By Carlo Muñoz - 10/03/12 08:41 PM EDT
NATO members convened an emergency meeting of alliance leaders on
Wednesday in an attempt to pull Turkey from the brink of war with
Ankara demanded the NATO sit-down after Syrian troops shelled targets in neighboring Turkey with Ankara responding with their own bombardment inside Syria, across the countries' shared border, according to recent news reports.
The initial Syrian strike into Turkey was a "flagrant breach" of international law, creating a "clear and present danger" to a key NATO ally, according to an alliance statement.
Secretary of State Hillary Clinton said on Wednesday she was "outraged" by the attacks and planned to discuss the matter with Turkish Foreign Minister Ahmet Davutoğlu and others to "discuss the best way forward."
DOD press secretary George Little condemned Syria's actions against Turkey, noting the attack was yet another reason embattled Syrian President Bashar Assad should step down.
"This is yet another example of the depraved behavior of the Syrian regime, and why it must go," Little said in a statement released Wednesday. "We regret the loss of life in Turkey, a strong ally, and continue to monitor the situation closely."
In a conversation with Davutoğlu before Wednesday's meeting, NATO Secretary-General Anders Fogh Rasmussen told the Turkish diplomat the alliance still has no plans to intervene in Syria's growing civil war.
However, Rasmussen reportedly told Davutoğlu NATO stood react to defend Turkey's borders if necessary, according to reports by the BBC.
Earlier in the day, Syrian troops lobbed mortar rounds into the Turkish border town of Akçakale, killing five and wounding nine in the attack, The Wall Street Journal reports.
Hours later, Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdoğan ordered a counterattack against positions inside Syria, according to reports.
Erdoğan defended Ankara's decision to fire back by saying Turkish troops were operating under new rules of engagement, drafted after of a Turkish F-4 fighter jet was shot down over the Mediterranean Sea by Syrian forces in June.
"The latest event was the last straw," Deputy Prime Minister Bülent Arinc said Wednesday of the Syrian border attack.
"Turkey is a sovereign country. There has been an attack against its soil and our citizens have lost their lives. There must be a response for this in international law," he told reporters during a press conference in Bursa.
Syrian forces have repeatedly been involved in small skirmishes along the border, in an attempt to kill anti-Assad rebels fleeing the country into Turkey.
In May, Erdoğan threatened to invoke Article 5 of the NATO charter after Assad forces again fired into Turkish territory in pursuit of rebel fighters.
Article 5 claims that an attack against one NATO member can be considered an attack on the entire alliance.
Invoking Article 5 could open the door for a NATO-led attack on Assad's forces, similar to the campaign that removed former Libyan dictator Moammar Gadhafi.
In June, Ankara amassed several armored units along the Syrian border, equipped with anti-aircraft guns and self-propelled rockets, in response to the shootdown of the Turkish F-4.
At the time, Defense Secretary Leon Panetta downplayed the escalating tensions between Turkey and Syria, telling reporters in June not to "read too much into [those] movements."
But Wednesday's cross border mortar exchange shows the growing rift between Syria and Turkey could erupt into open conflict between the neighboring nations.
The attacks also shows how the effects of Syria's civil war has begun to bleed into other parts of the region.
For the better part of a year, government troops and paramilitary forces loyal to the Assad regime and rebel fighters have fought to a bloody stalemate in Syria.
Rebel fighters looking to oust the longtime Syrian leader have managed to launch strikes against Assad's power base in Damascus from strongholds in the northern part of the country.
But Assad has pounded those rebel outposts in and around the northern town of Aleppo with a barrage of heavy artillery and jet fighters, oftentimes firing indiscriminately into civilian pockets within those areas.
--This story was originally posted at 4:16 pm and updated at 5:20 pm