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Syria, Turkey Exchange Weekend Artillery Fire


More Syrian mortar fire struck inside Turkey today. That's the sixth consecutive day that Syrian artillery shells have exploded across the border. The Turkish military, once again, responded with artillery fire back into northern Syria. There is a growing international chorus of calls for restraint as this cross-border fires continues, amid fears that Turkey could be dragged into the Syrian conflict. NPR's Peter Kenyon is following the story from Istanbul.

Hi, Peter.


INSKEEP: Why would Syrian mortar fire continue falling inside Turkey given that the Syrians, when this started happening last week, said it was a mistake?

KENYON: Well, the mortars do keep coming. And there are a number of theories why. Some people say it might be a deliberate effort to widen the conflict, drag Turkey into the fight. And we have to remember that if NATO member Turkey does get involved that raises a number of other questions, not least what will the U.S. and other NATO member states do at the point.

There are even some who speculate that the rebel fighters could be capturing mortars and aiming them into Turkey trying to bring Ankara into the conflict on their side. Not much evidence of that so far, but you can't rule it out.

But the best explanation so far seems to be that these are probably misfires that go of course. Now, you might ask why now. The reason could be the intensified fighting between the Free Syrian Army and loyalist forces in areas right next to the border, including Tel Abyad border post and the village of Khirbet al-Jouz. There was a new rebel claim of seizing control of an army base there.

So there are more mortars being fired on the border, increasing the chances of some landing inside Turkey and increasing the chances of more civilian deaths, which could escalate things further.

INSKEEP: I suppose there have been calls for some kind of safe zone for rebels with inside Syria. If the Syrian military were to back away from the border, it would effectively create that safe zone, wouldn't it?

KENYON: It would. And there was a stray report of a 10 kilometer pull back on the Syrian side. That seems not to be the case, certainly in the fighting around Khirbet al-Jouz, which is near the Hatay side, on that side of the border. And that is well inside the 10 kilometer zone.

There is some speculation that the heavier artillery on the Syrian side may be pulled back a bit, which would create a, sort of, a de facto safe zone. I would say from what we're hearing from the activists and from Syrian state media that that is certainly not consistently being observed and I wouldn't count on it.

INSKEEP: Peter, in the last several days we've had very loud voices from the United States and elsewhere demanding that Syria cut this out and urging calm. But what leverage really does the international community have here?

KENYON: Well, that's an excellent point. So far it's mostly rhetoric outpacing action, as we've seen all along. It is notable that Russia and China, Syria's allies, have added their voices to the calls for restraint. But no one, for instance, is calling on Turkey to pull its troops and artillery back. And Prime Minister Erdogan has made clear that every incident will be responded to.

Now, the Turks, of course, are as worried about armed Kurds on the border as the Syrian army. So their large military presence is likely to remain. And there's a political element too. The opposition is leading many of the anti-war rallies here in Turkey. So Erdogan is trying to shore up his support with a tough line, which may work as long as he doesn't actually get dragged into a fight.

INSKEEP: Peter, as best you can determine, who is winning the war on the ground? And by this I mean the war between the Syrian rebels and the Syrian government?

KENYON: Difficult to know exactly, of course. State media claims ongoing victories. And the rebels also claim territory seized and more defections. What we do know is that big chunks of Syria, and important chunks, are being destroyed. UNESCO World Heritage sites, key commercial arteries. And this refugee and displaced family problem is continuing to soar, with no sign that diplomacy has much chance of changing that anytime soon.

INSKEEP: Peter, thanks very much.

KENYON: You're welcome, Steve.

INSKEEP: That's NPR's Peter Kenyon in Istanbul reporting on continuing shelling across the border from Syria. This is NPR News. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Steve Inskeep
Steve Inskeep is a host of NPR's Morning Edition, as well as NPR's morning news podcast Up First.
Peter Kenyon is NPR's international correspondent based in Istanbul, Turkey.

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