Syrian jets and helicopters attacked a rebel-held town just feet from the Turkish border, sending scores of civilians fleeing into Turkey. NBCNews.com’s Dara Brown reports.
NATO will defend alliance member Turkey, which struck back after mortar rounds fired from Syria landed inside its border, the alliance’s Secretary General Anders Fogh Rasmussen said at a meeting in Prague on Monday.
“NATO as an organization will do what it takes to protect and defend Turkey, our ally. We have all plans in place to make sure that we can protect and defend Turkey and hopefully that way also deter so that attacks on Turkey will not take place,” he said.
Rasmussen also welcomed a weekend agreement by Syrian opposition groups to put aside differences and form a new coalition.
In the 20 months since the revolt against President Bashar Assad began, one by one the sleepy Turkish towns and villages along the 550-mile frontier have watched helplessly as the Syrian war edges closer.
The proximity is no more obvious than in Ceylanpinar, where what was a single town under the Ottoman empire was split after World War I, with part remaining in the new Turkish republic and part coming under French rule in what would become Syria.
Ras al-Ain, as the town on the Syrian side of the frontier is known, was overrun on Thursday by anti-Assad rebels advancing into Syria’s northeast, home to many ethnic Kurds. Fighting has sent thousands of refugees fleeing for safety in Turkey.
No sooner had the rebels raised their flag over Ras al-Ain after a fierce battle, however, than Syrian government tanks and artillery began firing back into the town in what has become an all-too-familiar pattern of the civil war.
Assad’s forces unleashed their air power on Monday. A warplane screeched along the frontier and bombs fell close to the border fence, sending scores more Syrians scrambling over into Turkey. Helicopters strafed targets for a second day.
Turkey does not want to become embroiled in a regional war, but risks being drawn in by domestic pressures. As frustration grows among leaders in Ankara at world powers’ failure to stop the bloodshed, so too are Turkey’s citizens becoming impatient with their own government’s inability to keep them safe.
Walls ‘riddled with bullet holes’
Flat-roofed Syrian and Turkish houses abut the barbed-wire fence that divides the two modern towns, whose combined population is 80,000 and between which Arabs and Kurds have long maintained family and social bonds.
Though crossing the frontier has often been limited by official restrictions, friends and relatives exchange greetings through the wire as though chatting over a backyard fence.
Loitering near the wire is now a risky pastime, however. Kayakiran’s uncle, Mehmet Ali, recalled how close the war came when, after rebels took Ras al-Ain last week, he stepped outside his home in Ceylanpinar to phone a friend over the border.
“I wanted to see if he was alive,” he said.
“I was just putting the phone to my ear when the bullet hit right here,” he said, pointing to a street sign nailed to the wall of his house.
The stray bullet, fired from across the fence, left a small dent in the metal panel inches from where his head had been.
“That’s nothing,” said a neighbor joining the conversation. “My wall is riddled with bullet holes.”
Others have been less fortunate; two people in Ceylanpinar were wounded last week by stray bullets fired from Syria, including a teenage boy who was shot in the chest.
Around 60 miles west along the border, in the Turkish town of Akcakale, five civilians were killed last month when a mortar fired from Syria struck their home.
It was the most serious cross-border incident since the fighting began, spurring Turkish calls for more robust action from world powers, including the possible deployment by NATO of Patriot surface-to-air missiles on the Turkey-Syria border.
Turkey says it has fired back in retaliation, but its calls for a buffer zone to be set up inside Syria have so far failed to gain traction among reluctant Western powers.
As in Akcakale, many of those in Ceylanpinar living near the fence have abandoned their homes for the time being. The neighborhood resembles a ghost town, where Turkish soldiers in trenches train their guns on Syria.
Turkish police trucks armed with water cannons, typically used in the past to suppress the restive ethnic Kurdish population of southeastern Turkey, including Ceylanpinar, now patrol the Syrian border.
Police warn children not to play near the fence. Schools have been closed since last week, and over loudspeakers on Monday authorities urged people to stay indoors.
“We’ve locked our doors and left,” said Huseyin Albayrak, a neighbor living a few doors down from Kayakiran. “I’ve sent my wife and kids to my father further inside the town.
“Turkey needs to do something to protect its people.”
According to Al Jazeera, Rasmussen told reporters in Prague on Monday that NATO will stand by Turkey and consider requests for a possible deployment of anti-aircraft missiles.
“Turkey can rely on NATO solidarity, we have more plans in place to defend and protect Turkey, our ally, if needed,” Rasmussen said, according to Al Jazeera.
The NATO secretary-general added that the military alliance had not received a request from Turkey to deploy U.S.-made Patriot anti-aircraft missiles.
“But obviously if such a request is to be forwarded, the NATO council will have to consider it,” Rasmussen added, according to Al Jazeera.
By NBC News staff and wire services