A day after mortar shells from Syria killed five civilians in a border town, the government received on Thursday a mandate from Parliament for military operations in foreign countries but said it had no intention to go to war with Syria.
“This is not a war mandate. It is a measure for deterrence,” Deputy Prime Minister Beşir Atalay told reporters after Parliament passed the measure with a 320-129 vote, stating that Turkey's priority is to act in coordination with international institutions.
Atalay also said Syria had apologized for the Wednesday afternoon incident after UN mediation to that effect and that Damascus also said the incident will not be repeated. It was not clear if the Syrian authorities offered the apology in a bilateral contact. On Wednesday evening, Syrian Information Minister Omran al-Zoubi said an investigation was launched to determine the source of the mortar bomb and offered his "sincerest condolences on behalf of the Syrian government to the families of the deceased and the Turkish people," reportedly calling the Turkish civilians “martyrs.” He also said, however, that Turkey must do more to control its borders and "prevent militants and terrorists from sneaking across."
In a sharp escalation of tensions, the Turkish military fired at targets inside Syria on Wednesday night and early on Thursday in retaliatory strikes. The Syrian Observatory for Human Rights said several Syrian soldiers were killed in the Turkish bombardment of a military post near the Syrian town of Tal Abyad, a few miles across the frontier from the town of Akçakale where the mortar bomb landed. It did not say how many soldiers died. "We know that they have suffered losses," a Turkish security source told Reuters, without giving further details.
Atalay suggested the retaliatory strikes might have ended, saying: “We used our rights to retaliate. This is where we stand now.”
"Turkey has no interest in a war with Syria. But Turkey is capable of protecting its borders and will retaliate when necessary," İbrahim Kalın, a senior adviser to Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdoğan, said on his Twitter account. "Political, diplomatic initiatives will continue," he said.
Despite the government promises that it does not amount to a declaration of war, the parliamentary measure authorizing the government for military operations beyond Turkey's borders opens the way for military measures in addition to the retaliatory strikes.
There were unconfirmed reports in the Syrian media that the Turkish military hit targets in Idlib, far from the scene of Wednesday's incident. A statement from Prime Minister Erdoğan's office said targets in Syria that were spotted by radar were targeted but did not say where the targets were located.
There were also disconcerting reports that mortar bombs from Syria landed in Hatay province on the border. The bombs were fired as fighting rages between opposition forces and the Syrian army in the province of Idlib on the other side of the border.
Drafted at a late Wednesday meeting, which was headed by Erdoğan after a mortar bomb fired from Syria killed two women and three children in the town of Akçakale, the motion says: “The ongoing crisis in Syria affects stability and security in the region and now the escalating animosity affects our national security. Syrian armed forces have been conducting assaults as part of military operations onto Turkish land despite our several warnings and diplomatic overtures since Sept. 20, 2012. This situation threatens our national security. In this respect, the need for taking precautions and acting quickly against any threats to Turkey has arisen. In the framework of the situation, under Article 92 of the Turkish Constitution, we kindly ask Parliament to discuss a motion that authorizes the government for a year to send Turkish troops into foreign countries."
The opposition Republican People's Party (CHP), which voted against the measure, said it could be used to launch war on any country given that it does not specify in what instances this parliamentary authority could be used. However, officials of the ruling Justice and Development Party (AK Party) said it would be limited to Syria. The motion allows the government to determine “the scope, extent and time” of any possible intervention. Nurettin Canikli, deputy parliamentary group chairman for the AK Party, clarified that the measure would not cover anti-terrorism operations in northern Iraq and that a separate motion to extend a mandate to launch cross-border strikes on terrorist Kurdistan Workers' Party (PKK) targets will still be debated in Parliament on Thursday.
The vote, in favor of the measure, followed a closed-door session of Parliament. Opposition parties slammed the decision to hold closed discussions, while Canikli defended it, saying the government's concerns are not about sharing information with the Turkish public but that an open session would mean the debate would be heard by the rest of the world. “There could be certain things that we might need to hide not from our people but others,” he said.
“This nation will send its children to war, but does not know why it is sending its children to war,” said Muharrem İnce, a CHP lawmaker, before Parliament voted to hold the session behind closed doors.
The prompt retaliatory strikes and the swift passage of the parliamentary motion have sparked worries that a war with Syria could be imminent despite government assurances that it is not. Analysts and opposition lawmakers say Turkey could find itself in a war that involves not only Syria but could even drag in its backers, ranging from Iran to Russia.
Iran's support for the Syrian regime, which counters Turkish, Qatari and Saudi Arabian backing of the opposition as well as that of other countries, has raised worries about increasing sectarianism and the spread of the conflict. Iranian Vice President Mohammad Reza Rahimi spoke with Erdoğan on Thursday afternoon as part of a previously planned visit to Turkey. The sharp escalation in tension with Syria was expected to be discussed.
According to Yalçın Akdoğan, a legislator and adviser to Erdoğan, “military targets” in Syria were shelled as a deterrent and what “will follow from now on will depend on Syria's position.”
The Turkish retaliatory shelling and steps to authorize a possible military intervention mark the latest in a series of events that have sharply escalated tensions between the former allies.
In June, Turkey sent anti-aircraft missiles to reinforce its border and threatened to target any approaching Syrian military elements after Syrian forces brought down a Turkish jet, killing its two pilots. Turkey said the plane was in international airspace, countering Syrian claims that it was in Syrian airspace.
Syrian opposition groups have been using Turkish territory as a base for their operations against the troops of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad. Thousands have died and hundreds of thousands have fled their homes since the start of the war in Syria last year.