Despite deadly attack, few in Turkish town expect war with Syria
Los Angeles Times
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 a spate of 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 media 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 the government of Syrian President Bashar Assad.
The broader challenge facing the country now is how to handle the chaos that has inevitably 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 with 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-Qaida affiliates to the fragmented anti-Assad alliance. The Syrian conflict is already evoking comparisons by some 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, Syria, to land in Ankara, Turkey’s capital, amid reported suspicions that it was ferrying military equipment. Officials seized communications gear from the Syrian airliner and then allowed it to continue to the Syrian capital, with its 37 passengers and crew, according to press accounts.
Early on in the Syrian crisis, the government of Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan adopted a forceful 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 illusory.
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 any dramatic steps — such as moving to create an opposition-friendly “buffer zone” inside Syrian territory — without backing from other nations.
But a buffer zone would amount to a de facto seizure of Syrian territory and would require a military intervention to keep Syrian land and air forces out. The United States has signaled it is not ready to provide the needed military clout.
The Turkish 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.
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Not far away, along a stretch of corn and cotton fields north of town, Timucin and his remaining family received visitors at the mourning tent 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 in the shelling 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. On Wednesday, the boy became teary-eyed 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 directed at the Syrian 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.)
©2012 Los Angeles Times
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