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Syria

Syria-Turkey tensions 'in neither side's interests'

There's continued tension at the Turkish-Syrian border. Ankara is threatening military retaliation should Syria keep sending shells across the border. Experts don't expect a war - but also can't rule it out.

Turkish soldiers stand guard in Akcakale by the Turkish-Syria border on October 4, 2012 in southern Sanliurfa province. Turkish artillery hit targets near Syria's Tel Abyad border town for a second day today, killing several Syrian soldiers according to activists and security sources, after a mortar bomb fired from the area killed five Turkish civilians. Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan said that Turkey has no intention of going to war with Syria, hours after parliament authorised possible cross-border attacks. 
AFP PHOTO/BULENT KILIC (Photo credit should read BULENT KILIC/AFP/GettyImages)

Türkische Soldaten an der Grenze mit Syrien

The Turkish military didn't wait long. When Syrian shells hit Turkish territory in mid-October, Ankara replied in kind. Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan warned that whoever wanted to test his country's readiness to defend itself was making a deadly mistake.

His chief of staff Necdet Özel threatened with massive retaliation. The parliament in Ankara gave the government the green light for a possible invasion of Syria, while the tensions caused international concern about a potential fully-fledged war between the countries. Experts see no immediate danger of war, but can't rule out the possibility either.

A further escalation is unlikely though, believes Michael Brzoska, expert on security policy and peace studies at Hamburg University. "I don't see any interest in Turkey in being drawn into an internal Syrian conflict," he told Deutsche Welle.

Andre Bank, Syria expert at Hamburg's German Institute of Global and Area Studies (GIGA), does not expect the current occasional skirmishes to escalate into war either, as Erdogan must take into account that a majority of his political supporters are against intervention.

A volatile border

A Syrian passenger plane is seen after it was forced to land at Ankara airport, Turkey, 10 October 2012.
EPA/CEM OKSUZ/ANADOLU AGENCY EDITORIAL USE ONLY/NO SALES/NO ARCHIVES (recropped version +++(c) dpa - Bildfunk+++

A Syrian plane was detained in Turkey

But the situation at the border is complicated. It is still unclear who exactly is firing from the Syrian side. It's also impossible to say whether the firing is intentional or accidental. But a major strike on a Turkish school or hospital with several casualties, for instance, would force politicians and military leaders in Ankara to react. "This can only happen if the level of violence reaches another level," Bank said. Then the Kurdish rebels, the PKK, or the Syrian army would be likely to retaliate in turn.

Relations between the two neighbors have continually worsened since the beginning of the Syrian civil war. Erdogan has called Syrian President Bashar Assad a dictator with blood on his hands. Syrian troops already fired across the border at a refugee camp in the Turkish province Kilis in April, injuring several people. Two months later, the Syrian army shot down a Turkish military plane, and both pilots lost their lives. Turkey, a NATO member, then began moving troops and military equipment to its southern border, while Turkish fighter jets force back Syrian helicopters when they come too close to the border.

The conflict reached its worst point so far on October 3. During a fight between Syrian rebels and Assad's army, several mortars hit a Turkish border village, killing five Turkish citizens. The Turkish artillery responded, and since then there have been several artillery exchanges between the two sides. Both countries have closed their airspace to each other – a move that came in response to Ankara forcing down a Syrian civilian machine, which Turkey claimed had military equipment on board.

Backing for the Syrian rebels

In this citizen journalism image taken on Tuesday, July 19, 2011 with a mobile phone and provided by Shaam News Network, Syrian anti-regime protesters carry a picture of Syrian President Bashar Assad with an Arabic writing that reads, Leave. We don't trust you. You will leave and we will stay because Syria is ours. Enough of injustice and killing, during a rally in the southern suburb of Maadamiya, Damascus, Syria. (Foto:Shaam News Network/AP/dapd) EDITORIAL USE ONLY, NO SALES, THE ASSOCIATED PRESS IS UNABLE TO INDEPENDENTLY VERIFY THE AUTHENTICITY, CONTENT, LOCATION OR DATE OF THIS HANDOUT PHOTO

Assad is now at a military stalemate with the rebels

Turkey has been deeply implicated in the Syrian civil war from the outset. Around 100,000 refugees have fled to Turkey during the conflict. The Free Syrian Army organizes its campaign with the help of massive backing from Ankara. The Erdogan government also wants to increase its influence in the Middle East. "The Turkish model is seen as an example by many Arab opposition movements," said Bank. But this role could change, depending on how Ankara's relationship with Syria develops. Should Turkey intervene, "it might be seen as yet another colonial power."

There are many regional players indirectly involved in the conflict. Saudi Arabia and Qatar support the fragmented Syrian opposition, along with Turkey. The government in Damascus can count on support from Iran. As direct neighbors, Jordan and Lebanon are both very much affected by events. Some of those countries would benefit from a military intervention by Turkey, Brzoska explained. The Free Syrian Army would welcome an intervention the most. "But this would not be without complications for the Free Syrian Army either, as they'd have to deal with Ankara differently after a Turkish victory."

Kurdish role

The Kurdish role in the conflict is difficult to assess. In Syria's north, the Kurdish "Democratic Union Party" (PYD) is considered the sister party to Turkey's PKK, which in recent months has intensified its attacks on Turkish security forces. The PKK now seems to operate from Syrian territory too, while Assad's troops have almost entirely withdrawn from the Kurdish part of Syria. Aside from the PYD, other Kurdish groups are seeking help from Ankara as part of the Syrian opposition.

Neither Bank nor Brzoska espcect an end to the tensions along the border any time soon, though everything depends on the future course of the civil war. As long as there remains a military stalemate between the government in Damascus and the rebels, the danger remains that the situation will escalate.

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