The Next Front?

Near the border with Syria, Turkish troops were on guard earlier this month. Bulent Kilic / AFP-Getty Images

On Oct. 3, a mortar shell crossed from Syria into Turkey and smashed into Zeliha Timucin’s home, killing Timucin, her sister, and three of her kids.

Syrian forces fired the mortar while fighting rebels near the border. Though their stray shells had thudded into Turkish territory before, Timucin and her family were the first to be hurt. Turkey responded angrily, pounding Syrian military targets with artillery and threatening more attacks. The government then pushed a bill through parliament that authorized it to send in troops. Turkish officials billed these aggressive moves as a way to send Syria a message—that its shells should never hit Turkey again.

But the shells kept on coming.

They continued to fall inside Turkey last week, and while there were no more casualties, the repeated shelling threatened to bring Turkey closer than ever to finding itself drawn into Syria’s war, as its military returned fire and its top general warned of more serious action to come. With tensions rising fast, many Turks seemed to be looking across the border with a fresh sense of alarm—and wondering just what exactly Syrian President Bashar al-Assad, its former ally, has in mind.

Some even questioned whether the shelling might be intentional, and the stakes in getting a read on Assad began to feel increasingly high.

“We acted strongly and publicly in order to deter this,” said one Turkish official who requested anonymity because he wasn’t authorized to speak to the press. “I’m not so sure whether the shelling is an accident anymore. And I don’t know whether they are trying to provoke Turkey into doing something more than it already has.”

Said a Turkish source close to the Syria situation: “Syria’s policy toward Turkey is based totally on deceit.”

Turkey used to think it had Assad figured out. Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan spent much of the last decade building a close relationship with Syria—dropping trade and visa restrictions and even scheduling joint strategy sessions between Assad’s cabinet and his own. He viewed Assad as a potential reformer of Syria’s police state and described him as a friend, once famously meeting him in a Turkish resort town while Assad and his family were vacationing there.

By 2010, the Turkey-Syria relationship was running so well that a high-profile visit by Erdogan to Damascus inspired Turkey’s veteran ambassador there, Omer Onhon, to tell an American diplomat that “in his whole career, he had never seen a visit go so smoothly,” according to a confidential State Department cable released by WikiLeaks.

“‘I kept expecting something, even something minor, to go wrong,’ he crowed, ‘but nothing did,’” the cable recounts.

Turkey took pride in acting as a bridge to a country many governments viewed as a pariah. “Everybody went to them to deal with the Syrians,” says Andrew Tabler, a senior fellow at the Washington Institute for Near East Policy who spent seven years in Damascus as the editor of Syria Today. “The problem is, at what point are you the Assad whisperer and at what point are you the enabler? At the end they found that he wasn’t very pliable.”

When the Arab Spring came to Syria, Turkey’s special relationship with Assad fell apart. His brutal crackdown on the protest movement that began in March 2011 enraged Erdogan, and Turkey went from one of Assad’s closest allies to his main international enemy. By the time Turkey recalled Onhon a year into the uprising, it was hosting the main Syrian opposition body in Istanbul and, with the struggle becoming armed, letting the leaders of the rebel Free Syrian Army base themselves at a refugee camp in the border province of Hatay.

Turkey has been consistent in painting its decision to oppose Assad as a moral one—once it saw that it couldn’t convince him to stop the crackdown, it started pushing for him to go. Some observers detect a hint of personal animosity in the tensions too. “Turkey went from being the conduit between the Assad regime and the rest of the world to the spearhead of international opposition to Assad,” says Soner Cagaptay, the director of the Washington Institute’s Turkish Research Program. “The Turks are appalled by what’s going on next door. But there’s also a very personal angle to it, because they thought of Assad as a friend.”

Now Turkey is again casting itself as the country with the clearest insight into Syria—only this time, its message is that the situation is worse than people think. It has led calls for international action and pushed repeatedly for the creation of an internationally backed buffer zone inside Syria. At the same time, it has shouldered more of a humanitarian burden from the conflict than any country—last week, Erdogan announced that close to 100,000 Syrians now live in Turkey as refugees. “Turkey is scared, because it sees that Syria’s descent into chaos is going to be very unpleasant for the rest of the region,” Cagaptay says. “It sees how serious Syria can become.”

International action has stalled, though, and as the conflict drags on, the Turkish government is losing support for its Syria policy at home. “They are stuck between Assad provoking them, the West not really being eager to help, and also the public doubting them,” says Cansu Camlibel, the senior diplomatic correspondent at Hurriyet, an influential Turkish daily. “They passed that bill [authorizing troop deployment] in parliament, just to look scary. And what happened after that? The shells kept coming.”

Some now worry that Assad may see the continued shelling as a way to draw Turkey into the conflict against its will. “They would like to drag us into the war inside, and somehow regain their legitimacy at home, which they lost quite long ago,” the Turkish source close to the Syria situation says. “So they can justify their allegation that they are fighting against foreign enemies.”

Both countries have signaled that they don’t want war. The Turkish public remains strongly opposed to military engagement in Syria, while the Syrian government is having a hard enough time holding off the armed rebellion without taking on one of the region’s top military powers. Firas Abi Ali, the deputy head of Middle East and North Africa forecasting at Exclusive Analysis, a risk-consultancy firm in London, says that fighting the Turkish military would be “suicidal” for Assad.

But Assad’s government also can’t afford to stop fighting rebels along the Turkish border, he adds—which means that Syrian shells are bound to continue falling inside Turkey.

“It’s impossible for Assad forces not to engage the rebels very close to the border, because this would effectively give them a safe area from which to operate. So you’re going to see this type of thing repeat, time and again,” Ali says. “And Turkey is going to make a point in their responses of causing more damage than the Syrian action did. They’re probably going to send troops across the border in a very limited capacity—quick incursions to deal with one or two targets and go back. But you’re not going to see the permanent deployment of Turkish troops onto Syrian territory just yet.”

Tabler, of the Washington Institute, says the Syrian government may be sending Turkey a message of its own. “What they’re doing is saying, ‘We’re not backing off the border. What are you and your friends going to do about it?’” he says. “And to their credit, the Turks aren’t backing down either.”

With the two sides staring each other down, nerves seem ready to jump at any new development, as they did last week when Turkish fighter jets forced a Syrian commercial airliner bound from Moscow to Damascus to land on its soil. Syria claimed to have confiscated ammunition and logistical military supplies from the cargo before allowing the flight to continue on its way—allegations that both Russia and Syria deny. On Friday, meanwhile, Turkey reportedly rushed two fighter jets to the border when a Syrian military helicopter bombed a town on the Syrian side.

The Turkish source notes a recent incident in which another errant shell landed near one of the Turkish military’s ammunition-storage sheds. “If the shell hit that ammunition, maybe we wouldn’t be talking about artillery anymore,” he says.