Referring to a weekend massacre in the village of Houla where more than 100 people were killed, many of them children, Erdoğan described the dead as “our children who are massacred in Hama, Homs and Houla, as much as they are the children of desperate Syrian families.”
The prime minister was addressing a summit of the Alliance of Civilizations, a UN-backed forum launched in 2008 to promote understanding between East and West. Addressing the same forum, UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon urged Syria to stop the attacks and warned one more massacre such as the one perpetrated in Houla could plunge the country into civil war.
"The massacre of civilians of the sort seen last weekend could plunge Syria into catastrophic civil war -- a civil war from which the country would never recover," Ban told the İstanbul conference.
The United Nations has reported fewer than 20 people out of the 108 who perished in Houla were killed by shelling, with the remaining victims shot at close range. The Syrian regime has denied responsibility for the massacre, while the UN says pro-regime “shabbiha” militias are strongly suspected to have carried out most of the killings.
For Turkey, one of the most outspoken critics of President Bashar al-Assad, the Houla massacre is a turning point in the Syrian crisis that has woken the world up to the atrocities that have been occurring since anti-regime protests began more than a year ago. According to Foreign Minister Ahmet Davutoğlu, speaking in an interview on Thursday, “The massacre has made it clear that the Syrian regime has lost its legitimacy at home.”
The massacre, said Davutoğlu, has also further undermined a UN peace plan drafted by special envoy Kofi Annan, under which a cease-fire is supposed to have been in place since April 12.
In a statement following the massacre, the Turkish Ministry of Foreign Affairs said the international community should now raise its voice over the situation in Syria, but whether Ankara's is calling for greater external pressure on the regime involves a call for military action remains uncertain.
Davutoğlu said all measures should be exhausted before considering military action but noted that lack of international action in Bosnia in the 1990s resulted in 300,000 deaths. “What happened in Houla is a crime against humanity as grave as the Srebrenica tragedy,” Davutoğlu told private broadcaster NTV. He said the UN Security Council, where Russia and China have blocked attempts to issue anti-Assad resolutions in recent months, should display a firm resolve to prevent a civil war in Syria.
The foreign minister added that Turkey has never encouraged the Syrian opposition to resort to armed struggle in order to topple the regime and that the Syrian opposition took up weapons after army defectors refused to use force against protesters and joined the ranks of anti-Assad groups, dismissing Syrian claims that there are foreign fighters in the country.
According to Davutoğlu, the Syrian regime is now a source of instability in the region, and the instability will only deepen further as long as Assad is in power. “There could be divisions within Syria and de facto authorities [governing different parts of Syria] could emerge,” Davutoğlu warned.
Speaking at the Alliance of Civilizations summit, Ban voiced frustration with the continuing violence, saying UN peacekeepers operating in the country as part of the Annan plan are not there to witness atrocities. "Let me state plainly, however: The UN did not deploy in Syria just to bear witness to the slaughter of innocents," he said. "We are not there to play the role of passive observer to unspeakable atrocities."