Turkish soldiers take strategic position at the Akcakale border gate in southern Sanliurfa province on Sunday.
SANLIURFA, Turkey – Monday was another day of cross-border violence and rising tension between Syria and Turkey.
It was also a day when Gov. Mitt Romney pledged that, if elected president, he’d change the course of events here.
Among other things, he wants to green-light heavy weapons to the Syrian rebels “who share our values” in order to “defeat the tanks, helicopters and fighter jets” of the Bashar Assad regime.
For its part, the Obama administration says it has refrained from supplying the rebels with weapons out of concern that they could end up in terrorist hands.
Others say escalating the conflict with more weapons isn’t necessarily good news for ordinary Syrians who are struggling to live along the 600-mile border – or for the U.S., given the potential for a larger regional conflagration.
On the border – but not safe
Mahmoud Soukman is a truck driver who transports goods between Syria and Turkey. Three weeks ago he left his truck and fled with his wife, 9-month-old daughter and the clothes on their backs, moving in with his mother and siblings on a small farm just inside Turkey.
But they don’t feel safe, on either side of the border.
Mortars and shells explode ominously, and often in the distance, as Syrian rebels and government troops fight over strategic swaths of Northern Syria in the ongoing civil war. And one mortar did land near the farm house.
Meanwhile, the tit-for-tat border skirmishes between Turkey and Syria have already become routine. The Syrian Army landed a mortar again on Monday about 100 yards inside Turkey, with no casualties; and the Turks have been returning artillery fire at imprecise targets inside Syria.
Andrea Mitchell talks to Ambassador Dennis Ross about the escalating tensions between Syria and Turkey, and what both presidential candidates are saying they'll do about the situation.
Syrian President Assad’s regime offered a weak apology for the deaths of five Turkish civilians, killed last week by an allegedly errant shell. But Turkish government officials have become increasingly bellicose. On Monday, Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan warned Turks to prepare for war, if necessary.
Also on Monday, Turkish President Abdullah Gul said the "worst-case scenarios" were now playing out in Syria and Turkey would do everything necessary to protect itself.
"The worst-case scenarios are taking place right now in Syria ... Our government is in constant consultation with the Turkish military. Whatever is needed is being done immediately as you see, and it will continue to be done," Gul said.
"There will be a change, a transition sooner or later ... It is a must for the international community to take effective action before Syria turns into a bigger wreck and further blood is shed, that is our main wish," he told reporters in Ankara.
Near Soukman’s farm, we saw Turkish troops and armored personnel carriers beefing up the border, building sand berms that gave the ordinarily bucolic setting a front-line feel.
Some Middle East analysts see a potential tinderbox. “The situation is very volatile, very dangerous and has the potential to escalate into all-out war,” warned Professor Fawaz Gerges from the London School of Economics.
What could happen if the rebels get the shoulder-held rocket launchers and anti-aircraft weapons they want?
One likely scenario, say some Middle East experts, is that the Kremlin will loosen its own under-reported restrictions and sell the Syrian government – which Russia considers a client state – the high-tech weapons that Assad has been clamoring for.
If that were to happen, some say it has the potential to unleash an arms race – and an all-out war – on Turkey’s doorstep.
In that case, Gerges believes, just one mistake, one miscalculation, could trigger a regional war - or worse.
During a campaign speech at the Virginia Military Institute, GOP presidential candidate Mitt Romney outlined his plan for easing tension in the Middle East, as well as his Syria strategy.
“If Turkey, a NATO member, is fed up and invades Syria, NATO would have no choice but to intervene in Syria. And you can bet that Iran would become involved, and this could quickly turn into a region-wide conflict between Turkey, NATO, Saudi Arabia and Qatar on the one hand, and Iran, Iraq, Hezbollah and Syria on the other.”
Luckily, this nightmare scenario can be avoided. In fact, both Russia and NATO (read: the U.S.) are using their considerable influence over Syria and Turkey, respectively, to keep tempers in check.
But Turkey is already bristling with almost 100,000 hungry Syrian refugees in camps on its border. And Assad is well aware that Turkey is largely spearheading the rebels’ fight against his regime, supplying their weapons and hosting the military wing of the opposition.
If a Syrian warplane were taken down by well-armed rebels and crashed into a Turkish village on the border, killing dozens, the incident could be the match that ignites a conflagration.
“You have the potential not only for a region-wide war, but also for international conflict as well,” said Gerges.
Machine guns operated by motorcycle brakes? Get a glimpse at the rebels fighting against Assad's forces in Syria's mountainous Jabal al-Zawiya area.
President Barack Obama has maintained that arming the rebels is a red line beyond which chaos could unfold, leaving the risk of an over-militarized Syria with a power vacuum – a kind of Libya on steroids.
There is also the added danger of “rogue rebels” – both al-Qaida and affiliated militants have already joined the rebels’ ranks – getting their hands on sophisticated weapons and turning them on us.
At least in his public statements, Romney doesn’t appear too concerned about either happening. Instead, he seems more focused on a victory by freedom-fighters over an evil Syrian regime. His camp says that more powerful and deadly weapons will be a game changer.
From his precarious perch overlooking the border, Soukman, the refugee truck-driver, sees only dark days ahead.
“There’s no food or water in our village. You can die from hunger,” he said. “If the fighting doesn’t calm down, maybe we’ll be here for years.”
Jim Maceda is an NBC News Correspondent based in London currently on assignment on the Turkish-Syrian border. Reuters contributed to this report.
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