Turkey authorizes military action in Syria after mortar attack that killed civilians
BEIRUT — Turkey’s parliament voted Thursday to authorize military cross-border operations into Syria, a day after an apparently errant mortar strike from inside Syria killed five Turkish civilians.
Deputy Prime Minister Besir Atalay told the Associated Press that the 320-129 vote “is not for war,” but is intended to deter Syria from further violence that could spill over the border.
Though this was not the first time the Syrian conflict has spilled over into Turkey, the five people killed Wednesday after a shell launched by the Syrian military crashed into the Turkish border town of Akcakale were the first Turkish civilians to die.
Within hours of the strike, Turkey launched two artillery attacks against Syria in retaliation, marking the most serious escalation in international tensions since the Syrian revolt erupted 19 months ago.
“Our armed forces in the border region responded immediately to this abominable attack in line with their rules of engagement; targets were struck through artillery fire against places in Syria identified by radar,” said a statement issued by the office of Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan.
The British-based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights quoted activists in the Syrian border town of Tal Abyad as saying that an unspecified number of Syrian soldiers were killed by artillery fire that struck a military base Thursday morning.
Turkey has shown a willingness in the past to send troops into neighboring countries to address perceived threats to its safety. Specifically, it repeatedly sent forces into Iraq to combat Kurdish guerrillas who had struck at Turkish targets.
Amid growing international concerns that the conflict could escalate further, Syria’s ally Russia on Thursday urged Syria to publicly admit that its forces had fired the shell that killed the civilians.
Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov said the Syrian authorities had told him the incident “was a tragic accident and that it will not happen again,” the Russian news agency RIA quoted him as saying during a visit to Islamabad.
“We think it is of fundamental importance for Damascus to state that officially,” he added.
NATO, of which Turkey is a member, met in emergency session Wednesday at Turkey’s request and issued a strongly worded statement calling the Syrian shelling “a flagrant breach of international law and a clear and present danger to the security of one of its Allies.” Although NATO pledged to continue to “stand by Turkey,” it proposed no immediate action.
In Washington on Wednesday, the White House also condemned the Syrian shelling and affirmed the United States’ solidarity with Turkey. “We stand with our Turkish ally and are continuing to consult closely on the path forward,” National Security Council spokesman Tommy Vietor said.
Pentagon spokesman George Little condemned what he called “the depraved behavior of the Syrian regime.”
Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton reiterated the United States’ support for Turkey in a telephone call with Turkish Foreign Minister Ahmet Davotoglu and pledged that the United States would stand by Turkey in any future discussions of the crisis at the United Nations, according to State Department spokesman Victoria Nuland.
Turkey sent a letter to the United Nations calling on the Security Council “to take necessary action to put an end to such acts of aggression.”
“This is a gesture, not a war,” said Henri Barkey, professor of international relations at Lehigh University, referring to the Turkish strikes Wednesday night and Thursday.
Erdogan has repeatedly made bombastic statements about Syria, and the first deaths of Turkish civilians left him with little choice but to retaliate, Barkey said.
“The Turks don’t want to go to war,” he said. “They don’t want to do this by themselves, and there is absolutely no support at home for a war.”
The incident nevertheless pointed to the dangers of a conflict that has already polarized the region, stirring ancient rivalries and newer enmities.
“This is the latest manifestation of a worsening situation,” said Andrew Tabler of the Washington Institute for Near East Policy. “This is not the only place it is spilling over. It is spilling over into Jordan, into Lebanon. They’re shelling on a daily basis. The difference today is it’s the first time we have a country calling Assad out.”
In a statement issued before the Turkish retaliation, U.N. Secretary General Ban Ki-moon appealed for restraint, warning that the mortar incident demonstrated the risks the violence in Syria poses to the region.
“Syria’s conflict is threatening not only the security of the Syrian people but increasingly causing harm to its neighbors,” he said.
Tension comes to a head
The strike followed more than a year of growing hostility between Turkey and Syria, former allies who have turned into bitter foes since Erdogan joined his Western allies in calls for Assad to step down.
The tensions soared sharply after Syria shot down a Turkish jet in June, killing two pilots over international waters, according to Turkey, and within Syrian territorial waters, according to Syria.
Meanwhile, a surge in the levels of violence in Syria over the summer months has propelled tens of thousands of refugees into Turkey, straining government resources and heightening government frustrations with the failure of its Western allies to take tougher action against Assad.
The number is likely to grow as the violence continues to rage. A suicide attack in Aleppo on Wednesday, which killed 34 people, signaled that the rebels are becoming more sophisticated in their strikes against government targets, at a time when the regime is stepping up its assaults against rebel-held areas with aerial bombardments.
According to state media, two suicide bombers detonated car bombs containing more than 2,000 pounds of explosives in the city’s central Saadallah al-Jabri square shortly after 8 a.m., killing 34 people and injuring 122.
A third explosion nearby occurred while officers were dismantling a bomb, according to the official Syrian Arab News Agency.
The target, apparently a military officers club, was completely demolished. The blasts also caused widespread damage to the surrounding area, ripping the facades off several buildings. State television showed the bodies of three men wearing military uniforms lying amid piles of debris.
SANA said civilians and military personnel were among those killed, but rebels claimed that all of the victims were members of the security forces, saying that the area represented a legitimate target because it had been turned into what rebel spokesman Mohammed al-Halbi called “a military barracks.” High-ranking officers were living at the officers club, and two government-owned hotels damaged in the blast were being used to accommodate Syrian and Iranian intelligence operatives, he said.
Responsibility for the attack was claimed by the Jabhat al-Nusra, a militant group that has carried out a string of suicide bombings in Damascus and Aleppo in recent months.
Colum Lynch at the United Nations, Ahmed Ramadan and Suzan Haidamous in Beirut and James Ball, Anne Gearan, Debbi Wilgoren, Scott Wilson and Craig Whitlock in Washington contributed to this report.