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In Turkey and Syria, diplomacy by snark

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Thanassis Stavrakis/AP

(Read caption) High school students chant slogans during a protest at Gezi park, Taksim square in Istanbul, Monday, June 3, 2013. The demonstrations that grew out of anger over excessive police force have spiraled into Turkey's biggest anti-government demonstrations in years, challenging Prime Minister's Recep Tayyip Erdogan power.

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The Syrian pot yesterday called the Turkish kettle black. 

It may seem crazy for the government of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad to complain about the use of excessive force in Turkey surrounding the protests that erupted at Taksim Square in Istanbul on Friday, given that his government has killed thousands of civilians and tortured countless more during that country's civil war, and there has only been one confirmed death from Turkey's recent clashes, but self-awareness and a grasp of irony have never been strong suits among Middle Eastern leaders.

Syrian Information Minister Omran al-Zoubi suggested that Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan should immediately resign and go into exile in Qatar, and chided Mr. Erdogan for comparing the protesters to terrorists.

The comments amount to diplomacy by snark, and are basically throwing Erdogan's words and positions about the Syrian uprising back at him. Turkey has called for Assad to resign and flee his homeland, and Qatar has been a major backer of the uprising against his regime, both in the forms of cash and weapons, in international diplomatic circles, and on the propaganda front via the Al Jazeera satellite news channel owned by its leader. Turkey, likewise, has complained of Syria calling the armed opposition a group of terrorists.

Proportional? Hardly. The brutality of Syria under the Assads (Bashar's predecessor was his father, Hafez; between father and son, the family have held the top spot in Syria for 42 years) far outstrips the misbehavior of any of Turkey's rulers under that period. While it is easy to look at Turkey and criticize its human rights record and respect for basic freedoms in isolation, in comparison to Syria, the country is a paradise of civil liberties.

But that is not to say that Syria doesn't have a point. Finding a Middle Eastern leader with a fundamental respect for open societies and the rough and tumble of political disagreement is no easy task. Just as Egypt's Hosni Mubarak or Tunisia's Ben Ali described  the protests that ultimately drove them from power in 2011 as motivated by "foreign hands," Turkey's Erdogan turned straight to that page in the playbook.

According to Turkey's Hurriyet daily, Erdogan said today that "our intelligence work is ongoing [to determine the foreign actors behind the protests]. It is not possible to reveal their names. But we will have meetings with their heads."

The press is heavily controlled in Turkey, particularly the broadcast media, and as regional and international stations spent the weekend chronicling the protests (if a tad breathlessly at times), national stations like CNN Turkey were carrying cooking shows and wildlife documentaries.

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Erdogan also lashed out at the hard-to-censor Internet, particularly social media, which has been flooded with coverage of the protests and criticism of Erdogan. "There is this curse called Twitter ... social media is a curse on society," the prime minister said.

One way of looking at Turkey over the past decade is as a glittering success. Its economy has soared, the military's role in political life has been severely curtailed, and the country has established a habit of holding free elections with large turnouts, the latest giving the ruling Justice and Development Party  (AKP) a hair under 50 percent of the seats in parliament, an unprecedented mandate.

That vote was a reflection of public satisfaction at the Islamist AKP's economic stewardship under the guiding hand of the popular Erdogan. But the protests that have raged for the past few days in Istanbul and other cities are a clear reminder that all is not well in Turkey.

The country's apparent "democratization" over the past decade has also been accompanied by a crackdown on the press, brutal behavior by the police, and expanding crony capitalism in the form of close ties between senior AKP officials and wealthy businessmen. A sizable number of Turks resent the creeping Islamization of the nation by the AKP as an assault on their own lifestyles and the nation's traditional cosmopolitanism, and feel cut out of the political equation.

That, more than a protest over the destruction of Gezi Park in Istanbul to make way for a mall, is why tens of thousands braved tear gas and baton charges over the weekend. 

And though there is no equivalency between Syria and Turkey, the difference of agendas between Turkey's peaceful protesters and Syria's armed rebellion is an interesting reminder of the complex agendas in the region. While in Turkey, an important component driving the protesters is resentment against the Islamist agenda of the AKP, in Syria, a large portion of the armed rebels are interested in bringing Islamist politics to the country, which has been mostly secular under the Assads.

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