A Syrian mortar strike that hit southeastern Turkey, killing five members of the same family and wounding several other people — including policemen — prompted the Turkish army to retaliate Wednesday. The army used radar-tracking devices to calculate the geographic origin of the mortar strike, allowing the Turks to launch a counterbattery fire mission.
This is the first Turkish retaliation reported since the Syrian conflict began in the spring of 2011, after many Syrian armed actions that have directly impacted Turkey. One such incident took place in April 2012, when Syrian regime forces fired across the Turkish border during a clash near a Turkish refugee camp. In June 2012, a Turkish RF-4 aircraft was shot down near Hatay province.
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Turkey has sought to avoid being fully implicated in the Syrian conflict despite supplying Syrian rebels with weapons and allowing them refuge within Turkey. An unprovoked Turkish military intervention in Syria would be expensive, would result in numerous Turkish casualties, and would be politically unpopular. However, Turkey also cannot simply stand by while its territory is shelled, its citizens are killed and Kurdistan Workers' Party operatives establish bases in Syria. The Turkish government, which already faces rising domestic pressure at home over its Syria policy, does not want to risk appearing weak by issuing ultimatums it will not act upon. The Syrian regime has also warned Turkey not to involve itself too deeply in the crisis, a message that was reinforced with the shoot-down of the Turkish RF-4.
Given the converging pressures on both sides, and the fact that significant fighting continues between the Syrian regime and rebel forces on the Turkish-Syrian border, the possibility of military escalation is ever present. Exchanges of fire can lead to further clashes as commanders on the ground immediately react. On a broader level, both sides may retaliate to demonstrate that they will not abide clashes that kill their citizens. However, it is important to emphasize that both Turkey and Syria will seek to de-escalate the situation as soon as possible. Given all the military variables involved, it is clear that both sides have shown great forbearance so far; the number of incidents simply reached a point where armed retaliation became inevitable.
Having proven its point, Turkey will likely seek to limit future retaliation measures to striking at the units perceived to have opened fire across the border — unless of course there are continued provocations from Syrian regime forces. Ankara will also continue to coordinate very closely with NATO to ensure that it has the organization's support in case of any significant escalation between Syria and Turkey. Ambassadors from the alliance's 28 member nations held an emergency late-night meeting under the Article 4 provision — which calls for consultations when one member feels its territorial integrity, political independence or security is threatened — to discuss the strike. Turkey may also seek to increase the aid it gives the rebels to help accelerate the pace at which rebel forces drive the Syrian regime away from the northern border. The hope is that with increased aid, Turkey will suffer fewer attacks while the rebels continue to pursue their primary goal of defeating the regime.
The Syrian regime, on the other hand, will have to balance between deterring further Turkish military action (as well as aid to the rebels) and ensuring that its precarious position in the north is not further compromised. The Syrian regime will also try to maintain comprehensive command and control over its forces to prevent them from taking actions that may provoke the Turkish army. In such a situation, the chances of miscalculation are high — even as both sides clearly recognize the disadvantages associated with increased tensions. While both sides will try to prevent a military escalation, Wednesday's incident, along with other moves emanating from Iraq, illustrates how Turkey's geopolitical competition with Iran and the Syrian regime has intensified.