The Turkish response to the Syrian mortar fire which killed five Turkish civilians in a border town could not have been more restrained. Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan had to respond, even if he did not want to. The same Erdogan who remained silent after a Turkish F-4 Phantom jet was shot down a few months ago new that this time the Turkish public would demand a response. Therefore, Turkey bombed Syrian army positions along the border between the two countries.
The desperate Syrian army is using all the means at its disposal to try and prevent rebels from infiltrating Syria through its neighbors, as well as to chase after rebels fleeing back to Lebanon, Jordan, Iraq or Turkey. Syrian army soldiers do not hesitate to cross into Lebanon in order to chase after rebels. After all, Lebanon is a weak country that is run by Hezbollah, which supports Assad's regime. But when it comes to Jordan, Turkey or Israel, the Syrian soldiers are careful not to cross the border for fear that such an act may lead to war.
The Syrian army is fighting the rebels near the borders with Israel, Turkey and Jordan mainly with mortar fire, but also with short-range rockets, artillery fire, tank fire and, rarely, through aerial assaults.
Due to the fact that the artillery and mortar fire is usually inaccurate, errant shells sometimes land inside the territory of a neighboring country. Mortar shells fired from Syria land in Israel's Golan region on an almost daily basis. So far Jordan, Turkey and Israel have made due with diplomatic protests to the UN and NATO out of the understanding that not much more can be done and because they do not want to respond with a military operation that may lead to a bloody war.
But on Wednesday innocent civilians were hurt – a critical blow to Turkey's national pride and to the Islamist regime's political prestige. This is why the Turkish response was swift yet very cautious and restrained. Erdogan's office said Turkish forces in the border region responded immediately "to this abominable attack in line with their rules of engagement; targets were struck through artillery fire against places in Syria identified by radar."
Turkish border town during attack (Photo: AFP)
Assad's regime may still pay dearly for the errant mortar fire because the Turks are concerned most about the flow of refugees from Syria. Syrians are fleeing Aleppo and Idlib and crossing into Turkey in droves. The number of Syrians living in refugee camps in Turkey is nearing 100,000. While the Turks are being assisted by international aid organizations, they are shouldering most of the economic burden. Moreover, some unwanted elements are finding refuge in these refugee camps and in rebel bases.
These Kurdish or Muslim terrorists are operating according to bin Laden's doctrine on behalf of global jihad. In the long term they endanger the Sunni Islamist Erdogan just as they are endangering his secular Shiite foe Assad. For this reason Turkey has been preventing the entrance of refugees into its territory, forcing thousands to set up camp right on the border. To solve this problem Turkey has asked the UN and NATO to establish safe "humanitarian zones" for the Syrian refugees near the border, but inside Syrian territory. According to the plan, the airspace above these zones will remain closed to aircraft of any kind, and NATO forces on the ground (including Turkish soldiers) will prevent the Syrian ground forces from attacking the refugees.
From the Alawite regime's standpoint, such a measure would constitute a violation of Syria's sovereignty and could result in the transfer of its territories to international or even Turkish control. Western intelligence agencies estimate that Assad will send his army to fight should this plan be implemented. NATO's headquarters in Brussels also realizes that Turkey's proposal requires a military ground operation by NATO forces to seize areas in north Syria.
Turkey has not launched such an operation on its own because as much as Erdogan wants Assad to disappear, he is not interested in a direct all-out war against a desperate Syrian army. Many predict that such a war would lead to Assad's downfall and to the rise to power of Sunni elements at the expense of the Shiite Alawites. Turkey would benefit from Iran's weakening grip in the Middle East and become more influential in the region, but the economic price of such a war would be heavy, it would result in a large number of casualties, and Turkey would likely end up controlling parts of Syria, meaning it would be responsible for a country that is engaged in a murderous civil war and may be "sucked in" - as the Americans were in Iraq.
Should Turkey withdraw from Syria after such a war, the Syrian Kurds would most likely establish an independent state and encourage their brothers in Turkey to do the same. Following such a war, Turkey would also witness al-Qaeda and other radical Islamist elements taking advantage of the lack of governance in Syria to turn it into a terror base - like in Sinai and Somalia – from which they can operate against the moderate Islamist regime in Ankara.
These considerations have so far prevented Turkey from following through on its threats, but this situation may change in light of the killing of Turkish civilians. Turkey may decide to implement in north Syria the same policy it had implemented in northern Iraq in its war against the PKK rebels. In northern Iraq Turkey has essentially established a security zone similar to the one Israel had established in south Lebanon in the 90s. Turkish tanks and army outposts are situated inside Iraqi territory, and Turkish planes operate in the area unabated. Turkey may implement this model in Syria with some changes to accommodate the need to make the area a safe haven for refugees while ensuring that it also serves as a military buffer zone.