Shelling games: Turkey and Syria

Thursday, October 4, 2012

I'm sure many of you were too busy watching the presidential debate last night to notice, but some interesting drama has been going down in Turkey.

Specifically, a small town on the Turkish border was shelled yesterday by Syria. Five Turkish civilians were killed in the little town of Akçakale, where the sound of shelling has already been a feature of life for some time.

Chaos in Akçakale

The US State Department condemned the shelling, calling the act 'depraved.'

This isn't the first time that Turkey has become drawn into the Syrian conflict. In June of this year, the Syrian government shot down a Turkish jet that was supposedly flying in international airspace. Frequently, Turkish Prime Minister Tayyip Erdogan has proposed creating internationally-protected 'safe zones' inside Syria.

Meanwhile, Erdogan is resisting efforts from Iraq to convince Ankara to remove Turkish troops from northern Iraq, where Turkey has maintained a number of military bases since the mid-1990s.

All in all, it's enough to make you wonder what happened to the AK Party's policy of "zero problems" with its neighbors.

Within Turkey, Erdogan is facing criticism (mostly, I think, from people who have never liked him anyway) over the deterioration of Turkey's relations with its neighbors. Police used pepper spray yesterday to disperse protesters gathering outside parliament to voice their disapproval of the government's policies towards northern Iraq.

Given the continued mini-Cold War currently taking place between the United States and Russia over Syria, it will be interesting to see how this all plays out in the weeks ahead. Turkey, after all, is a NATO member with the right to invoke Article 5 of the pact's treaty, which treats an attack on one member as an attack on all members. Dating back to the Spring of this year, Erdogan has been threatening to do just this.

Erdogan's political opponents in Turkey, who tend not to trust American motivations in the region much to begin with, wonder if the Turkish government is doing Washington's bidding in adopting a more hostile tone towards Assad's regime.

Others see a more sinister subtext to Erdogan's actions, viewing them in terms of Sunni-Shiite tensions taking place internationally in the region. Here is a map circulating on Facebook now, asking why the area of Turkey that was shelled ("Top mermisinin düştüğü yer") was so far from the area (to the west) where Turkey retaliated and implying that religious concerns (bombing a Shiite area instead of a Sunni one) may have been a priority for the Turkish government.

I don't think any of this is leading Turkey into a war with Syria, but I wouldn't be surprised if Syria's shelling of Akçakale were invoked as part of an effort to internationalize the conflict somehow. In particular, I think Erdogan's demands for international zones inside Syria may now start getting more traction, at least among Turkey's allies.

Meanwhile, inside Turkey Erdogan's critics will now likely to brand the Prime Minister an American puppet, with Erdogan presenting himself as the defender of Turkey's honor and interests.

Of particular interest to me is how people in Hatay, a region of Turkey that was part of Syria until 1938, will respond to this continued upheaval. There is a large Arab population in the area, including many Alawites (the religious group to which the Assad family nominally belongs).

Hatay province (in red)

All in all, it seems like things are getting increasingly complicated here.

Stay tuned.

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