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Whenever the Syrian military fires across the border into Turkey, it threatens to ignite a major confrontation.
But sometimes the Turks choose to play down cross-border attacks on their territory, and an episode Saturday shows how complicated these shootings can be in a war that continues to evolve.
A Syrian tank fired a series of shells into the Turkish border town of Reyhanli on Saturday night, crashing on or near a local school, a public park and a mosque. No one was hurt, and Turkish police quickly sealed off the blast sites. But unlike some previous Syrian attacks, where the Turks have issued stern public warnings, there were no threats of retaliation this time, just official silence.
Turkish sources and the rebels say the tank attack came from the Syrian town of Harrim, less than five miles from the border, and they offered an unusual explanation for the attack — which may also explain why the Turks didn't retaliate.
The tank shells, 13 in all, were fired by a desperate Syrian colonel who threatened to make an international incident after he and his men were apparently abandoned by the Syrian regime after being surrounded by rebels of the Free Syrian Army. It is another sign of the weakening of President Bashar Assad's army in a revolt that is now 20 months old.
The town of Harrim has been under siege by rebels, one of the last regime holdouts along Syria's northern border. The rebels say they control more than 80 percent of Harrim. But several hundred loyalists remain in a stone fort inside the town. They have not been resupplied for weeks.
"I have only one tank left. I had seven," said the frantic Syrian colonel in charge of the unit. He called in his dire situation over a walkie-talkie that the rebels can monitor.
In fact, over time, both sides have learned how to regularly monitor military communications. The rebels offered a solution, according to a Syrian army major who defected and joined the rebels.
"We will make a corridor," explained the major-turned-rebel, who took part in the negotiations. The women and children could cross into Turkey, while the Syrian soldiers and allied fighters inside the fort would be arrested and questioned by the rebels.
He said the rebels would invite the international media "to be sure that we won't do anything bad to them," he added. The rebels made final preparations for the corridor and coordinated the civilian passage with the Turks.
Within days, a Syrian MIG fighter jet circled Harrim and bombed the corridor, said the rebel, convinced that the regime loyalists warned Damascus about the possible mass defection and called in the airstrike. That is when the desperate army colonel made his own call to Damascus, according to Turkish and rebel sources.
"We heard him talking to the regime," the rebel said of the monitored conversations.
The Syrian colonel said, "If you don't send support for me, I will bomb the Turkish side with my tank and I will make an international problem."
He waited for an answer, but on Nov. 29, Syria went offline as the regime in Damascus pulled the plug on the Internet and cellphone connections. The outage lasted for more than 50 hours. The colonel may have known about the communications blackout, but he also knew he had been cut off, too. The resupply routes to northern Syria have been in rebel hands for weeks.
On Saturday night, at around 10 p.m., the 13 tank rounds were fired from the stone fort in Harrim into Turkey. The Turkish side has responded only with silence.
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