Playing with Fire: Turkey Edges toward War with Syria

By Jürgen Gottschlich in Istanbul

War with Syria? Most Turks say no. But the government of Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan is aggressively responding to a deadly cross-border attack, having been granted broad military powers by parliament. His hope: After Assad falls, Turkey will gain even more influence in the Middle East.

Photo Gallery: Turkey Retaliates on Syrian Border Photos
DPA

There's a growing fear among the Turkish public that their country will be sucked further into an armed conflict with Syria. Following the firing of a mortar bomb from Syrian terroritory that killed five civilians on Wednesday in the Turkish border town of Akcakale, Turkish fighter jets have carried out multiple strikes on Syrian targets, including a military camp belonging to President Bashar Assad. Numerous Syrian soldiers were reportedly killed.

Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan has made it clear his armed forces would not let an attack on "our territory" go unanswered. After Syrian anti-aircraft defenses shot down a Turkish surveillance plane in June, Turkey has significantly increased its troop presence along the border it shares with the country. At the time, Erdogan began to warn of consequences for cross-border violence.

Since then, Turkish troops have been on stand-by. They showed restraint when Turkish civilians in Akcakale were injured by stray bullets from Syria two weeks ago. But military leaders did place additional tanks and artillery near the border. Akcakale is a flashpoint, caught between Syrian government troops and rebels in their battle for control over the nearby Tel Abyad border crossing.

As happened immediately after the Turkish plane got shot down, Ankara is now campaigning for international support for acts of retaliation. Both NATO and the United Nations Security Council have held emergency sessions to discuss the cross-border violence. And even as the trans-Atlantic military alliance voiced verbal support, the Security Council was once again prevented from taking action because of Russian concerns.

Turkey Already Involved

The Turkish government has long been pressuring the United States and its allies to support the establishment of a no-fly zone over Syrian territory. After the Turkish plane was shot down, Erdogan spoke on the phone with President Barack Obama -- who rejected getting involved militarily in Syria. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton has voiced sharp criticism of the most recent violence, but she judged as unnecessary an activation of the NATO charter calling for collective action when one member state is attacked. Her Turkish counterpart, Ahmet Davutoglu, has often complained to the Security Council about the international community's unwillingness to act.

The Turkish government currently finds itself in a multi-faceted dilemma: It has already taken in 100,000 refugees from Syria, pushing its resources to full capacity. The number has often been cited by Ankara as its limit. Beyond that figure, it would need to establish a safe zone for civilians on Syrian soil.

Despite its relative restraint, Turkey is already deeply involved in the war against Assad. The Free Syrian Army, the main rebel military group, operates from territory in Turkey and reportedly has training camps across the border. The rebels' weapons supply line runs through Turkey. And Assad's regime accuses Ankara of giving terrorists from Libya, Pakistan and other countries free access to the Syrian border.

Turkey has been set on ousting Assad for about a year now. But it is doing so not solely out of concern for human rights or selfless support for a supposedly democratic uprising. More than anything else, Turkey sees the Syrian civil war as a chance to expand its influence in the Middle East, should a government emerge from the rubble in Damascus with Ankara's backing. Like Saudi Arabia and Qatar, Erdogan's government is betting on a victory for the Sunni opposition over the Alawite-dominated regime of Assad. The desire to establish itself as a leading power in a Sunni-dominated Middle East was clear enough at a recent convention of Erdogan's Justice and Development Party (AKP). Those appearing alongside the prime minister included exiled Iraqi Sunni leader Tariq al-Hashemi, Hamas leader Khaled Mashaal and new Egyptian President Mohammed Morsi.

Broad Military Powers for Erdogan

However, as long as the UN Security Council is incapable of approving intervention in Syria and NATO and the US are unwilling to actively support the Turkish military, Erdogan and Foreign Minister Davutoglu are playing with fire. Polls show that it is not just the opposition in parliament that opposes a military attack on Syria -- a wide majority of the Turkish population is also against it.

Regardless, Erdogan's AKP has a comfortable majority in parliament and handily passed a bill on Thursday authorizing military operations in Syria. Its broad language gives Erdogan the power to react immediately to attacks from Syria without having to gain prior parliamentary approval again.

"Turkey has no interest in a war with Syria," tweeted Ibrahim Kalin, a senior adviser to Erdogan. "But Turkey is capable of protecting its borders and will retaliate when necessary."

In other words: Expect more incidents like this in the future.

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