Turkey’s President Wants War in Syria. Turks Don’t.
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.