ISTANBUL — On Sept. 4 in Ankara, in a meeting with members of his ruling Justice and Development Party (AKP), Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan loudly threw down a gauntlet for next-door neighbor President Bashar al-Assad.
"The massacres in Syria that gain strength from the international community's indifference are continuing to increase," he said. "The regime in Syria has now become a terrorist state. We do not have the luxury to be indifferent to what is happening there."
It was the culmination of increasingly strong rhetoric from a highly conservative yet completely overextended leader who seems to want both political stability in Syria -- and the central hero's role in bringing down the Assad regime.
Erdogan complains that he has received little support from Turkey's allies. On Sept. 5, he told CNN's Christiane Amanpour that the United States "lacked initiative" in dealing with the crisis in Syria. "There are certain things being expected from the United States. The United States had not yet catered to those expectations," he said. "Maybe it's because of the pre-election situation."
The latest rhetoric has sent nervous waves down the Bosphorus, where Erdogan has faced growing criticism from liberal political elites.
"There's no push within the country for him to go into Syria," says Soli Ozel, a political commentator and professor of international relations at Istanbul's Kadir Has University.
Erdogan once touted a "no problems with neighbors" foreign policy that emphasized removing longstanding points of tension with surrounding countries, including Syria. But with the advent of the Arab Spring, he strongly supported revolutionaries working to topple the established order.
Today, the Turkish premier is aiming to be "a central diplomatic figure with good ties to both the West and the Middle East, who can eliminate problems on his borders," according to Jon Alterman, Middle East program director at the Center for Strategic and International Studies. "And certainly there are ways that Syria could work out that would allow him to emerge as the victor in all of this ... But there's also certain ways it could work out that creates a lot of messiness for him."
Since the Syrian crisis erupted last March, Erdogan has, more than any other leader, walked a tightrope between intervention and isolationism. In late June, after Syrian forces shot down a Turkish fighter jet, he swore that any Syrian military unit approaching the border "will be regarded as a threat and treated as a military target." However, he also said Syrian helicopters had infiltrated Turkish airspace five times, without any retaliation.