Turkey and Syria
Bad blood bubbles
Relations between the two neighbours are getting worse than ever
A dangerous spat
After a series of mortar bombs fired from Syria landed in the south-eastern Turkish town of Akcakale, killing five people on October 3rd, Turkey’s government ordered its forces to fire on Syrian military targets. The Turkish shelling, which continued into Thursday, reportedly killed several Syrian soldiers, raising the spectre of a tit-for-tat that could get out of hand. Turkey has repeatedly called on the UN to impose a buffer zone in Syria to protect civilians and, by implication, to give rebels trying to overthrow the Syrian regime of Bashar Assad a haven. This latest escalation of hostilities between the two neighbours makes the prospect of a wider intervention a notch likelier. But as The Economist went to press, both sides seemed loth to let the spat slide into a bigger punch-up straight away.
After the Syrian attack, Turkey’s mildly Islamist prime minister, Recep Tayyip Erdogan, convened his top generals for emergency talks, while Ahmet Davutoglu, his foreign minister, called on the heads of NATO and the UN, among others, to back Turkey’s appeals for a buffer zone in S yria. In Akcakale residents chanting slogans took to the streets to protest. The town has been prey to stray bullets from Syria in the past fortnight, as clashes intensified between rebels and troops loyal to Mr Assad.
Despite Turkey’s retaliatory strikes, which many Turks hope are a face-saving ploy rather than a prelude to war, it remained unclear whether the Syrian shells had been fired deliberately. Some Turks even speculated that the rebels’ Free Syrian Army, which Turkey has been helping by providing it with bases and probably arms and training, may have orchestrated the attack in a bid to lure Turkey into the conflict.
A military confrontation between Turkey and Syria has been mooted ever since Syria downed a Turkish air force reconnaissance jet on June 22nd near the Syrian port city of Latakia. Turkey growled about possible retaliation, massing its troops along the border and declaring that it had revised its rules of engagement with Syria.
Syria is now Mr Erdogan’s biggest headache, with opinion polls suggesting that most Turks are unhappy with his government’s so far fruitless attempts to change the regime in Damascus. The slaughter of Syrian civilians continues unabated. About 80,000 of them, at last count, had sought refuge in Turkey.
Mr Erdogan’s support for Syria’s rebels has complicated and soured Turkey’s other relations in the region, particularly with Iran, Syria’s main local ally. Iraq’s prime minister, Nuri al-Maliki, a Shia, has also turned against Mr Erdogan for coddling his Sunni rivals. Meanwhile, Mr Assad has resumed the backing his father Hafez, who was president before him, used to give to the Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK) in Turkey, ceding control of a string of towns along the Turkish border to the PKK’s allies in the Democratic Union Party, a group of Syrian Kurds better known as the PYD. Turkey’s enthusiasm for a buffer zone may well be boosted as much by its fear of these newly emboldened Kurds as by its concern for Syria’s beleaguered people.