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U.S. Hopes U.N. Rebuke Will Deter Syrian Regime


Syria and Turkey are not at war, but it was hard to tell the difference for a short time along their border this week. Syrian shelling killed five Turkish villagers - two women and three children. The question now is how big a price Syria may be forced to pay.


Turkey has already fired back and extracted a Syrian promise the shelling won't happen again. Turkey's NATO allies, including the United States, backed it up. What we do not know is whether the international community will be able to use this incident to increase the pressure on Syria's regime.

MONTAGNE: The U.N. Security Council condemned the mortar attack but didn't actually pledge to do anything about it. For 18 months, China and Russia have blocked all calls for sanctions against the Syrian government, as its military tries to suppress a rebellion. NPR's Michele Kelemen reports on what happens now.

MICHELE KELEMEN, BYLINE: NATO's response came swiftly. The military alliance condemned Syria for what it called aggressive acts and flagrant violations of international law. And the U.N., U.S. ambassador, Susan Rice was also talking tough, even as Russia tried to water down a Security Council statement on the incident.

SUSAN RICE: This is of grave concern. Turkey is a core ally of the United States and this sort of cross-border military activity is very destabilizing and must be stopped.

KELEMEN: Secretary of State Hillary Clinton spoke by phone with Turkey's foreign minister and her spokesperson, Victoria Nuland, offered these words in support of Turkey's actions since the attack that killed two Turkish women and three children.

VICTORIA NULAND: From our perspective, the response that Turkey made was appropriate. It also was designed to strengthen the deterrent effect so that these kinds of things don't happen again, and it was proportional.

KELEMEN: Turkey's parliament has given the government a green light for further military action. That too could deter Bashar al Assad's regime, according to Soner Cagaptay, director of the Turkish Program at the Washington Institute for Near East Policy. He says Turkey ends this week in a fairly strong position, able to take action when it wants with little fear of Syrian retaliation.

SONER CAGAPTAY: I don't think this is a full-blown war. I don't think it's a full-blown conflict, but this will be more of an a la carte strategy where Ankara will decide whether or not it is worth carrying out precision strikes against the Assad regime, and so it will not be surprising if we heard similar incidents in the coming months where Turkey feels that it wants to protect some civilians inside Syria or - or take other measures.

KELEMEN: And Cagaptay thinks this will revive a debate about setting up safe zones in northern Syria nears Turkey's border in areas under rebel control. The U.S. has been much more cautious about that, though, and Cagaptay thinks that the private U.S.-Turkish conversations are very different from what we're hearing in public.

CAGAPTAY: Behind the scenes, the strategy of the United States is going to be trying to slow Turkey down a little bit, while publically it is going to be coming to Turkey's defense in this strongly - the most strongly worded statement.

KELEMEN: U.N. Special Envoy Lakhdar Brahimi has been in touch with both Turkish and Syrian officials to try to ease tensions. Syria's ambassador to the U.N. says his country wants to maintain good relations with Turkey.

LAKHDAR BRAHIMI: The Syrian government is not seeking any escalation with any of its neighbors, including Turkey.

KELEMEN: While he stopped short of apologizing, Bashar Ja'afari brought a letter to the U.N. Security Council saying his country is seriously investigating the border incident, and offering condolences to the victims.

BASHAR JA'AFARI: In cases of border incidents that happen between any two neighboring countries, states and governments should act wisely, rationally and responsibly.

KELEMEN: But in a reference to Syrian rebels, Ja'afari also complained that there are undisciplined armed groups along the Turkish-Syrian border, groups that pose a threat to his government. Michele Kelemen, NPR News, the State Department. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.