Turkey passes bill for military action

Turkey yesterday delivered a strong military warning to Syria after the deaths of five Turkish civilians in cross-border shelling, but assured Damascus it was not seeking all-out war.

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ISTANBUL // Turkey yesterday delivered a strong military warning to Syria after the deaths of five Turkish civilians in cross-border shelling, but assured Damascus it was not seeking all-out war.

Turkey’s parliament passed a bill allowing it to take military action in Syria in retaliation for the deadly artillery fire that hit Akcakale, south-eastern Anatolia, on Wednesday.

The bill, a request by the government of the prime minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan, was passed after the residents of Akcakale had laid their dead to rest.

The funerals took place in the early morning after local officials visited families of the victims, identified as a mother, her three daughters and her sister-in-law.

Parliament declared artillery fire from Syria was a "serious threat to our national security".

Without naming Syria, it added Turkish troops could be “deployed and given missions in foreign countries” to prevent threats.

But Mr Erdogan said yesterday that Turkey had no intention of going to war.

“We could never be interested in something like starting a war,” he said. “The Turkish Republic is a state capable of defending its citizens and borders. Nobody should try and test our determination on this subject.”

Mr Erdogan said another shell landed over the border yesterday.

“Even today we had a shell landing in Hatay city Altinozu district,” he said. “One time is an accident … but how is this an accident, when it happens eight times?”

European Union foreign policy chief Catherine Ashton called for “restraint from all sides”.

Although Russia, a key ally of Syria, yesterday called the shelling a “tragic accident”, Moscow objected to a draft UN statement condemning “in the strongest terms” the strike against Turkey.

The draft had been expected to be approved by a “silence procedure”, in which it is adopted if no country objects, but “the Russians broke the silence”, said Britain’s ambassador, Mark Lyall Grant.

The draft statement condemned “in the strongest terms” the Syrian strike against Turkey, saying it was “a serious threat to international peace and security”.

Turkish artillery fired on Syrian positions throughout Wednesday night and in the early morning yesterday. Several Syrian soldiers were killed, the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights said.

After yesterday’s vote the Turkish deputy prime minister Besir Atalay explained that the bill carried a mandate for cross-border intervention for one year.

But Mr Atalay said Turkey’s priority was to move with the international community.

“The bill is not for war,” he said. “It has deterrent qualities. That is why we called on Nato and the UN to take up the issue.”

Taner Yildiz, the Turkish energy minister, stressed his country’s determination to contain the crisis.

Turkey would not cut power exports to Syria despite the latest border incidents, Mr Yildiz told Turkish media. He added he did not think the current tensions would lead to war.

Asli Aydintasbas, a columnist for the Milliyet daily, said Turkey had been forced to react by Syria’s shelling of Akcakale.

She said the attack might have been an attempt by Damascus to test Turkey’s resolve and to tell Ankara to keep out of the Syrian conflict.

“In the Middle East, in order to survive, you have to have a certain amount of deterrent power,” Aydintasbas said.

“By responding militarily to the Syrian artillery rounds, Turkey was not entering a war with Syria but sending a clear message:

‘You can’t mess with us’.”

The bill was rejected by some opposition parties in parliament, but passed with a majority of votes coming from Mr Erdogan’s ruling conservative Justice and Development Party (AKP) and the right-wing Nationalist Movement Party.

In a letter to parliament outlining the government’s position on the bill and signed by Mr Erdogan, the cabinet argued Turkey’s national security was under “serious threat and risk” from Syria.

Omer Celik, a leading AKP member, rejected an announcement by the Syrian government that the incident would be investigated.

Syria did not have a government but a “gang of killers” in power, Mr Celik said in televised remarks outside parliament in Ankara.

Turkey, a former ally of Syria, has become one of the fiercest critics of the Syrian president Bashar Al Assad, and supports the opposition.

Turkish media reported that the country’s military had raised alarm levels for the air force and the navy. There was no official confirmation of this.

After a Turkish military surveillance plane was shot down by Syria in June, Ankara warned Damascus that all movements by the Syrian armed forces near the 900-kilometre border between the two countries would be interpreted as a military threat and dealt with.

But firing into Syria on Wednesday and yesterday was the first time Turkey has taken action.

Aydintasbas said Turkey had been very patient with Syrian provocations along the border, but she said further actions by the Syrian could well trigger a wider conflict.

“There have been instances in the past when Turkey decided to act,” she said, naming the intervention in Cyprus in 1974 as an example.

Aydintasbas also criticised Turkey’s western allies, saying the country was facing a deadly conflict on its doorstep, one that had driven about 100,000 refugees across the border and could undermine regional stability.

"What we are witnessing here is the making of an Afghanistan next to our borders, a direct threat to us," she said. "It's easy to sit in Brussels and call for restraint."


* with additional reporting by Reuters, Bloomberg News and Agence France-Presse