Stray shells from the fighting in Syria have come across the Turkish border before, as have errant bullets—grim punctuation in the endless wave of refugees and injured people fleeing to Turkey, as it shoulders the biggest burden from Syria’s grinding civil war other than the beleaguered nation itself. But the shell that killed five civilians in the border town of Akcakale on Wednesday, including a woman and her three kids, shook the country, where many people already feel the Syrian conflict is reaching too close to home. And it prompted a move that analysts paint as an unavoidable one—Turkey finally fired back.
“The incident today was too grave and serious,” says Suat Kiniklioglu, the director of the Center for Strategic Communication in Ankara and a former member of parliament. “There had to be a response.”
On Wednesday, that response came when the Turkish military launched shells of its own at the Syrian government forces it blamed for the tragedy. It was the first such attack by Turkey against its former ally, and the Turkish government threatened more if its borders were breached again. “Turkey, in accordance with the rules of engagement and international law, will never leave such provocations by the Syrian regime against our national security unrequited,” the Turkish prime minister said in a statement.
Some shelling by the Turkish military reportedly continued on Thursday, though details of the attacks remained unconfirmed. "Turkey does not want war with Syria. But Turkey is capable of protecting its borders and will retaliate when necessary,” an aide to the prime minister posted on Twitter.
The flare-up sent the international community scrambling amid fears that tensions between the two countries could escalate—NATO members called an emergency meeting, while the United Nations chief called on Turkey to maintain communications with Syria. But analysts say neither side seems to have the appetite for a fight.
The Turkish government has come under increasing domestic pressure for its support of the Syrian opposition, which many Turks feel has brought nothing but trouble. Syrian President Bashar al-Assad continues to cling to power while more than 82,000 refugees wait in Turkey, and the official opposition bickers from its Istanbul base. “It’s kind of like Iraq intervention trauma—this war will go on forever, it will ruin our economy,” says Ceren Kenar, a Turkish columnist and journalist. “There is an indifference and in fact a wariness among Turkish public opinion.”
While the civilian deaths on Wednesday made retaliation seem necessary, Kenar adds, most Turks seem to want less involvement in Syria, not more. “The majority of Turkish people want to see Turkey stay out of this crisis,” she says.
The Syrian government, meanwhile, is having a hard enough time fighting off an insurgency without drawing its powerful neighbor into the mix. Mustafa Sheikh, a former general in the Syrian military who now heads the military council for the rebel Free Syrian Army, says it’s unlikely that Wednesday’s shelling was anything but a grave mistake. “It wasn’t intentional,” he says. “They didn’t want this.”
The Syrian government, for its part, has offered condolences to Turkey for the Akcakale attack, saying the incident is under investigation.
Sheikh also points out that the regional stakes are extremely high. Major military action by Turkey could draw in Iran, Assad’s man benefactor—which he says could help Tehran rally support as its economy buckles under the weight of international sanctions. “Turkey doesn’t want to help Iran out of its financial crisis by launching a war,” he says.
“I think a prolonged Turkish ground presence in Syria is very unlikely,” adds David Pollock, a senior fellow at the Washington Institute for Near East Policy.
Kiniklioglu, of the Center for Strategic Communication, points out that the Turkish government is push for a bill on Thursday that expands its power to respond to Syrian aggression, including the potential for cross-border operations. But any immediate implications, he says, would mainly be psychological—unless Turkey sees further attacks.
“There is considerable reluctance among Turks about getting dragged into a quagmire,” he says. “What is likely is that Syria will apologize and say it was an accident, and we will return to the status quo ante. Unless Assad really wants to drag Turkey into the Syria mess. Then all bets are off.”