By David Blair World Last updated: October 11th, 2012
The Turkish border town of Akçakale after a Syrian attack on October 7, 2012
If anyone believed that Syria’s bloodshed would stay inside the country’s borders, the events of the last week should have put them right. I’m in southern Turkey, near the frontier with Syria, and this area feels like the new front line of the battle against Bashar al-Assad’s regime. Convoys of Turkish army vehicles ply the roads down to the border and, quietly, civilians are trickling away to safer areas.
The reason is simple: cross-border artillery and mortar bombardments have become daily events. Last Friday, I went to the scene of the bloodiest incident so far, when a Syrian mortar bomb landed outside a family home in the Turkish town of Akçakale. By malign chance, a mother, her six daughters and a female relative happened to be outside, making dinner under an olive tree, when the weapon exploded beside them. They were, quite simply, cut to pieces. When I arrived, a severed human finger, covered in flies, was still lying on the ground. Three of the girls survived with critical injuries; the mother, three daughters and the visiting relative were all killed.
Since then, hardly a day has passed without the Syrian army firing shells or bombs into Turkey, or vice versa. If another family dies in similar circumstances, the Turkish government will come under immense popular pressure to respond with full force. If the Akçakale killings were to be repeated, I would not be surprised if Turkey retaliated with a strike by troops as well as artillery, possibly accompanied with air power. The country’s parliament has authorised the government to do exactly that if necessary. In other words, Turkey and Syria are close to war. The two countries have been waging a covert, undeclared war since the onset of the uprising against Assad, with Turkey supplying the Syrian rebels and Damascus hitting back by fuelling the Kurdish insurgency inside its neighbour. But we could be close to the moment when this shadow war becomes a formal, cross-border conflict.
The lesson is clear: a civil war in volatile region is like a brushfire. Leave it alone, and it will spread.