The war in Syria and Turkey’s protests

Sophia Jones writes: The names of the dead are taped to Sycamore trees in Istanbul’s Gezi Park: Fatma Erboz, age 3. Ahmet Uyar, 45.

These trees — threatened by government redevelopment plans that have in turn inspired mass protests around Turkey — have been transformed into memorials for the more than 50 people who died in twin car bombings last month in Reyhanli, a Turkish town on the border of Syria.

On Tuesday morning, police attempted to drive protestors out of the park with water cannons and tear gas — perhaps signaling an end to the popular and mostly peaceful demonstrations that have spread across Turkey over the past two weeks. But the issues that have fueled the turmoil — from complaints over the Islamist government’s conservative social policies to demands for greater democracy — are not likely to dissipate so quickly. And that is particularly true of one issue that has inflamed many protesters’ anger at Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan: The government’s stance on the war ravaging Syria, which has now claimed over 80,000 lives.

The war in Syria is polarizing Turkey. According to a recent study by MetroPOLL Strategic and Social Research Center, based in Ankara, only 28 percent of the Turkish public supports the prime minister’s policies on Syria. Since the start of the conflict, the government has strongly condemned Syrian President Bashar al-Assad. From early on, Erdogan has vocally supported the Free Syrian Army (FSA), the rebel group battling the regime, and has urged the United States to supply them with weapons and to establish a no-fly zone.

Turkey is crucial for the rebels. It offers refuge for their families as well as a safe zone where they can plan and launch attacks over the border. Turkish businesses supply the rebels with everything from medicine to uniforms to cigarettes. But many Turks have long worried that this would make them subject to retaliation by the Syrian government — a fear that, for many, was confirmed by the attacks in Reyhanli. The leader of Turkey’s main opposition has repeatedly confronted Erdogan over his pro-rebel policies, accusing the prime minister of supporting Syrian “terrorists.” [Continue reading…]

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