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Turkey risks getting mired in Syrian conflict

The view that Turkey misgauged the conflict with Syria is gaining force as skirmishes continue, threats are being exchanged and more grenades are flying.

For the past few days, Turkey has been reinforcing its military presence on the border with Syria. Fighter jets have been redeployed to the southeastern town of Diyarbakir, while more tanks have been moved into border areas. There are also an increasing number of flashpoints on the border.

The Turkish army has reacted with artillery fire to the rain of Syrian grenades on Turkish soil. Whether any people have been hit by these rocket-propelled grenades remains unclear, although two women and three children were killed by Syrian gunfire in the Turkish border town of Akcakale.

A day later, the parliament in Ankara handed the government the power to militarily intervene in Syria, should the need arise.

Syrian passenger plane after it was forced to land at Ankara airport

The Syrian jet incident has escalated tensions between Turkey, Syria and Russia

New escalation

The situation escalated further this past Wednesday, when Turkish forces forced a Syrian plane flying from Moscow to Damascus to land in Ankara. According to Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan, "military material" was found on board.

Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov said the plane was carrying a completely legal consignment of radar components, and that the Russian company sending them to Syria would be asking for them back from the Turkish government.

A similar incident apparently occurred on Friday, when Turkish officials said one of their fighter jets had to chase away a Syrian helicopter that had neared its border.

Turkey heading toward dead end

The forced landing of the Syrian passenger jet significantly worsened relations between Turkey and Russia. Russia still supports President Bashar Assad, while Erdogan was among the first to turn away from the Syrian leader.

Günter Seufert, an analyst at the German Institute for International and Security Affairs (SWP), said Turkey originally thought it would take perhaps two or three months for the Assad regime to fall. "But when no support came from the west, the Turkish government realized it had maneuvered itself into a dead end," he said.

NATO Secretary General Anders Fogh Rasmussen at media briefing

Rasmussen says NATO will stand by Turkey if need be

In the spring of 2011, as Assad violently put down the peaceful demonstrations that had erupted in his country, Turkey quickly opened its borders to Syrian refugees. But the stream of new arrivals has not trickled out.

Nearly 600 refugees arrived in the country on Friday alone, the Turkish news agency Anadolu reported, including two generals from the Syrian army. There are now 93,000 Syrians in refugee camps, at a point whenTurkey has said it does not want to take in more than 100,000.

Erdogan wants buffer zone

Erdogan has been calling for the establishment of a buffer zone along the border, as well as aid corridors in Syrian territory, and has consistently campaigned for support for these objectives from his western allies.

NATO, meanwhile, has emphasized its solidarity: in an emergency, the alliance intends to stand by Turkey against Syria.

But NATO Secretary General Anders Fogh Rasmussen also said it was no more than a "hypothetical" possibility that Ankara would demand military help under Article 5 of the NATO charter. The Syrian conflict, he said, could only be solved politically.

Weapons deliveries from Turkey remain the most important support the Syrian rebels are receiving, which has helped the anti-Assad Free Syrian Army to secure a strip of territory nearly 20 kilometres deep into the Syrian side on the border with Turkey.

Inhabitants of Syrian villages there have left the area - the shops are closed and the land lies neglected - so the rebels are dependent on deliveries of food and water from Turkey, as well as weapons. A Turkish journalist who did not want to be named reported that even the rebels' wounded are being treated in Turkey, since they are cut off from the rest of Syria by Assad's troops.

Syrian refugee woman tending to her small children at a camp

There are some 93,000 Syrian refugees now in Turkey

Antakya weapons center

The center for equipping and arming the rebels is Antakya, capital of the southern Turkish province of Hatay, which belonged to the French-governed area of Syria until 1939.

According to British newspaper the Guardian, Antakya is a meeting point for weapons dealers from Qatar, Saudi Arabia and Lebanon. It is apparently from here that the last major weapons deliveries to the Syrian rebels was made.

The current supply of munitions "is only enough to survive, not to win," the paper quoted a rebel commander as saying.

Fears are also growing that anti-tank rocket launchers, assault rifles and ammunition could fall into the hands of Islamist militants. For that reason, according to the New York Times, CIA agents have been monitoring the distribution of weapons and establishing contact with moderate regime opponents.

This development is a cause for concern to Seufert. "It's unsettling that US soldiers from Jordan and Turkey are on the ground. They are there to help refugees, but they could carry out military training," said the German analyst. This, Seufert fears, could lead to an escalation of the conflict.

Syria policy questioned

The majority of the Turkish population has little sympathy for Erdogan's stance on the Syria conflict. For the first time in his 10 years in office, the prime minister is facing widespread opposition. Half of the country's electorate voted for his AKP party in last year's parliamentary election - largely because it was perceived as offering stability to the country.

Since then, Turkey has enjoyed high growth rates and now belongs to the biggest 20 economies in the world. With wide sectors of the population having achieved relative prosperity, many Turkish people now fear that Erdogan's aggressive stance towards Syria is endangering that.

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