Syria-Turkey shelling raises tensions

Turkey's military capablities along Syria's border

Turkey’s military capablities along Syria’s border

By James Hackett, Editor, The Military Balance

Syria’s crisis, which has long been a security concern for Turkey, has spilled over into Turkish territory again – this time with more serious consequences. The Turkish government has now signalled that it would send troops to Syria if necessary – but how likely is it that Turkey will get involved in actual combat, and what kind of military action can we expect?

Artillery fire originating from Syrian territory on Wednesday 3 October killed five people and injured many others in the Turkish border town of Akcakale. Turkish artillery responded on Wednesday, and on Thursday morning there were reports of continued firing at targets in Syria.

Turkey’s parliament voted by 320 to 129 on 4 October to give the government authority for the foreign deployment of troops.  This authority, effective for one year, was granted under the provisions of Article 92 of the Turkish Constitution and would allow the dispatch of Turkish troops into Syrian territory. Late on 3 October, Turkey requested a meeting of NATO’s North Atlantic Council within the framework of Article 4 of the North Atlantic Treaty. The Alliance said that it continued ‘to stand by Turkey and demands the immediate cessation of such aggressive acts against an Ally, and urges the Syrian regime to put an end to flagrant violations of international law’.

Artillery fire of varying calibre has been reported as sporadically hitting Turkish territory in recent months and, while this has caused some concern, when Syrian forces shot down a Turkish F-4 Phantom fighter in June both sides indicated a desire to manage tensions in that case. In response to this most recent incident, Syrian Information Minister Omran al-Zoubi offered ‘sincere condolences’ for the deaths in Turkey, and said that Damascus was ‘investigating the source of the gunfire’.

The recent shelling adds to Turkish concern over the deteriorating situation in Syria. Turkey now houses a substantial and growing body of Syrian refugees – more than 93,000 according to recent figures. Ahmet Davotoglu, the Turkish foreign minister, used an August 2012 address to the UN Security Council to draw parallels between the situation in Syria and that in the Balkans in the 1990s. Later, in September, he said that ‘it is the inability of the Security Council to act that still encourages the Syrian regime to kill ever more people’, adding that ‘the situation in Syria has evolved into a real threat to regional peace and security’.

Should it decide to act, Turkey has substantial military assets (see map above) deployed in the south of the country. Its forces are well-equipped and mobile, though its best-equipped units are based in the country’s west. On paper, Syrian forces are also formidable, although the civil war has taken a toll on equipment and personnel. (See the institute’s recent Strategic Comment ‘Syria: foreign intervention still debated, but distant’, and below table).

Table showing Syria and Turkey's military capabilities

Syria and Turkey’s military capabilities

Turkish forces have been engaged in combat operations against the PKK terrorist group in southeast Turkey and northern Iraq on-and-off for years – in the latter case at times conducting cross-border incursions. But a defined objective in Syria would be a harder ask. Syrian rebel forces control swathes of the country’s north. They are unlikely to be the target of any Turkish action, and crossing the border without defined regime military targets could be seen by Ankara as too open-ended a mission.  Another option that has been debated is the establishment of safe zones. If safe areas in Syria under outside protection were created, these would in practical terms greatly increase the government’s difficulties. If the regime ignored them, they could become de facto rebel base areas, thus improving the rebels’ military capability. If the regime attacked them, they not only would run the risk of combat with whomever was protecting the areas – with resulting regime casualties and losses that they can ill afford – but it would also be faced with the problem of concentrating sufficient ground forces to evict the rebels.

The parliamentary authority vote does not mean that cross-border moves from Turkey are necessarily imminent. As was widely reported, Turkish foreign-policy adviser Ibrahim Kalin tweeted: ‘Turkey has no interest in war with Syria. But Turkey is capable of protecting its borders and will retaliate when necessary.’ So the parliamentary vote is perhaps more clearly designed to be a signal of the seriousness with which Ankara views this latest incident, intended as much for the domestic audience as it is for the regime in Damascus.


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