Underlying tensions in Turkey-Syria stand-off

Turkish commandos stand near the Turkey-Syria border in Akcakale, Turkey, 4 October 2012 Government sources stress the Turkish parliament's approval of a motion allowing the government to take military action against Syria is meant as a deterrent

The last two days have witnessed a dramatic escalation in the tensions between Turkey and Syria.

First, Turkey retaliated to the shelling of the border town of Akcakale by firing at targets inside Syria.

And on Thursday, the Turkish parliament approved a motion allowing the government to take military action against Syria for the next year.

However, government sources stress that the motion is meant as "deterrence" against Damascus and that Turkey is not keen on a "unilateral military operation".

This will come as a relief to the international community, as well as a considerable segment of Turkish citizens. Public opinion in Turkey is strongly against any military escalation.

Harsher response

Hundreds, sometimes thousands of anti-war campaigners came out on the streets of major Turkish cities on Thursday to protest against the motion and the government's Syria policy.

"Turkey has no interest in starting a war with Syria," tweeted Ibrahim Kalin, a senior advisor to Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan. "But Turkey is capable of protecting its borders and will retaliate when necessary."

Smoke rises over the streets after a shell landed from Syria in the Turkish border village of Akcakale, south-eastern Sanliurfa province, 3 October 2012 Many observers say Turkey does not want to launch a large-scale response to the assault on Akcakale

Many Turkish observers, too, believe Turkey does not intend to launch a military operation.

Rather, the motion aims to prove Turkey's capacity to respond to a possible cross-border assault, says foreign policy expert Ilter Turan.

"Turkey's message is clear: We have responded to your Akcakale shelling, but if you continue, then we will be ready to give a harsher response," he says.

Columnist Avni Ozgurel, who writes for the daily newspaper Radikal, points to the apology that Syria has reportedly issued, saying: "This is a clear sign that the vote in the Turkish parliament has reached its goals."

As part of Turkish Foreign Minister Ahmet Davutoglu's long-planned but short-lived "zero-problem with neighbours" policy, the two countries had mutually lifted visa restrictions and had signed free trade agreements.

But since the uprising in Syria began back in March 2011, relations have turned upside down.

Deeper conflicts?

Turkey initially took the initiative to end Syria's isolation from the international community and asked Damascus to implement reform packages.

Akcakale

  • Akcakale is a district of southern Sanliurfa province, close to the border with Syria
  • The last published census in 2000 shows its population stood at just over 77,000
  • It is just under 50km (31 miles) from the Syrian border town of Tall al-Abyad and about 240 km (150 miles) from Aleppo
  • The area surrounding the town is known for its archaeological excavations

Sources: Turkish Statistical Institute, Sanliurfa Municipality

However according to Ilter Turan, Syrian leader Bashar Assad did not deliver on the promises to Mr Erdogan.

Damascus' failure to implement reforms not only damaged Turkey's reputation as a mediator in the Middle East, but also led to a severe breakdown in diplomatic relations between the neighbouring countries.

The influx of Syrian refugees into the Turkish territories worsened relations and raised the question of whether a buffer zone would be established inside Syrian territory.

Turkey's prime minister has been campaigning for a UN-backed buffer zone in Syria which would ease the burden of Turkey's refugee crisis. But the international community remains reluctant.

The tension escalated in June, when a Turkish surveillance plane was shot down by Syrian anti-aircraft defences.

Mr Erdogan said that Turkish armed forces would not allow any attack on Turkish territories, adding that the assaults would not go unanswered.

Shortly thereafter, Turkey increased the number of its troops along the border.

At a time when the Kurdish minority in Syria has started controlling the northern areas of the country - which has inflamed Turkish fears that this might encourage a similar development in the Kurdish region inside Turkey - the row between the two countries may signal deeper conflicts.

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