A kerfuffle has broken out between Syria and Turkey this week, inviting speculation that Turkey may well have been goaded into launching a full-scale military operation against Syrian President Bashar al-Assad. The Syrian conflict has been a challenge to Turkey’s “Zero problems with neighbours” philosophy that has informed its dealings with its neighbours in recent years, severely straining relations with Syria. A war, though, is still out of the question. By KHADIJA PATEL.
On Thursday, President Jacob Zuma attended the grand opening of the Nizameye Mosque complex in Midrand, Johannesburg. The mosque complex, which also includes a school, bazaar and clinic, was built by Turkish property developer Orhan Celik with the blessing of Nelson Mandela. But it is the Nizamiye mosque itself that dominates the skyline along the highway connecting Pretoria and Johannesburg, a visual reminder of Turkey’s growing geopolitical clout. But even as the Turks continue to court South African business and Zuma himself reiterates South African commitment to strengthening bilateral relations, the ascendant Turkey that has emerged in recent years is facing a stern test of character.
On Wednesday, after claims that a mortar attack from Syria had killed five people in the town of Akcakale, Turkey retaliated, shelling targets in Syria.
On Thursday, Turkish Prime Minister Recep Erdogan, speaking at a press briefing in Ankara alongside the Iranian deputy president Mohammad-Reza Rahimi, stressed that Wednesday’s incident was not the first time Syrian fire had encroached Turkey’s borders during the uprising. “This is the eighth time,” Erdogan said.
For the Turks, the mortar attack on Wednesday was the “last straw”, a repeat offence for which diplomacy had not yielded any success. Still, it is not clear who exactly fired the mortar into Turkey.
Importantly, however, the exchange occurred in the context of ongoing skirmishes between the Syrian military and rebel forces along the border in the vicinity of Akcakale, including a recent rebel attempt to take control of a border crossing. Since then, Syrian forces have reportedly been engaged with rebel forces quite close to the border. Ross Wilson, former US ambassador to Turkey and current director of the Dinu Patriciu Eurasia Center at the Atlantic Council, believes “the mortar fire was likely intended to strike at support base(s) used by the rebels, who probably have been passing back and forth across the border for some time.”
After rallying the support of fellow Nato members late on Wednesday, Turkey's parliament authorised military operations outside the country's borders, consenting to the Turkish military striking Syria “when necessary”. Turkey's parliament already had been due to vote on Thursday on extending a five-year-old authorisation for foreign military operations, an agreement originally intended to allow strikes on Kurdish militant bases in northern Iraq.
But, according to Reuters, the memorandum signed by Erdogan and sent for parliamentary approval also said that despite repeated warnings and diplomatic initiatives, the Syrian military had launched aggressive action against Turkish territory, presenting a "serious threat".
Syria, meanwhile, said it was investigating the source of the mortar bomb and urged restraint. Information Minister Omran Zoabi said his country respected the sovereignty of neighbouring countries.
According to Russian media reports, Syrian officials told the Kremlin that the attack was a "tragic accident" and not an intentional assault on Turkey. Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov said that Russia, an abiding ally of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad, had urged Damascus to acknowledge the mistake publicly. And on cue, Damascus apologised through the United Nations for the shelling, promising it would not happen again.
At the United Nations, meanwhile, Russia blocked the adoption of a draft statement condemning the Syrian shelling of Akcakale and proposed a text that would call for "restraint" on the border without referring to breaches of international law.
The Turks are not likely to be mollified without first making a show of tit-for-tat aggression, but the likelihood of an all-out war between the two countries remains slim.
Turkey has retaliated to yesterday's incident without declaring war on Syria. Ibrahim Kalin, a senior adviser to Erdogan, said on his Twitter account on Thursday morning that “political, diplomatic initiatives [would] continue.”
Erdogan himself insisted that the parliamentary approval for military exercises beyond the country’s border was not a mandate for war. “We have no aim to bring about a war [in Syria],” he said. "We as Turkey just want peace and security in our region. We could never be interested in something like starting a war. The consequences of war are plain to see in Iraq and Afghanistan.”
Erdogan, already under severe pressure from opposition parties and activists for his stance on Syria, will be hard-pressed to defend a war to the Turkish people. Even this intimation of a war with Syria was met with widespread condemnation in Turkey.
Police fired teargas to stop a group of 25-30 anti-war protesters, chanting "We don't want war" outside the Turkish parliament buildings on Thursday, preventing them from approaching parliament as deputies debated the motion. Later on, in Istanbul, around 5,000 people joined an anti-war protest which quickly turned into a demonstration against Erdogan’s AK Party.
Last month a poll, referenced by the InterPress Service, showed that public approval of the Turkish government’s foreign policy had reached its lowest point. A mere 18% of respondents said they favoured Turkey’s approach to the conflict next door in Syria.
So far, however, Turkish officials are standing firm behind their Syria policy, knowing well that Turkey has a stake in the way the Syrian crisis progresses, but wary as well of further denting the government’s popularity with voters. DM
- Syria: Is there really a refugee crisis? In Daily Maverick
- S.Africa opens giant Turkish-built mosque complex on AFP
- No one, including Turkey, wants the Syrian conflict to spread in The Guardian
Photo: Turkish soldiers patrol in an armoured personnel carrier on the Turkish-Syrian border near the Akcakale border crossing, southern Sanliurfa province, October 4, 2012. Turkey's parliament gave authorisation on Thursday for military operations outside Turkish borders if the government deemed them necessary, a day after artillery shelling from Syria killed five civilians in the Turkish town of Akcakale. REUTERS/Murad Sezer