Turkey grapples with ISIS missile fire
Istanbul - Turkey is struggling to answer Islamic State missile attacks on a key city near the Syrian border, which have killed 17 people this year.
A total of 49 missiles, fired from Islamic State (ISIS) positions in northern Syria, have landed in the city of Kilis since mid-January, according to a count by the official Turkish news agency Anadolu. About half of the missiles hit schools, hospitals and other buildings, killing 17 people and wounding another 58.
Turkish territory has been hit many times by missiles and artillery shells from Syria in the course of the five-year conflict but the ISIS rockets are by far the most serious threat.
Kilis is 3km north of the border and has taken in so many refugees from Syria that the Syrian population of about 117,000 has surpassed the number (106,000) of Turkish citizens in the city.
ISIS missile attacks in and around Kilis led to the cancellation of a visit by German Chancellor Angela Merkel and other high-level EU politicians. Merkel visited Nizip, a town 30km north of the border, instead.
Turkish Prime Minister Ahmet Davutoglu said the government was sending military reinforcements to the Kilis area and would help local businesses overcome losses suffered because of the missile threat. The attacks were “part of a dirty plan”, Davutoglu said in an April 26th speech, adding that Turkey would respond.
Veysel Ayhan, director of the International Middle East Peace Research Centre, a think-tank in Ankara, said Turkey was facing a dangerous situation. “ISIS is trying to drag Turkey into the Syrian war,” Ayhan said. “The situation is serious.”
Following an April 25th meeting between Davutoglu, military chiefs and civilian officials, Anadolu reported that the Turkish military had deployed mobile missile launchers near Kilis. Turkish Foreign Minister Mevlut Cavusoglu said additional US-made multiple rocket launchers would be deployed on the Syrian border. “We will be able to hit Daesh targets more effectively,” Cavusoglu said, using an Arabic acronym for ISIS. The firepower of new missiles would also enable moderate opposition forces in Syria to make headway, he added.
Turkish howitzers, firing from the Kilis area into Syria, have reportedly destroyed several ISIS missile launchers but the bombardment has failed to stop the jihadist attacks. Turkey has called in air support from fighter jets of the US-led international alliance fighting ISIS in Syria and Iraq. Reports said raids by coalition planes on April 25th targeted ISIS positions in northern Syria.
With ISIS missiles hitting the city despite the military response, Kilis has seen marches protesting the perceived inability of the government to protect the public. “People are nervous,” one man in Kilis told Turkish television. The Hurriyet newspaper reported that some people were considering leaving the city if the ISIS missiles kept coming.
The government’s response has been criticised as too weak, but Turkish Deputy Prime Minister Yalcin Akdogan, who attended a meeting in Kilis when several missiles hit nearby, said the state was doing everything it could. He spoke out against protest marches in “open places where missiles could hit”.
The opposition in Ankara says the government should be much more forceful in its response. “You are a state and your territory is under attack, so you have to take the necessary measures,” said Ozturk Yilmaz, a leading member of the Republican People’s Party (CHP), the biggest opposition bloc in parliament. “Turkey has the right to all measures, including a cross-border intervention.”
But statements by members of the leadership in Ankara demonstrate how the government is struggling to respond adequately to a threat that could throw the country into a war. Erdogan’s spokesman Ibrahim Kalin on April 25th said that it was unclear whether ISIS was firing the missiles into Turkey “by mistake”, adding there was a “chaotic war situation in Syria”.
A cross-border intervention with ground troops by Turkey, a country that openly calls for the fall of the government of Syrian President Bashar Assad, could lead to a further escalation of the conflict. Both the government in Damascus and Assad’s ally Russia have made it clear that they reject any Turkish military action in Syria. An intervention by Turkey, a major Sunni player in the region, could also trigger a response by Shia power Iran, which supports Assad.
Most of Turkey’s Western allies have rejected Ankara’s demand to create a “safe zone” in northern Syria which, according to the Turkish government, would clear an area along the Turkish border of ISIS fighters and could provide a safe haven for refugees inside Syria. Reaffirming Washington’s scepticism towards a safe zone, US President Barack Obama said “it is very difficult to see how it would operate short of us essentially being willing to militarily take over a chunk of that country”.