Syria’s civil war is beginning to draw in other states in the region, beyond the outpouring of refugees into neighboring countries. In June, Syria shot down a Turkish air force plane, killing two pilots and then fired on a search-and-rescue plane. Even with that Turkey limited its response. But now tension between the two former allies has increased. For the fifth day in a row, Turkey has returned fire with Syrian forces after a Syrian mortar landed inside Turkey, killing three children and two women. The Turkish military has been shelling targets about six miles inside of Syria and has indicated it will continue to do so as long as it is on the receiving end of fire from Syrian government forces. Several hundred thousand Syrian refugees are camped in Turkey and Turkey has offered safe passage to rebel leaders and demanded that Assad step down.
Turkey was once an ally of Syria and has backed Assad in the international arena in the past. Syrian rebels, following on other regional uprisings in the so-called Arab Spring, initially demanded that the government loosen its controls over society and the political structure and demanded that Assad step down. The Syrian regime responded to those protests with violence and armed forces. The government shelled the city of Homs and used helicopter gunships to attack rebel groups. As the conflict escalated, and rebels began fighting back, in a similar manner to events in Libya, the conflict grew into a full-fledged civil war over the last year. However, unlike the conflict in Libya, the Syrian government has not backed down and the army has remained mostly loyal to Assad. Despite several very high ranking defections, Assad continues to claim that he will regain control of his country, and he does have a very loyal core of officers and security personnel. Al Jazeera lists 46 total defections of senior military and security officers, cabinet members, members of parliament, and diplomats.
While Turkey has said it does not plan to declare war on Syria, its parliament is discussing the possibility of sending troops into Syria in order to insure that no more shells find their way across the Turkish border and kill Turkish civilians. Syria has claimed that rebels are smuggling arms across the border thus necessitating its incursions across the Turkish border.
Meanwhile, the North Atlantic Council of NATO has held an urgent meeting to support Turkey and demand an immediate cessation of aggressive acts towards an ally. As a member of NATO, Turkey is backed up by that alliance under Article 5 which states that an attack against one member of the alliance is considered an attack against all members. Article 5 has only been invoked once in the history of NATO and that was following the September 11, 2001 attacks on the United States. Meanwhile, the Pentagon has been monitoring the situation along the Turkish-Syrian border and has stated that it sees nothing more than retaliatory action on the part of Turkey, however if NATO determines that Syria attacked Turkey, or if Syria does in fact attack Turkey, the United States, under its NATO obligations will be drawn into the conflict in Syria.
Damascus and Bashar Assad are aware of the situation and have issued a rare apology for the mortar attack on Wednesday. However, they (Assad, really) are walking a fine line between claiming to be following rebels and arms smugglers, thus leading to inadvertent shelling of border towns, and launching direct, deliberate attacks into a neighboring state.
Any coherent international response via the UN Security Council has been blocked by both China and Russia, both of whom supply arms to Syria. The fighting in Syria has also revealed the splits in the Middle East that have not always been apparent to Western eyes. While Turkey, Saudi Arabia and Qatar have all called for Assad to step down and have backed the rebels, the Alawites in Syria (an offshoot of Shi’ite Islam), the Iranian government (Shi’ites), and Hezbollah have all remained strong supporters of the Assad regime. The international community, however you think of it, needs to move decisively to bring an end to the hostilities currently consuming Syria if it does not want to see regional war, involving multiple countries fighting each other, consuming the Middle East.