Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdoğan warned Syria on Tuesday that Turkey will not hesitate to respond with “much harsher” measures if threatened, as Syrian aerial bombing of an area near the border continued for a second day, putting Ankara's earlier pledges to defend its borders to the test.
"We are giving the necessary response on the border and will not refrain from a much harsher response if necessary," said Erdoğan while speaking at a parliamentary group meeting. "Nobody should play with fire or try to test Turkey's patience.”
A Syrian jet bombed the town of Ras al-Ain, captured from the Syrian army by opposition forces last week, near the border with Turkey for a second day on Tuesday. Ras al-Ain is just across the border from the Turkish town of Ceylanpınar, and news reports said at least two people were injured in the town on the first day of bombing raids on Monday. On Tuesday, a Syrian warplane struck “five times within a period of 10 minutes,” an official from the Ceylanpınar mayor's office told The Associated Press.
The bombing in Ceylanpınar has brought into question Turkey's new military engagement rules on the border with Syria, under which the Turkish military has been ordered to hit any approaching Syrian military unit. The government has never said when such attacks might occur, but the Turkish media says any Syrian military unit coming within five kilometers of the border would be considered a target under the changed rules of engagement.
During Monday's raids, Syrian warplanes hit opposition targets just meters from the border and reportedly even crossed into Turkish airspace briefly.
Turkish F-16 fighters departing from a jet base in Diyarbakır province were dispatched to the area on a reconnaissance and patrol mission. The planes were armed, and the pilots were instructed to hit Syrian planes in the event of a border violation. But there was no retaliatory strike.
Speaking in Rome on Monday evening, Foreign Minister Ahmet Davutoğlu said Turkey had formally protested the bombings close to its border to the Syrian government, saying the attacks were endangering Turkey's security. He also said Turkey had also reported the incident to NATO allies and to the UN Security Council but added that the Syrian jet did not infringe Turkey's border. Turkey would have responded if it had, he said.
Erdoğan had announced that the military's rules of engagement had been changed and that any Syrian element approaching Turkey's border and deemed a threat would be treated as a military target after the Syrian regime shot down a Turkish RF-4E Phantom, an unarmed reconnaissance jet, on June 22.
Since that incident, 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 Syria crisis.
The threat posed by Syria has grown since a mortar bomb fired by Syria landed in the Turkish border town of Akçakale in Şanlıurfa province on Oct. 3, killing five civilians and injuring several others. At that time, Ankara retaliated by hitting Syrian targets, escalating tensions along the border.
But the issue of hitting Syrian military targets according to the changed engagement rules in the wake of the Ceylanpınar attacks is now a matter of controversy. “If Turkey responds to these attacks, it would mean that Turkey takes the risk of getting into a hot war with Syria,” Veysel Ayhan, an expert on the Middle East from Abant İzzet Baysal University, told Today's Zaman.
Others said each case should be handled separately, warning that there could be undesired complications arising from acting according to the declared engagement rules.
“The Ceylanpınar case differs from the Akçakale one in which Turkey retaliated immediately. Indeed, with the Ceylanpınar incident, Turkey's engagement rules have been violated. Turkey has to retaliate to these attacks according to the engagement rules but the reason why Turkey does not now is because Turkey cannot estimate the consequences of such a retaliation,” said Mete Yarar, a consultant on security policy for television channel A Haber, in comments to Today's Zaman.
According to reports, despite the inconsistent presumptions regarding the distance at which they occurred, Syrian fighters staged three attacks, respectively, in the morning, afternoon and evening on Monday, and one of these raged at a distance of 300 meters, which implies a violation of the rules of engagement.
One of the jets struck within meters of the barbed-wire fence that divides Ras al-Ain from Ceylanpınar, sending up plumes of black smoke.
Ayhan maintained that in the Akçakale incident Turkey directly responded, whereas in the Ceylanpınar incident Turkey didn't adopt a similar stance. “This is a controversial topic. There are reasons that prevent Turkey from responding in a similar way,” said Ayhan.
Ayhan believes that the Syrian regime aims to pull Turkey into a hot war, which is something Turkey should avoid and be careful of.
“First, the logic of the rules of engagement is to maintain stability in the region and avoid conflicts. But if Turkey gets into a hot war with Syria, this would actually mean the violation of the engagement rules,” said Ayhan.
Ras al-Ain, 600 kilometers from Damascus, is part of Syria's northeastern oil-producing province of Hasakah, home to many of Syria's million-strong Kurdish minority. Syrian Kurds have largely stayed away from the anti-Assad revolt and fear that the mostly Sunni Muslim Arab rebels will ignore their aspirations for autonomy in any post-Assad era.
Some 9,000 Syrians fled from the fighting in Ras al-Ain into Turkey in one 24-hour period last week, causing some of the biggest refugee movements since the Syrian conflict began nearly 20 months ago. More refugees fled into Ceylanpınar on Monday and Tuesday. Tens of thousands more are unregistered and living in Turkish homes.
The aerial attack raised the two-day death toll in the region to an estimated 31 people. News reports said one of the four wounded Syrians brought into Turkey for medical treatment Tuesday had died. Citing an official, the Associated Press said that an estimated 20 people died during Monday's air raid in Ras al-Ain, and 10 others from the town died Monday in Turkey of their wounds.
NATO Secretary General Anders Fogh Rasmussen said on Monday the military alliance would "do what it takes to protect and defend Turkey, our ally.”