The Turkish-Syrian Conflict and the Doctrine of Proportional Response

A Syrian mortar round explodes in the Turkish town of  Akcakale.

A Syrian mortar round explodes in the Turkish town of Akcakale.

On Wednesday, a Syrian mortar round landed in a Turkish village along the border between the two countries, killing five Turkish civilians. The incident sparked a sharp response from the government of Turkey, which launched a military operation shelling Syrian positions along the border.

On Thursday, the Turkish government approved a resolution authorizing military action against Syria, but stopping short of formally declaring war against their neighbor. On Friday, the Turkish military moved tanks and anti-aircraft units into the region.

Actors on both sides are attempting to manage the escalating crisis. Thousands of anti-war protesters on Friday took to the streets in Turkey, protesting against military conflict with Syria. The Turkish government also appears to be maintaining a proportional response, for fear that it not outrun the policies of its NATO allies. A statement by the United Nations Security Council condemned the Syrian mortar attack and urged parties to exercise restraint. The Russian government, arguably Syria’s closest ally, urged Syria to issue a statement describing the attack as a mistake.

In its efforts to respond to the Syrian attack, the Turkish government must walk a fine line. It seems clear that Turkey does not want the conflict with Syria to expand. Nor does the Syrian government, which is already engaged in a protracted civil war, want war with Turkey. The ability of two to manage the crisis would appear to rest on their ability to prevent the conflict from escalating. It seems likely that that Turkish government will attempt to keep its response proportionate to the original attack. As long as Syria perceives that response proportional, it will likely allow Turkey to proceed. But whether the two are able to manage the crisis, or whether the crisis outruns both their efforts, remains to be seen.

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