Turkey renews artillery strikes on Syria

1 / 4
Map locates Akcakale, Turkey

AKCAKALE, Turkey (AP) — Turkey fired on Syrian targets for a second day Thursday but said it has no intention of declaring war, despite tensions after deadly shelling from Syria killed five civilians in a Turkish border town. The border violence has added a dangerous new dimension to a conflict that is pulling Syria's neighbors deeper into what already resembles a proxy war.

Turkey's Parliament began an emergency session to discuss a bill authorizing the military to launch cross border operations in Syria. If approved, the bill could more easily open the way to unilateral action by Turkey's armed forces inside Syria, without the involvement of its Western and Arab allies. Turkey has had a similar measure in place for years for northern Iraq, where its big guns and jets periodically attack Kurdish militants.

Still, there is a distinction between the prospect of retaliatory strikes by Turkey, most likely in the form of more artillery barrages and possibly even air strikes in the border region, and any decision to send troops into the Syrian maelstrom. Turkish leaders are acutely aware of the risks of open-ended intervention, especially without the support of an international coalition; observers do not expect robust action from the United States ahead of the presidential vote next month.

Iran's support for the Syrian regime, a counter to backing for the opposition from Turkey, Qatar, Saudi Arabia and other countries, has raised worries about increasing sectarianism and the spread of the conflict.

The cross-border tensions escalated on Wednesday after a shell fired from inside Syria landed on a home in the Turkish village of Akcakale, killing a woman, her three daughters and another woman, and wounding at least 10 others, according to Turkish media. The Syrian mortar shell damaged the door and walls of a house in Akcakale, while shrapnel drilled holes and shattered windows of neighboring houses and shops. Some residents of Akcakale abandoned their homes close to the border and spent the night on the streets. Others gathered outside the local mayor's office, afraid to return to their homes as the dull thud of distant artillery fire rumbled across the town.

The village on the Syrian side had been the focus of recent fighting between Syrian forces and rebels who eventually dislodged them; regime troops have continued to lob shells at the area from a distance.

Turkish response was prompt. It fired salvos of artillery rounds deep inside Syria. The NATO military alliance, of which Turkey is a member, met at an emergency session in Brussels, condemned the attack on Turkey and demanded "the immediate cessation of such aggressive acts against an ally." It also urged the Syrian regime to "put an end to flagrant violations of international law."

Yalcin Akdogan, a legislator and adviser to Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan, said "military targets" were shelled as a deterrent.

"The process that will follow from now will depend on Syria's position," he said.

Another aide to the prime minister said Turkey has no intention of declaring war on Syria but that the bill being debated in Parliament on Thursday was intended to warn Syria. He spoke on condition of anonymity because civil servants are not allowed to speak to journalists without prior authorization.

Police on Thursday fired tear gas to disperse a group of anti-war activists who tried to march to Parliament while the bill was being debated, according to Turkey's Dogan news agency.

Mustafa Guclu, a witness in Akcakale, said the Turkish military fired five rounds of artillery "after midnight" and another round around 5 a.m. on Thursday.

Syrian Information Minister Omran al-Zoubi, meanwhile, offered his "sincerest condolences on behalf of the Syrian government to the family of the deceased and the Turkish people."

He appeared to be trying to reduce tensions, although he said Turkey must do more to control its borders and "prevent militants and terrorists from sneaking across."

The Turkish retaliatory shelling and steps to authorize possible military intervention is the latest in a series of events that have sharply escalated tensions between the former allies.

In June, Turkey reinforced its border with anti-aircraft missiles and threatened to target any approaching Syrian military elements after Syrian forces brought down a Turkish jet, killing its two pilots. Turkey said the plane was in international airspace, countering Syrian claims that it was in Syrian airspace.

Syrian rebel groups have been using Turkish territory as a base for their operations against the troops of Syrian President Bashar Assad. Thousands have died and hundreds of thousands have fled their homes since the start of the war in Syria last year.

Turkish legislators were debating behind closed doors a bill that would authorize the government to send troops to Syria or for warplanes to strike Syrian targets whenever it deems it necessary. A vote on the authorization, which would be valid for one year, is expected later on Thursday.

Turkey's main opposition party, which opposes any military action in Syria, accused the government of trying to take Turkey to war and criticized the secret debate.

"This nation will send its children to war, but does not know why it is sending its children to war," said opposition legislator Muharrem Ince, before legislators voted to hold the session behind closed doors.

The government-proposed bill accuses Syria of carrying out "aggressive acts toward our country's territory" and says "these acts have continued despite our warnings and diplomatic initiatives."

If approved it would allow the government to determine "the scope, extent, and time" of any possible intervention.

There is concern in Turkey that the Syrian chaos could have a destabilizing effect on Turkey's own communities; some observers have attributed a sharp rise in violence by Kurdish rebels in Turkey to militant efforts to take advantage of the regional uncertainty.

Turkey is still loath to go it alone in Syria, and is anxious for any intervention to have the legitimacy conferred by a U.N. resolution or the involvement of a broad group of allies. Turkey is mindful in part of inconclusive ground missions, mostly in the 1990s, against Kurdish guerrillas based in northern Iraq, as well as the bitter lessons of being seen as an occupying power that are associated with the U.S.-led invasion in Iraq. Reaching deeper into history, Turkey is aware of Mideast sensibilities over Ottoman rule over much of the region.

Turks have already grown weary of the burden of involvement in the Syrian conflict, which includes the hosting of 90,000 Syrian refugees in camps along the border. So Ankara is likely to act with some degree of restraint unless it suffers more casualties from Syrian fire in the days ahead. However, approval of the parliamentary bill could open the way to more retaliatory flare-ups along the border, similar to the periodic air and artillery strikes that Turkey has carried out for years against Kurdish rebel targets in northern Iraq.

On a visit to Pakistan on Thursday, Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov expressed his government's concern over the escalation of tensions.

Lavrov, speaking at a press conference in Islamabad, said Syria has assured Russia, an ally, that such an incident will not happen again.

"It is of great concern for us," Lavrov said. "This situation is deteriorating with every coming day."

Germany's foreign minister, Guido Westerwelle, said NATO members agree on the need for solidarity but also prudence in reacting to events on the Turkish-Syrian border.


Fraser reported from Ankara, Turkey. Associated Press writers Christopher Torchia in Istanbul, Elizabeth Kennedy in Beirut and Nahal Toosi in Islamabad contributed.