Will the Next Front in the Syrian Revolt Be with Turkey?

Several days of cross-border shelling raise tensions between Ankara and Damascus. What are the dangers of escalation?

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BULENT KILIC / AFP / Getty Images

A man carrying a girl walks by a damaged house, where five Turkish civilians were killed by a mortar bomb, in the southern border town of Akcakale, Turkey, on Oct. 4, 2012

“We don’t want war, but this can’t remain unanswered,” says Mithat Acikkol, a resident of the southern Turkish border town of Akcakale, pointing to the house where a mortar bomb fired from Syria fell on Oct. 3, killing two women and three children. On the opposite side of the street sits another squat building, abandoned and pockmarked with bullet holes. A few hundred yards to the south, Turkish military vehicles patrol the border, their turrets pointed toward Syria. He would leave town if he could, says Acikkol, but is afraid to leave his property behind. “There are too many thieves at night.”

The locals in Akcakale have grown used to the sound of bullets and shells tearing through the air — ever since Syrian rebels began battling the forces of Bashar Assad for the nearby border crossing in Tal Abyad in mid-September. Yet, for many Turks, it was the Oct. 3 shelling that finally brought home the idea that their country — never a spectator to begin with — risked becoming directly embroiled in the civil war raging across Syria.

Just two years ago, the Turkish and Syrian governments were in the midst of a historical rapprochement, lifting visa restrictions, signing free-trade agreements and holding joint cabinet meetings. Things soured after the eruption of protests in Syria at the beginning of last year. Turkey initially offered to mediate, calling for a halt to the fighting and urging Assad to engage with the opposition. After its pleas fell on deaf ears, Ankara gave up. Its decision to host the Syrian opposition in exile — as well as leaders of the rebel Free Syrian Army (FSA) — proved the final nail in the coffin. Tensions increased in late June when the Syrian military downed a Turkish army jet flying over the eastern Mediterranean.

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

Since Oct. 3, not a single day has gone by without Syrian shells landing on Turkish soil. (Each time, Turkish troops have responded by pounding military targets in Syria with artillery volleys.) On Monday, Oct. 8, a Syrian shell landed on a cotton field in Hatay, prompting another Turkish artillery barrage. The two sides have now traded fire for six consecutive days.

Shortly before I arrived in Akcakale on Sunday, another Syrian shell fell near a plant belonging to the Turkish Grain Board. When I visited the site, boys were skipping past rows of pistachio trees, collecting shrapnel. “If it fell on a residential zone, we’d have more killed again,” said Hassan Akbay, a farmer. “We need a buffer zone in Syria,” he added.

The Turkish government couldn’t agree more. As early as August, Foreign Minister Ahmet Davutoglu asked the U.N. to consider creating safe havens in rebel-controlled Syria once the number of refugees in Turkish camps surpassed 100,000. Otherwise, he said, “We will run out of space to accommodate them.” Today, the camps are home to almost 100,000 Syrians, but Turkey appears no closer to seeing its wish come true.

There is little that it can do without external support. “In a sense, Turkey could intimidate Syria into setting up a safe haven,” says Gareth Jenkins, an Istanbul-based expert on Turkish politics, reflecting on unconfirmed reports that the Syrian army had pulled back some of its forces from the border area. “But given the power of Syrian air defenses, Turkey could not enforce a safe haven if Syria decided to resist.”

(MORE: Turkey Rattles Its Saber at Syria but Remains Unlikely to Invade)

Unlike Hatay, a Turkish border province home to a large population of Arab Alawites — the sect that forms the inner core of the Syrian regime — few people in Akcakale have any kind words for President Assad. “Such a man has no right to call himself a Muslim,” says Ismail, a 24-year-old theology student, as he leaves a local mosque after evening prayers. In Akcakale, as in Hatay, ethnic ties are also a factor. “Ninety percent of the people here are Sunni Arab,” says Feyaz Gundogan, the town’s former mayor. Many have relatives on the Syrian side of the border. As many as 6,000 Syrians have sought refuge with family members in Akcakale, says Gundogan.

Even in this town, there is growing resentment toward an Ankara government whose policies are seen by many to have made Turkey — and Akcakale — a target of Assad’s ire. Last week, according to Turkish media reports, a group of locals protested in front of the local governor’s office. A minister from the ruling Justice and Development Party (AKP) was heckled during funerals of the victims of Wednesday’s attack. “If there were elections tomorrow, the people would run the AKP out of town,” says a kebab-shop owner, the sound of artillery fire on the Syrian side of the border echoing through the dusty streets outside. “They’re supporting the opposition, they’ve invited the FSA to stay here. That’s why [the Syrians] attack us.”

Turkey now finds itself with its back against the wall. “Be ready for war if you want peace,” Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan has warned, signaling that his country would have little choice but to retaliate in more convincing fashion in the event of another deadly shelling. The problem is that most Turks have no appetite for armed intervention. According to a recent poll, 76% of them oppose unilateral military action in Syria.

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

Domestic concerns aside, the government in Ankara must take into account that any intervention is bound to complicate the crisis in Syria even further, says Gokhan Bacik, a professor at Zirve University in Gaziantep, in southern Turkey. So far, the fighting in Syria has been portrayed as a struggle between Assad’s government and the rebels, says Bacik. “If Turkey becomes part of the conflict, it will allow countries like Russia and Iran to defend their positions on the Syrian crisis more easily. We would no longer be talking about a domestic struggle for regime change but about the Turkish role in the crisis.”