ISTANBUL // Turkey's military response to deadly Syrian shelling on its border has created a "de facto buffer zone", a Syrian opposition leader said yesterday.
The Ankara government and Syrian opposition have been calling for safe zones on Syrian territory to protect refugees escaping the violence, but the idea has failed to gain traction with the West or the UN.
Turkish artillery pounded military targets in Syria near Akcakale late on Wednesday and early Thursday, in response to the killing of five Turks by a Syrian shell on Wednesday.
Bassam Imadi, a former Syrian ambassador and a member of the Syrian National Council (SNC), an opposition umbrella group, said the retaliation had led to "a de-facto buffer zone", which was "not as deep as we or the Turks would like".
He said a zone should include Aleppo, about 50 kilometres south of the border, to enable many Syrian refugees to go home.
With almost 100,000 refugees in border camps and an estimated 40,000 more in private housing in Turkey, Ankara says it is running out of capacity to care for them.
A Turkish foreign ministry official yesterday said Syria had pulled tanks and artillery away from the border in a bid to remove any "perception of threat".
Turkey's prime minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan yesterday told a crowd in Istanbul it would be "a fatal mistake" to test Turkish resolve.
"We are not interested in war, but we're not far from it either," Mr Erdogan said.
The Turkish military returned fire yesterday after a mortar from Syria landed across the border, the Anatolian news agency reported the governor of Hatay province as saying.
Meanwhile, protests were staged in Istanbul, Ankara and other cities on Thursday, against the parliamentary bill that would allow Mr Erdogan to use military force against Syria.
Thousands were estimated to have gathered for the street demonstrations.
"We do not want a war cabinet," was one slogan heard at the demonstration in Istanbul.
Veysel Ayhan, director of the International Middle East Peace Research Centre think tank in Ankara, said Turkish decision-makers might have been thinking of an informal buffer zone when they designed a response to the deaths in Akcakale.
"They [Turkey] did not attack targets at random, it was systematic shelling. The targets were known beforehand," Mr Ayhan said.
He said room to move around the border also made Turkish logistical support for the rebels easier.
Mr Erdogan has stressed his support for the opposition in its 18-month battle to unseat the government of president Bashar Al Assad.
The UN Security Council condemned Syria "in the strongest terms" over its deadly shelling of Akcakale.
After hours of haggling between Turkey's western allies on the Security Council and long-time Syria supporter Russia, the UN's top body issued its statement, which was toughly worded but rung down from a formal resolution.
"The members of the Security Council condemn in the strongest terms the shelling by the Syrian armed forces," the statement said. The Turkish NTV news channels reported yesterday that pilots of Syrian military aircraft had been given orders to keep a distance of 10 kilometres from the Turkish border. The report added that Syrian artillery had been told to hold fire near the border.
Turkish newspapers yesterday that the country's shells had destroyed three Syrian tanks, two armoured vehicles and an artillery battery.
But Sahin Alpay, a political scientist at Istanbul's Bahcesehir University, said it was unlikely that Ankara would risk a unilateral military confrontation with Syria.
"Without an international effort I don't think Turkey will do something in Syria," Mr Alpay said. Turkey had done what it could by helping the Syrian refugees, supporting the Syrian opposition and trying to find diplomatic ways to end the conflict.
"We have reached the limit," Mr Alpay said. "I don't think we can go further than this."
* with additional reporting by Associated Press