ANTAKYA, Turkey (CNN) — Demonstrators congregated in central squares in Istanbul on Sunday, blowing giant bubbles, blaring music and chanting “down with the government” for a “Peace Day” rally.
The annual anti-war protest was organized amid a Turkish government effort to push the U.S. to intervene militarily in neighboring Syria.
Turkey’s prime minister has made no secret of the fact that he would like the U.S. to lead an effort to topple Syrian president Bashar al-Assad.
On condition of anonymity, Turkish government officials have shown respect for the American democratic decision-making process, while also expressing disappointment at President Barack Obama’s announcement Saturday that he would seek congressional approval before launching any attack on Syria.
“We are not thrilled with the delay and uncertainty that today’s announcement entails,” wrote one Turkish official, describing his government’s reaction.
On Friday, as the Obama administration was still mulling the possibility of a strike against the al-Assad regime, Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan told journalists “a limited intervention will not satisfy us.”
“It should be like the one in Kosovo,” he added, referring to the 1998-99 U.S.-led campaign to drive Serbian troops out of that contested region in the Balkans.
“The intervention shouldn’t be a one- to two-day hit and run. It should bring the regime to the brink of giving up,” Erdogan said.
Erdogan’s outspoken opposition to the al-Assad regime, and his government’s overt and covert support to armed Syrian rebels, have proven divisive in Turkey.
A senior Turkish official concedes that the Syrian policy has been criticized as “un-Islamic” by some influential members of Erdogan’s ruling Justice and Development Party.
“Before the prime minister expressed support for the rebels, Assad had killed only 5,000 people,” the official said, on condition of anonymity.
“But now more than 100,000 people have died, and it has gone from being a sectarian conflict to a sectarian war.”
In the Turkish border province of Hatay, which has absorbed some of the hundreds of thousands of Syrian refugees who have flooded into Turkey since the conflict erupted more than two years ago, leftist opposition groups prepared to stage their own anti-war rallies in the provincial capital of Antakya.
There is substantial sympathy among some members of Hatay’s Alawite religious minority for al-Assad, who is also a member of the Alawite sect.
Critics accuse Erdogan of supporting Syria’s overwhelmingly Sunni Muslim armed opposition. The ranks of its armed fighters have swelled over the last year with jihadi volunteers traveling through Turkey to Syria from North Africa, Europe and North America.
By By Ivan Watson and Gul Tuysuz