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At the edge of Syria's conflict

Even in a victimized town, few expect Turkey to be drawn in despite challenges.

October 11, 2012|Patrick J. McDonnell
  • Syrians carry a rebel injured during fighting with the Syrian army in the town of Tal Abyad across the border to the Turkish city of Akcakale last week.
Syrians carry a rebel injured during fighting with the Syrian army in the… (Associated Press )

AKCAKALE, TURKEY — The mortar rounds coming from just across the border in Syria troubled Omar Timucin sufficiently that he advised his family to stay indoors for their own safety.

Not long after, a projectile scored a direct hit on his home in this usually quiet Turkish border town, killing his wife, three of his daughters and his sister-in-law.

"They were preparing dinner," a shattered Timucin said Wednesday in a mourning tent on the outskirts of Akcakale.

The attack that took away his family a week ago, and which Turkish officials called a Syrian military shelling, sparked retaliatory Turkish artillery volleys into Syria as relations between the two neighboring states seemed to teeter on the edge of outright war.

Turkish fighter jets roar overhead and news reports are filled with images of missile batteries, artillery units and troops converging on the border. Still, few people here seem to expect war. Many say Turkey was forced to respond after weeks of errant shells from Syrian President Bashar Assad's forces.

The broader challenge for the country is how to handle the chaos that has spilled across the border from Syria, which is in the midst of a 19-month conflict between forces loyal to Assad and opposition fighters.

"Turkey's toolbox is limited right now," said Soner Cagaptay of the Washington Institute for Near East Policy. "Turkey cannot live with Assad. But at the same time it cannot afford to launch a full-blown war campaign against him, especially not one without U.S. support."

The United States and other North Atlantic Treaty Organization allies have shown little inclination to become directly embroiled in a muddled and bloody struggle that has drawn freelance Islamic militants and Al Qaeda affiliates to the fragmented anti-Assad alliance. The Syrian conflict is already evoking comparisons to the punishing sectarian-driven Lebanese civil war, which lasted 15 years.

The volatile issue took on another dimension Wednesday, when Turkish F-16 fighter jets forced a Syrian passenger aircraft headed from Moscow to Damascus to land in Ankara, Turkey's capital, reportedly suspected of ferrying military equipment. Officials seized communications gear from the Syrian airliner and then allowed it to continue to Damascus with its 37 passengers and crewmembers, according to news accounts.

Early on in the Syrian crisis, the government of Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan adopted a stern stance against Assad and called on the Syrian leader to step down. Turkish territory became the main resupply base for Syrian rebels, and the more than 500-mile border became an opposition logistics corridor.

But expectations that Assad would follow in the footsteps of other strongmen who succumbed expeditiously to the "Arab Spring" whirlwind proved wrong.

Meantime, multitudes of refugees continue to stream across the border, taxing Turkey's ability to care for them.

In Turkey, critics accuse Erdogan of taking the nation down a path of conflict. That would be a far cry from the "zero problems with neighbors" policy that Ankara once viewed as its signature stance. The prime minister denies acting recklessly.

"We do not seek war," Erdogan declared last week, "but we are not far from it."

Among other things, war would not be good for business. Turkey's stunning economic expansion in recent years is closely linked to its political and social stability.

"If Turkey was seen as a country in a full-scale war, regardless of who started the war ... the image on which it has built its economic growth -- a stable country in this vastly unstable region -- would erode overnight," Cagaptay said.

Many analysts view Turkey as hesitant to take dramatic steps, such as moving to create an opposition-friendly "buffer zone" inside Syrian territory -- without backing from other nations.

Turkey's armed forces chief of staff, Gen. Necdet Ozel, visited this border region Wednesday and vowed that Turkey would respond "more strongly" to any future Syrian shelling.

Not far away, along corn and cotton fields north of town, Timucin and his remaining family received visitors to remember his late wife, Zalekha; three daughters, Zainab, 8, Aisha, 11, and Fatima, 14; and his sister-in-law, Kusum. Three other daughters were injured and remained hospitalized.

The only child in the family who was not injured was Timucin's son, Ibrahim, 16, who was with his father at the family's auto parts shop when the shell hit. The boy became teary-eyed Wednesday when he tried to speak.

His father expressed the sentiment of many townsfolk who are of Arab ancestry and have relatives across the border. There may be anger at Syria's leaders, but no animus for its people.

"Syrians are our brothers: There will be no war," said the grieving husband and father. "War is not a solution."


Special correspondent Rima Marrouch contributed to this report.

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