Turkey Retaliates Against Syria: How It May Give Rebel Soldiers Cover to Expand

It was not the first time Syria artillery has hit the Turkish town of Akçakale. But this time Ankara struck back

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Smoke rises from the explosion area after several Syrian shells crashed inside Akcakale town in Turkey, Oct. 3, 2012.

In a major escalation along the Syrian-Turkish border, the Turkish military struck targets inside Syria on Wednesday, after shells fired from Syrian government positions killed five people in the Turkish border town of Akçakale.

It’s not the first time that the Syrian regime’s firepower has crossed international borders into neighboring states like Turkey, Lebanon, or Jordan. It’s not even the first time that Akçakale has been fired on. It was hit several times in the past few weeks during fierce battles between rebels and regime forces at the adjacent Tal Abyad border crossing. But this time, Ankara did not ignore the incursion, it retaliated. The international reaction to the Syrian bombardment was also swift. NATO ambassadors convened an urgent meeting for later on Wednesday. United Nations Secretary General Ban Ki-Moon urged Syria to respect the territorial integrity of its neighbors. The Turkish parliament is scheduled to meet Thursday morning to debate the Syrian assault—and what Ankara should do  next.

(PHOTOS: Syria’s Slow-Motion Civil War)

Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan’s office confirmed the strike in a statement, but didn’t specify the targets. The nearest Syrian regime outpost is 17.85 kilometers away, according to Abu Azzam, the leader of the Farouk Brigades, the elite Syrian rebel force that now controls the Tal Abyad border crossing. The post, although officially closed, is one of the easiest to traverse illegally. It’s just a quick five-minute walk alongside the closed Turkish position to the Syrian side, where a massive three-starred Syrian flag flutters. “Revolution until victory” is spray-painted in English along a concrete divider in the middle of the outpost.

The border post, which is in rebel hands, has continued to come under heavy shelling since regime forces were ousted from it and the town of Tal Abyad. Two nights ago, in the span of 10 minutes, three Syrian regime shells landed less than 50 meters away from the semi-destroyed main building at the crossing, kicking up thick plumes of grayish-black smoke. The first and second floors of the building have partially collapsed, pancaked atop a ground floor office that now functions as the Farouk’s headquarters. The shelling was coming from the nearest regime outpost, “it’s 17,850 meters away to be exact,” Abu Azzam said. “It’s at Khirbet al-Rizk.”

The Turkish retaliation marks a grave deterioration in once-friendly bilateral ties that have become increasingly hostile over the past 18 months since the Syrian uprising kicked off. Turkey plays host to more than 90,000 Syrian refugees, with thousands more stranded along the Turkish-Syrian border awaiting the construction of facilities to house them. The Turkish army was reportedly deploying tanks and artillery along the Syrian border late Wednesday.  It is likely just a show of force to intimidate Damascus. But Turkey’s strike may have been enough – for now – to quiet the Syrian government guns striking the Tal Abyad area. That may buy the Farouk and local Free Syrian Army brigades the time and  the opportunity to push further south into Raqqa province. They had been held back by the regime’s artillery. “We are working on the strategy of forming a liberated zone in the north, so, naturally, we must work on the crossings, liberate them and open them,” Abu Azzam said. “We are here to liberate this area and then move on.” Syria’s wayward shells, and Turkey’s response, may have at the very least provided Abu Azzam and his colleagues with that opening.

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