Just two years ago, as part of its “zero problems with neighbors” policy, Turkey removed visa requirements with several countries, including Syria, its neighbor to the south. Thousands of middle class Syrians flooded the 500-mile border, visiting the malls of Gaziantep or scouting for business partners amongst Turkey’s vibrant merchant class. It was a time of great enthusiasm about Turkey across the Middle East, the heyday of the Mavi Marmara affair, when the Eastern-looking Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan appeared to be standing up to Israel, even the United States. Arabs embraced Turkish soap operas and named their baby boys Tayyip. Erdogan was best friend to everyone, and on especially good terms with Syrian President Bashar al-Assad. The two were photographed palling around in the sunny Aegean town of Bodrum. Erdogan called Assad “brother.”
Then the Arab Spring started. After months of carnage, Erdogan took a stand. With characteristically dramatic flair, he called for his old friend Assad to step down. “Bashar al-Assad comes out and says 'I will fight to the death'. For the love of God, who are you fighting with?” Erdogan said. “If you want to see someone who has fought until death against his own people, just look at Nazi Germany, just look at Hitler, at Mussolini, at Nicolae Ceausescu in Romania. If you cannot draw any lessons from these, then look at the Libyan leader who was killed just 32 days ago.” Back then, it seemed like Assad might suffer the same fate as Ben Ali, Mubarak and Gaddafi.
That was almost a year ago. Today, an estimated 30,000 Syrians have been killed, towns and cities destroyed. One hundred thousand civilians have fled the violence to refugee camps over the Turkish border. Syrian bombs fall increasingly close to Turkish villages where, in some places, only a narrow river separates the two countries. In June, the Syrians shot down a Turkish fighter jet. By that time, Erdogan had already become one of the loudest critics of the Assad, vowing to take whatever steps necessary to protect his people.
Then, at the beginning of October, a bomb fell on the Turkish border town of Akcakale, killing five civilians. Turkey responded by shelling Syrian targets. Although Prime Minister Erdogan has said he does not want war, much of his rhetoric since suggests otherwise. Speaking at a political rally in Istanbul last week, Erdogan said, “What did our forefathers say? ‘If you want peace, prepare for war.’” The Turkish parliament, dominated by Erdogan’s Justice and Development Party, approved a motion authorizing military intervention. And just this Sunday, Turkey announced a ban on all Syrian aircraft in the country’s airspace, after grounding a Syrian passenger plane coming from Russia that it suspected of carrying munitions.
All signs point to a wider regional conflict, and if you’ve been following these events from the United States, it indeed appears as though Turkey is just one incident away from sending in troops. All his fiery rhetoric and heroic vows to stand up to Assad would also imply that the Turkish people are behind him. They are not.
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A few weeks ago, protesters marched through Istanbul, bearing innocuous slogans such as, “No to War,” as well as revealing ones like, “USA Take Your Hands Out of the Middle East,” which reflects a suspicion (typically from the left) that Erdogan’s belligerence has come at the behest of President Obama. Newspaper columnists have denounced him as a warmonger. And according to the latest poll by Turkish polling agency Metropol, 76 percent of Turks are against intervention in Syria.
Some of the opposition to Erdogan comes in response to what Turks see as a dangerous Sunni Muslim—or Islamist—power base setting up in their country. Erdogan is Sunni, as are most of the Syrian rebels; the Assad regime is Allawite and secular. The Syrian National Council, the civilian wing of the Free Syrian Army, regularly holds press conferences and meetings with foreign dignitaries at downtown Istanbul hotels. Erdogan has allowed Saudi Arabia and Qatar to send weapons through Turkey—and some say the Turks have made their own contributions to the cause. In the Hatay region, near the border, Turks report seeing long-bearded foreign jihadists arriving at the local airport, on their way to join the fight.
The presence of refugees and foreigners particularly rankles Turkish Alevis. Much of the opposition to Erdogan’s Syria policy comes from this group. Turkish Alevism, a liberal, mystical faith, is a different strain of Islam than Syrian Allawism, but both have conflicts with Sunni conservatives and Islamists. Alevism is anathema to some conservative Sunni Turks, and Erdogan has long antagonized Turkish Alevis. They in turn typically support the secularist CHP, or People’s Republican Party, which is the main opposition party to Erdogan’s AKP. The CHP has adopted a staunch anti-war stance. “We don’t want war. We don’t want our sons’ blood to be shed in Arabian deserts,” said CHP leader Kemal Kilicdaroglu last week, and claimed that Erdogan was propagating a sectarian policy on Syria.
Anti-Islamist sentiment—or perhaps anti-Erdogan sentiment—is so strong that some educated, self-proclaimed liberals even seem to prefer that Assad stay in power. For these Turks, steeped in secularist ideology and more recently enraged by Erdogan’s arrogant leadership, a secular dictator who kills his own people is preferable to Islamists moving in next door.
This being Turkey there are, of course, many other views. Some believe Erdogan’s professed moral outrage over Syria is hypocritical given his own punishing policies towards Turkey’s Kurdish minority. Others think he is more interested controlling Kurdish areas in northern Syria. And some allege that Erdogan is doing America’s imperial bidding, even though Erdogan has repeatedly sounded off on the West’s foot-dragging. As he told Christiane Amanpour of CNN in September: “Right now, there are certain things being expected from the United States. The United States had not yet catered to those expectations. Maybe it's because of the pre-election situation in the States.”
In fact, all of this chatter over whether the Turks will go to war might be pointless. NATO has shown little interest in intervention, and Erdogan is unlikely to make any truly bold moves without a coalition of the willing. The prime minister is autocratic and unpredictable but he’s not insane. For most of his political career, Erdogan was the swaggering, emotional leader of an oppressed religious minority in a secular country so afraid of Islamism that they put him in jail for a poem. Now he controls most everything in Turkey, but he still loves a fight, both because he believes he’s on the side of god, and because he can’t stand losing. Erdogan’s bellicosity might appear scary simply because no one else’s does—as one of the only leaders advocating for deeper Western involvement in Syria, he’s out there on a limb. He is pitching himself as Erdogan against the world. It may be the position he relishes most.