Retaliatory strikes by Turkey against Syria on Wednesday have created an entirely new dimension to a civil war that now threatens to become a full-fledged regional conflict in the Middle East. The moves by Ankara came after shelling by Syrian forces that killed five women and children in the Turkish border town of Akcakale.
European leaders including German Chancellor Angela Merkel and Foreign Minister Guido Westerwelle have strongly criticized the shelling by Syria. And on Thursday, the United Nations Security Council overcame divisions to issue a statement condemning the shelling "in the strongest terms." The statement, which had been watered down at Russia's behest, said the incident "highlighted the grave impact the crisis in Syria has on the security of its neighbors and on regional peace and stability."
Turkey's intensified role in the crisis is raising serious concerns that the country, a member of NATO, may ultimately drag the rest of its partners into war with Syria by invoking Article Five, which stipulates that all alliance members must come to the defense of any other member country that has been attacked.
On Thursday, Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan also sought to assuage concerns his country might be preparing for war. "We as Turkey just want peace and security in our region," he told reporters. "The consequences of war are plain to see in Iraq and Afghanistan."
Syria has not formally apologized to Turkey for the incident, but Russia has said it was given assurances from Damascas that the shelling of Turkey had been a tragic accident, according to wire reports.
Syrian Ambassador to the UN Bashar Ja'afari said Thursday: "The Syrian government is keenly interested in maintaining good neighborly relations with Turkey. The Syrian government is not seeking any escalation with any of its neighbors, including Turkey."
Although there is no indication Ankara will take steps to further escalate hostilities with Syria, worries over that potential outcome still consume the editorial pages of Germany's leading newspapers on Friday.
The leftist Die Tageszeitung writes:
"For decades, Turkish policy tended to be isolationist, with a focus in the country on maintaining what it already had. But this foreign policy abstinence ended when Foreign Minister Ahmet Davutoglu entered office. During his time as foreign minister, Turkish President Abdullah Gül has focused mostly on Turkey's deeper integration into Europe. But Davutoglu has also pushed for a new, more powerful role for the country in regions that include the Middle East and the Balkans -- areas the Ottoman Empire once ruled. Indeed, his opponents accuse him of pursuing neo-Ottoman policies with the aspiration of Turkish dominance in the region with a more modern twist. Initial successes by Davutoglu and Ergogan were jeopardized by the Arab Spring and threaten to collapse completely with the Syrian civil war. That's why the two opposed (Syrian dictator) Bashar Assad at a very early stage. They had hoped that the regime would quickly collapse and that they could play a role in installing his successor. But nothing came of that and now Erdogan is faced with a choice of abandoning his ambitions or raising the stakes."
The center-right daily Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung writes:
"It's apparently true that the shelling of the Turkish border town was indeed a 'tragic accident,' as the Syrian government described it in its apology. Assad cannot feasibly have any interest in starting a military conflict on the border with Turkey. He needs his troops in his own country to hold onto power. A massive Turkish military intervention (with a degree of political support from NATO) would presumably lead to more freed areas in Syria, which could quickly turn into internationally protected safe zones -- which would virtually legitimize the collapse of the Syrian state under international law."
"But Turkey also has little interest in escalating the conflict. The consequences in the entire region would be incalculable and presumably unmanageable: It would threaten a war that would reach the whole Middle East and beyond. Even Assad, who is fighting for his own political survival, is rational enough not to play games with his physical survival as well."
The center-left Süddeutsche Zeitung writes:
"Turkey is in the process of going down a highly dangerous path. It is intervening in a war. With a decision by its parliament this week mandating a deployment of the Turkish military into Syrian territory, the NATO member state has also established the pre-conditions for a highly dangerous internationalization of the Syrian conflict."
"One has to ask what is being served if Turkey becomes an actor in this war? Damascus dictator Assad, who is desperately fighting for his survival, could hardly be so foolhardy as to engage in war with his highly-armed neighbor -- particularly given that he can't be certain how America and NATO will act."
"There was already a lot of saber-rattling back in June, when a Turkish reconaissance jet crashed off the Syrian coast. At the time, nobody had any idea what business the plane actually had flying in the region. And today nobody knows what Turkey's real intentions are. Ankara isn't laying its cards on the table when it comes to its policies toward Syria. That's just making the threat of war even greater."
The conservative Die Welt writes:
"Many people, such as the Syrian rebels, might hope this situation offers Ankara a reason to support the Syrian opposition not only with words, weapons and money, but also with military force. In reality, hardly anyone is interested in allowing the situation to escalate any further. Damascus doesn't want that because the Assad regime needs its soldiers to put down the uprising. Ankara doesn't want that because a large majority of Turks are opposed to it and because Syria would be an opponent to take seriously. If it came to an all-out war, the Syrian army could also use chemical or biological weapons from its well-stocked arsenal. The consequences would be unforeseeable. But NATO also doesn't want to be pulled into a new war in the Middle East and a civil war in Syria with unclear front lines. Europe has enough to do with its economic and currency crisis. And, during its election campaign season, America might not want to be bothered with what's happening in the outside world."
"Under these conditions, everything points toward the situation calming down. Unless, of course, there is an unplanned incident. In the history of the world, there have been many wars that both sides weren't really interested in.... For this reason, it is important that the world makes it clear to the Syrian regime what the risk is if it takes military action against rebels in areas near borders; there is always the danger that stray shells will land on the other side. And, behind the scenes, the NATO partners should warn the Turkish government about becoming a prisoner of its own rhetoric."
The business daily Handelsblatt writes:
"The conflict now threatens to escalate. One shouldn't believe that Turkish Prime Erdogan is acting disinterestedly with his retaliatory strikes or that he only pushed through a kind of enabling act permitting the foreign deployment of his military solely for purposes of making a show. The step means a conscious fuelling of the conflict. NATO now has an avenue for getting into things itself if there are more Syrian encroachments."
"The regime in Damascus is trying to play down the escalation as a 'border incident.' But this rhetorical retreat only means that it has grasped that the restraint thus far shown by the (NATO) alliance partners could soon come to an end. More than anyone, Erdogan holds the key in his hand. If he wants to seize the opportunity and expand his influence, the Middle East will become a powder keg."
The Financial Times Deutschland writes:
"The Syrian attack on Turkish territory has made one thing clear: Each military incident along the border of the two countries could trigger a war. And because Turkey is a NATO member state, it is a war that Germany and the other NATO partners would inevitably get pulled into."
"Diplomacy is still prevailing -- and backstage it is being conducted with hedged statements of support of Turkey but also subdued assurances for Assad. Nonethless, Assad should not doubt NATO's resolve. The military option cannot be ruled out entirely."