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October 7, 2012 6:11 pm
Turkey and Syria exchanged cross-border fire for the fifth consecutive day on Sunday, adding to tensions that have brought Ankara much closer to open conflict with its neighbour.
Turkey fired several shells in retaliation to a Syrian mortar bomb that hit the border town of Akcakale, the same location where five people died in a Syrian strike last week.
The incident came two days after Recep Tayyip Erdogan, Turkey’s prime minister, warned that although Ankara did not want conflict, it was “not far away from war”, and a day after Leon Panetta, US defence secretary, said the exchanges raised concerns that the uprising in Syria could broaden and escalate.
In the aftermath of last week’s initial strike on Akcakale, Mr Erdogan’s government won parliamentary permission to deploy troops to Syria. While Ankara insists it sought such powers purely for deterrent effect, some analysts argue that the line between deterrence and escalation may be difficult for Mr Erdogan to tread, particularly if Syrian shells continue to hit Turkish terrain.
“Erdogan is in danger of getting ever deeper into the Syrian swamp,” said Bulent Aliriza, an analyst at the Centre for Strategic and International Studies, a Washington think-tank. “He is caught between a humiliating retreat from his position and doubling down.”
The shells have landed in Akcakale and the Turkish province of Hatay amid bitter fighting over rebel-held border posts nearby in Syria, with regime forces firing artillery in what Turkish officials say is a desperate and indiscriminate fashion. Reuters reported yesterday that rebels had seized a Syrian army post in Khirbet al-Jouz, close to the Turkish village of Guvecci, where thousands of refugees fled last year.
One official said the past week’s events may prove a turning point in showing the outside world that it cannot turn a blind eye to the risk to the region posed by protracted fighting in Syria.
But so far the US, whose stance Ankara regards as decisive, has resisted Mr Erdogan’s call for a buffer zone in Syria. Washington has also signalled it is deeply opposed to the transfer of heavy weaponry to Syrian rebels, because of the risk they could fall into the hands of extreme Islamists – a concern that has grown more intense since last month’s deadly storming of US missions in Libya and elsewhere.
“We are isolated internationally,” said Asli Aydintasbas, a Turkish columnist. “It is very clear that the Americans don’t want to lift a finger until the US presidential election in November and maybe after November as well.”
Some observers argue that, with international action such a remote prospect, greater Turkish involvement represents the rebels’ best hope of outside intervention, particularly if it means continued pummelling of regime outposts.
But a rebel commander from the north-west Syrian province of Idlib denied such suggestions.
“It’s a media thing – only one or two shells to save face,” he said of the past week’s exchange of fire. “It needs an international decision.”
Other rebel figures, such as Abu Tarek, a commander from the central province of Hama, appear more concerned about international pressure on Ankara to restrict access to the border, a vital supply route for the rebels.
While activists and diplomats say Turkey has allowed weapons shipments from Gulf states to pass through its territory, Mr Erdogan’s government denies it is helping arm the rebels, amid complaints by its opponents that Ankara has become too close to the rebels.
“Turkey is like the liver of the Syrian revolution,” Abu Tarek said. “If it stops functioning we will have problems.”
But he denied reports that rebel units co-ordinated with the Turkish army in identifying targets to shell on the Syrian side, arguing that the Turks were more than able to do so on their own.
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