Turkey set for further anti-Syria measures

Fri, Oct 5, 2012, 01:00

PARLIAMENT IN Turkey approved a motion yesterday that authorises further military action against Syria, as Turkey began its second day of shelling targets within Syria in response to a mortar attack that killed five civilians.

The measure, ratified after several hours of a closed-door session in the capital, Ankara, permits cross-border raids, although senior officials insisted that Nato-ally Turkey did not want a war with its Arab neighbour.

Such an escalation could turn Syria’s bloody civil strife into a regional conflict with international involvement. The motion read, in part, “the ongoing crisis in Syria affects the stability and security in the region and now the escalating animosity affects our national security,” according to the semi-official Anatolian News Agency.

The Turkish military pounded targets inside Syria yesterday in retaliation for the mortar attack a day earlier that killed five civilians in Turkey. Local news reports said Turkish shells fell inside Syria on at least 10 occasions after midnight, landing near the border town of Tel Abyad, six miles inside Syrian territory, across a historic fault line where modern Turkey abuts Arab lands that once formed part of the Ottoman Empire.

Activist groups in Syria said the shelling killed several Syrian government soldiers. The exchanges sent tremors across a region fearful that the mounting violence in Syria will spill into neighbouring countries.

Ibrahim Kalin, a senior aide to prime minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan, said in a Twitter feed: “Turkey does not want war with Syria. But Turkey is capable of protecting its borders and will retaliate when necessary.” In a separate message, he said: “Political, diplomatic initiatives will continue.”

The assurance came as western European leaders, who have joined Turkey in supporting rebel forces in Syria, sought to prevent the border clash from flaring out of control. Catherine Ashton, the European Union’s foreign policy chief, criticised Syria for Wednesday’s mortar attack but urged restraint “on all sides”.

British foreign secretary William Hague called Turkey’s response understandable, saying, “an outrageous act has taken place, Turkish citizens have been killed inside Turkey by forces from another country . . . So we express our strong solidarity with Turkey, but we don’t want to see a continuing escalation of this incident.”

Nato, to which Turkey belongs and whose charter calls in some cases for collective action when one of its members is targeted militarily, met on Wednesday night to discuss the crisis.

At the UN Security Council, Russia blocked an attempt to issue a strongly worded statement condemning Syria for the attack, diplomats said, reinforcing council divisions over the conflict that have been in play since the uprising started in May 2011.

Azerbaijan, working on a request from Turkey, had proposed a draft statement that also expressed alarm about the conflict spilling into neighbouring countries, a long-feared escalation.

While the original text explicitly condemned the Syrian forces, Russia proposed revising it to refer to shelling from Syrian territory, diplomats said, despite the fact that Damascus seemed to take responsibility. It removed the phrase that the episode constituted a serious “threat to international peace and security”, standard language that signalled the council expected to stay involved.

Without naming Russia specifically, US envoy Susan Rice said the proposed amendments to the council statement were unacceptable so lower-level diplomats were working on a revised text.

“This sort of cross-border military activity is very destabilising and it must be stopped,” Ms Rice said. The security council should act rapidly to express the same view, she added.

Syrian ambassador to the UN Bashar Jaafari said his government had sent two letters to the security council, one to express condolences over the episode and a second to question why the council failed to condemn a series of what it said were terrorist bombings linked to al-Qaeda that had killed and wounded scores of people in Aleppo on Wednesday.

While Syria extended its condolences to the victims of the shelling at the border, Mr Jaafari said it was not apologising because it was investigating what happened.

The letter on that episode noted that if Turkey was truly interested in stabilising the frontier area it would “stop the infiltration of insurgents and terrorists”.

Area diplomats often note that when Syria was asked to stop the infiltration of militants into Iraq during the years of the US invasion, Damascus said the lengthy desert border was too difficult to control. Syria did not fire back when Turkish artillery fired into the country on Wednesday night, the letter noted.

“The Syrian government has a keen interest in maintaining good neighbourly relations with Turkey,” said Mr Jaafari.

“The Syrian government is not seeking escalation with any of its neighbours, including Turkey.”

Syria has intimated that it never intended to strike inside Turkey, and its minister of information, Omran al-Zoubi, suggested on state television that Syria was defending against a regional threat. “The Syrian-Turkish border is a long one and is being used for smuggling weapons and terrorists,” he said.

It was unclear if the mortar that struck Turkey was fired by government forces or by rebels fighting to oust President Bashar al-Assad, but Turkey believed it came from a government position, Turkish analysts said.

Turkey has called in an emergency session at NATO and revised its engagement rules in a way to allow military action when its national security is threatened.

– (New York Times)