Once-Friendly Turkey Cools To Border Mate Syria

Originally published on June 11, 2011 10:38 am
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This is WEEKEND EDITION from NPR News. I'm Scott Simon.

Syria has faced growing isolation from the international community over its brutal crackdown on anti-government protesters, and now it may be on the verge of losing its closest friend in the region. After years of warm relations, the government of Turkey has turned on Syria President Bashar al-Assad.

This week, as thousands of Syrian refugees have fled across the border into Turkey, Prime Minister Tayyip Erdogan condemned what he called the savagery of the Syrian regime and indicated that he could support U.N. intervention in Syrian. Erdogan's statement could signal a new political reality for Syria and the Middle East.

NPR's Deborah Amos has been monitoring the situation from Beirut and joins us now. Deborah, thanks for being with us.

DEBORAH AMOS: Thanks. Good morning.

SIMON: And first, help us understand this relationship between the president and the prime minister.

AMOS: This is a close personal relationship. And I have seen a photograph - and it still sticks in my mind - in a Turkish newspaper - two couples: the Syrian president and his wife and the Turkish prime minister and his wife. The two men were holding hands. It looked like a family portrait.

The relationship warmed about two years ago, and a year ago Turkey stopped all visa requirements for Syrians, and for Turkey, Syria is their gateway to the Middle East. It's a key state in their policy to open trade throughout the region. They opened the door for Syria, stopped their isolation.

And so it is stunning to hear the statements of the Turkish prime minister yesterday as thousands of Syrian refugees crossed that border. These are statements that will be almost impossible to reverse, and it appears that there is a serious break between these two countries.

SIMON: But does it make much of a difference to the regime in Damascus?

AMOS: It seems not to at the moment. The way that Damascus sees what is happening is an existential threat. Yesterday, there were some 200,000 people reportedly in the city of Hama. What they told us from Hama when we called in yesterday is the security police actually took down the statue of the current president's father, Hafaz el al-Assad, so that the protesters wouldn't destroy it.

And so I think the way the Syrian government sees what is happening is the immediate threat to them are the protests and this international problem will just have to wait.

SIMON: Does Prime Minister Erdogan's statements give any kind of fuel to the protest movement in Syria?

AMOS: In some ways, yes. I think much more important for those in the north it has become an escape route. There are Syrians who are camped out on this border villages on the Syrian side, and what they're waiting to see is if the army turns and comes all the way up to the border. And they are ready to jump.

That's what has put such a strain on this relationship; so many people coming across. And the Turkish media has been covering it, has been interviewing those refugees as they come across. And it appeared to have put some pressure on the prime minister and take a step that maybe he'd been thinking about.

It was interesting to listen to his interview when he said I called President Bashar. I explained how serious this was. He was taking it lightly. Unfortunately, he said, the Syrians tell us one thing and they do something else.

SIMON: And Deborah, finally, help us understand what's happened with the protest over the last few days.

AMOS: We have numbers from human rights groups inside and outside Syria. They say that 35 protesters died yesterday. Much of the focus of the protest and the government response, however, was in the north. This morning, Syrian TV said that they arrested the leaders of the armed gang in a town called Jisr al-Shagour. However, most of the people in that town had already fled. They had moved across the border.

SIMON: NPR's Deborah Amos in Beirut. Thanks so much.

AMOS: Thank you, Scott. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.