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NATO vows to back Turkey in Syria clashes. Is a broader war likely?

Turkey and Syria exchanged artillery fire for the sixth consecutive day Tuesday, while fighting between Syrian government forces and Syrian rebels raged just across the border.

The regime of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad has said it is not targeting Turkey and has apologized for what it says are errant shells slamming into Turkish territory as a result of the fighting. But Turkey, a member of NATO, is responding to the shelling by firing at Syrian Army installations — a scenario that could quickly deteriorate into a broader war of unforeseen ramifications, regional experts say.

NATO was letting it be known that the 28-nation military alliance, which encompasses the United States and Canada plus European countries, would stand by Turkey if conditions worsened. “We have all necessary plans in place to protect and defend Turkey if necessary,” said NATO Secretary-General Anders Fogh Rasmussen.

Neither antagonist in the cross-border shelling wants to see the Syrian conflict turn into a regional war, Middle East analysts agree. Turkey has no interest in seeing fighting engulf its 900-mile-long border with Syria, and Mr. Assad, already under tremendous pressure internally, knows what NATO’s intervention in the Libyan conflict last year meant for Muammar Qaddafi.

Despite that, however, Assad seems unlikely to give up the fight with rebels along the Turkish border, and the government of Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan — already under intense pressure from the public to be tough with Assad over the border shelling — is not about to back away.

Mr. Erdogan continues to reassure the Turkish population that Assad’s days are numbered and the conflict that has left nearly 100,000 Syrian refugees in Turkey will soon cease. He told a meeting of his ruling AK Party Tuesday that Assad is now standing only “with crutches,” according to Reuters. “He will be finished when the crutches fall away.”

But despite his weaknesses, Assad does not appear to be on his way out tomorrow — and in the meantime, the factors suggesting the conflict is sinking into a regional conflict are mounting.

Iran is sending in both arms and military advisers to prop up Assad — no doubt one of the developments Erdogan was referring to in his party speech. On the other side, Qatar, Saudi Arabia, and Turkey are supplying the Syrian rebels with small arms — though holding back from providing the heavier weapons, including shoulder-fired antiaircraft missiles, that the rebels seek.

The US is cautioning against supplying heavier weapons that could end up in the hands of Islamist extremists — as has happened in post-Qaddafi Libya. But with Syrian shells falling on Turkish border villages, it is unclear how long that caution can hold up.

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