Local commanders in areas near the Syrian border now have the authority to order attacks on Syrian warplanes and helicopters violating the Turkish border, without waiting for government approval, under the military's new rules of engagement, Defense Minister İsmet Yılmaz said on Wednesday.
The minister's remarks came as a Syrian warplane bombed the town of Ras al-Ain near the Turkish border for a third day on Wednesday, rocking buildings on the frontier and sending up huge plumes of smoke. The town was captured by opposition forces last week and the Syrian army has been trying to regain control since then.
The aerial bombing of areas so close to the Turkish border has brought into question Turkey's new military rules of engagement, under which Syrian military units approaching the border are to be considered a military target. News reports and witnesses have also said a Syrian plane violated the border briefly at one point during the offensive.
The new rules of engagement have never been disclosed to the public but media reports have said they mean attacks on any Syrian military unit approaching the border at a distance of less than five kilometers. On Wednesday, some reports suggested that the new rules mean a transfer of authority to order attacks, vested in the prime minister, to commanders in the border area.
Yılmaz said the new rules of engagement, declared by Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdoğan after a Turkish military plane was downed by Syria in June, are still in force, without any change. But he appeared to suggest that Syrian units will be considered a target only when they violate the border.
“Syrian planes or helicopters violating our borders will be given the appropriate response. Those that violate our borders…” he told reporters in Ankara.
When asked if the Air Forces Command is now in charge of ordering attacks, he said, “The authority [to order attacks] has been handed over to the commanders in the area.”
Since the downing of the Turkish plane, Turkey has boosted its military presence and air defenses along its 900-kilometer-long border with Syria. Turkish officials also revealed recently that they were in talks with NATO for possible deployment of Patriot missiles along Turkey's Syrian border as a precautionary measure to any threat that may stem from the war in its southern neighbor, a development that could add a new dimension to the 19-month-old Syrian crisis.
In addition, Turkey has also launched several retaliatory strikes after a mortar bomb fired from Syria landed in the Turkish border town of Akçakale in Şanlıurfa province on Oct. 3, killing five civilians and injuring several others. There has been no retaliatory strike since the Syrian air forces began dropping bombs on the town of Ras al-Ain, just across from the Turkish town of Ceylanpınar, but Turkish jet fighters were reportedly dispatched to the border area on Monday on a reconnaissance and patrol mission.
Turkish fighter jets could be heard near the Syrian border again on Wednesday, Reuters reported. Turkey has scrambled jets close to its southeastern border before in response to Syrian aircraft approaching Turkish airspace as they carry out operations against Syrian opposition fighters.
Reuters said the Turkish jets could not be seen but its reporters heard them approach from Turkish territory shortly after a Syrian warplane struck Ras al-Ain.
Up to eight people were slightly injured in Ceylanpınar after the aerial bombardment started, news reports said, while panicked residents have been leaving the town.
Tanks, missile defense systems deployed in neighboring town
Meanwhile, missile defense systems and tanks were sent to the border in another town, Suruç, on Wednesday amid worries that clashes in Ras al-Ain might spread to the Syrian town of Ain al-Arab just across the border from Suruç. Residents in the village of Mürşitpınar, 180 kilometers from Ceylanpınar, fled their homes in panic in the morning after an appeal to do so from the loudspeakers of local mosques but returned in the afternoon as there was no sign of violence escalating on the other side of the border, the Anatolia news agency reported.