Turkey hammered Syrian targets yesterday in reprisal for deadly cross-border fire that sent tensions soaring in the tinder-box region, prompting international calls for restraint.
In Ankara, the Turkish Parliament met behind closed doors in an emergency session and agreed to a government request to authorize military operations inside Syria.
However, Turkish Deputy Prime Minister Besir Atalay told reporters that Syria had admitted responsibility for the shelling that killed five Turks and apologized.
“Turkey has no interest in a war with Syria. But Turkey is capable of protecting its borders and will retaliate when necessary,” Ibrahim Kalin, chief adviser to Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan, said earlier on Twitter.
Western powers condemned the Syrian shelling, which Damascus said was an accident, with the US saying it was outraged and France cautioning it threatened global security.
The incident also prompted a forecast that it could tip events in favor of the rebels fighting to bring down Syrian President Bashar al-Assad’s regime.
“The Syrian regime is playing a dangerous game,” said Riad Kahwaji, who heads the Institute for Near East and Gulf Military Analysis. “Turkey can considerably change the balance of power in favor of the rebels, even it doesn’t deploy troops into Syria, and limits itself to using its firepower.”
Ankara unleashed artillery shells at its neighbor late on Wednesday after mortar fire crashed on to the Turkish border town of Akcakale.
A Turkish mother and her three children were among five civilians killed in Akcakale. As they were buried yesterday, debris still littered the scene of the shelling.
A shell smashed through a wall, landing in a courtyard near an olive tree where they had come to prepare their evening meal.
Damascus’ close ally Russia said Syria had admitted that the deadly shelling was “a tragic accident, and that it will not happen again.”
Several Syrian soldiers were killed as a result of the Turkish riposte, the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights watchdog said, without giving an exact figure.
Turkey has demanded that the UN Security Council take action against Damascus over Wednesday’s fire.
US Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton said Washington was “outraged,” while France said it constituted “a serious threat to global security and peace.”
Amid the rising tensions, calls for calm poured in.
The EU condemned Syria, but urged restraint on all sides, while Germany called for a “de-escalation.”
Syria’s main ally Iran also sought to cool tempers, asking “both sides to show restraint.”
In a crisis meeting late on Wednesday, Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan’s government drew up a motion asking parliament to allow it to conduct operations inside Syria. The 550-seat parliament complied, approving a one-year mandate by 320 votes, but Atalay insisted it was “not a war mandate.”
After the shelling, NATO member Turkey called an emergency meeting of the alliance and demanded action from the UN Security Council over what it called a “heinous” attack.
NATO said that it stood by its member Turkey and urged the Syrian regime to end “flagrant violations of international law.”
Syrian Information Minister Omran Zoabi said in a statement reported by state television that Damascus was looking into the origin of the cross-border shelling and offered condolences to the families of the victims. The minister reiterated his government’s charges that it was battling foreign-backed “terrorists” whom it has frequently accused Ankara of training and financing.
Despite the soaring tensions, observers say that Turkey is not looking for an all-out war with Syria.
“It is above all a matter of dissuasion, Turkey is not heading to war,” a Turkish government official told media on condition of anonymity. “But these attacks cannot continue.”