Turks Protest Government's Hardline Against Syria

Several days of cross-border mortar explosions have world leaders calling on Turkey and Syria to ratchet down tensions and avoid open conflict. Turkish leaders say they're not looking for war, but they're determined to respond to each Syrian mortar with an artillery barrage of their own. Turks have been taking to the streets in large anti-war protests.

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Nearly a week of attacks, back and forth across the border between Turkey and Syria is causing worry in the world's capitals, U.N. and inside Turkey itself. Turkey's leaders have been talking tough, which in turn has spurred some Turks to take to the streets in protest against a possible war with Syria. NPR'S Peter Kenyon reports from Istanbul.

PETER KENYON, BYLINE: Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan hasn't flinched, as Syrian mortars landed on Turkish soil day after day, the first killing five civilians. He ordered artillery barrages back across the border in each case and said no attack would go unanswered. But in spite of, or perhaps because of his hard line, thousands of Turks took to the streets to express their displeasure with Turkey's Syria policy.

CROWD: (Chanting in foreign language)

KENYON: This Istanbul demonstration was organized by opponents of Erdogan and his ruling AK party. The general theme of the chants was that Ankara was too beholden to the U.S. position on Syria and as a result was putting Turkish citizens in harms way.

Avne Can Okuz, one of the rally organizers, said later that people have watched the situation in southeastern Turkey get steadily worse while the government does nothing but bluster against the Syrians.

AVNE CAN OKUZ: (Through Translator) What happened the other day, when five Turkish citizens were killed, many people think this is because our government is supporting the rebel groups in Syria who are creating all the chaos.

KENYON: Okuz sees the Syrian conflict in sectarian terms, with a mostly Sunni opposition facing off against the Alawite ruling family and its supporters. He argues that Turkey's policies are exacerbating sectarian tensions both in Syria and here in Turkey.

OKUZ: (Through Translator) In Turkey, there is a lot of pressure on both the Kurds and the Alawite communities. And this tension with Syria is only increasing the stress and pressure on those populations, and that's dangerous.

KENYON: As if to make Okuz's point, Turkish Alawites held their own demonstration in Ankara over the weekend, as much against the government's domestic moves as its Syria policy. But the protest underscore the diverse and sometimes conflicting views among Turkey's various communities, some of whom are not at all pleased with the souring of Turkish Syrian ties.

The Kurds too are a complicating factor. Amid the cross-border violence the Turkish military has declared 15 mountainous areas along the border closed security zones, suggesting that operations may be in the offing against Kurdish militant targets there.

Analyst and columnist Mehmet Ali Birand says Erdogan's strong rhetoric is intended to distract people from the fact that Turkey is unwilling - and in his view unable - to do anything decisive in Syria without America's help. Birand says the tough talk won't work indefinitely, especially for Turks living close to the border.

MEHMET ALI BIRAND: You know, in this public opinion, when your prime minister is strong enough against a foreign country, it's always good. You know, it's - people like that. They say bravo. You know, he's a tough guy. But to a certain degree. Because that region, they've lost jobs, they've lost money, and there are now nearly 100,000 refugees. This cannot go on for another two or three years, you know. It has to settle as soon as possible.

KENYON: With free Syrian army rebel fighters attacking loyalist forces in several spots very close to the border, Turkey is braced for additional mortars and for whatever retaliation is ordered. Diplomacy, as it has throughout this 18-month uprising, is lagging behind.

Peter Kenyon, NPR News, Istanbul.

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