October 5, 2012 7:41 pm

Turks on edge over the war next door

Turkey Syria©AFP

Yassin stands in front of the twisted metal gate where a Syrian mortar bomb killed five people this week. “They were drinking coffee outside,” says the 23-year-old. “When I saw the dead people I was so afraid.”

Fear and anger are not hard to find on the quiet streets of Akcakale, a Turkish town on the Syrian border. The town has been pummelled by bullets and mortars since mid-September, when Syrian rebels captured the Tel Abyad crossing point on the other side of the frontier and regime forces began a push to retake it.

One man working in a pharmacy next to a bullet-ridden wall says the shooting had become so frequent that people had started to jump at the sound of a door banging.

In the Ataturk neighbourhood, where some of the breeze-block homes have been peppered with bullets, residents have been unable to sleep on the roof, despite the hot weather, because of the risk of getting shot. “I’ve barely slept for a month,” grumbles another man.

But if Akcakale feels both angry and vulnerable, so do many people in the rest of Turkey.

Though the fatal attack on the town appears to be largely due to the intensity of the battle for Tel Abyad – which has a strategic role in both north-south and east-west supply routes – it followed a year of mounting tension between the former allies Damascus and Ankara.

Following Wednesday’s deaths, Turkish troops fired a flurry of shells across the border, hitting Syrian military posts near Tel Abyad and killing Syrian soldiers. On Thursday, the Turkish parliament gave authorisation for the country’s army to cross the border – a motion intended to have a deterrent effect, says the government in Ankara.

News agencies reported further cross-border shelling by both sides on Friday, into and out of Turkey’s Hatay province, as Ankara moved more heavy weapons into frontier districts

In Syria, despite steady rebel gains this year, the fighting remains attritional and inconclusive – as evidenced by the more than two-month continuing battle for the biggest city, Aleppo, about 50km from the Turkish frontier.

“The only real military dimension here is whether the Syrian regime is going to have to step back to prevent a repetition of this,” said Emile Hokayem, an analyst at the London-based International Institute for Strategic Studies.

But the impact on Turkey of this week’s events is another matter entirely. Recep Tayyip Erdogan, Turkey’s prime minister, said in a speech on Friday: “This incident wasn’t something you can pass over with a note.” He added: “We are not supporters of war, but we know how to fight.”

Then, addressing President Bashar al-Assad of Syria, Mr Erdogan said: “Do not try to test our patience; do not try to test the borders. Turkey will come out from this successfully, but you will bear the burden and pay a great price.”

Turkey says it has no doubt that the strife in Syria will end with Mr Assad’s downfall. One official said on Friday that Damascus’s indiscriminate use of artillery near Tel Abyad was a sign of desperation. Mr Erdogan declared: “We consider standing next to the Syrian people against the cruelty of the Assad regime as our historic, conscientious responsibility.”

The Turkish people show few signs of being convinced, however. An opinion poll last month found that 56 per cent of those surveyed disagreed with the government’s Syria policy, with 66 per cent wanting future refugees to be turned away – there are already 100,000 on Turkish soil – and 76 per cent opposing any unilateral Turkish intervention.

Hours after the parliamentary resolution authorising force, thousands of people marched in protest through Istanbul.

Analysts say a fear of war is behind such figures. Turkey is facing a resurgence in killings by the Kurdish militant PKK, which many Turks see as a byproduct of the Syrian fighting – whether because of backing by Syrian Kurds, support from Damascus and Tehran or sheer opportunism.

“Everyone in Turkey knows we don’t want a war; enough young men are being killed by the PKK,” said Ozdem Sanberk, a former diplomat. “When the seas were calmer we could fill our sails with soft power, but now they are rough and we are not so experienced with hard power.”

He, like many Turks, supports this week’s actions as sending a necessary message of deterrence. But he, like many others, worries that another accident will inevitably happen. Those concerns extend all the way to Mr Erdogan, who has described unilateral Turkish military intervention as a “trap” – and has yet to detect any backing for multilateral action by the US.

Meanwhile, Turkey has to live with the war next door.

“It’s not a regular war,” says Ahmet Oncel, another resident of Akcakale’s Ataturk district as he produces a fan damaged by a bullet which came through his brother’s bathroom window. “You’re just sitting at home and you don’t know when bullets will fly.”

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