slippery slope.”