Turkey wasted no time responding to the shelling of its border town, Akcakale, on Wednesday. Before Damascus had a chance to conjure up any sort of rational spin in response to the mortar strike, Turkish prime minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan immediately pinned the blame on President Assad’s regime forces. Launching missile strikes against Syria, he declared: “Turkey, within the confines of the rules of engagement and international law, will never leave these types of provocations aimed at our national security unanswered.”
The Syrian regime has in fact apologised for the shelling and pledged there would be no repeat of the incident in which five civilians were killed. According to the state-run news agency, Syrian authorities offered “sincerest condolences on behalf of the Syrian government to the family of the deceased and the Turkish people” and are in the process of investigating the source of the gunfire.
You might want to sprinkle that liberally with salt. And I’m no apologist for President Bashar al-Assad. But, whilst I accept Turkey is perfectly entitled to protect its own interests, Erdogan’s actions and motives warrant careful scrutiny.
Let’s face it, even if the Turks have been assisting Syrian rebels with the supply of weapons and volunteers across the Syrian border, Assad has little to gain from attacking a neighbouring state. He would have been well aware that such provocation could ignite a war between the two nations and possibly galvanise the Western powers into action. The last thing the Syrian government needs right now is for civil war to escalate into a regional conflict.
Those who have the most to gain from the attack on Akcakale are the Syrian rebels and, arguably, Turkey itself. There has been some speculation that the territory where the mortar shells came from is held, not by Assad’s troops, but by the Free Syrian Army. We should not dismiss the possibility that this was a deliberate attempt by the rebels, or those sympathetic to their cause, to provoke retaliation.
No matter who was responsible for the attack on Wednesday, knee-jerk reactions should be avoided. If anyone in the West is tempted to support those engaged in ramping up hostilities in the region, they should tread carefully and heed the lessons of the Gulf of Tonkin Incident.