Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan was holding a televised rally for his AKP party on Saturday to build support for his military incursion into Syria when he noticed a girl of about five years old wearing a military uniform in the audience.
He called the little girl on stage, admonished her for bursting into tears, and assured her she will be honored with a flag-draped casket if she is “martyred” in service to the Turkish government.
“Look what you see here! Girl, what are you doing here? We have our maroon berets here, but maroon berets never cry,” Erodgan said when the little girl was overwhelmed by the attention from a raucous crowd of flag-waving spectators — not to mention Erdogan hugging and smooching her — and started to cry.
The Maroon Berets are Turkey’s special operations military unit, which has reportedly been deployed into Syria for the Afrin campaign. In less complicated times, they were noted for helping train Kurdish militia forces to fight against the Islamic State. The little girl was wearing such a beret to the rally, which caught Erdogan’s attention and prompted him to salute her as a member of the unit.
“Mashallah, she has a Turkish flag in her pocket, too,” Erdogan told the crowd. “If she is martyred, they will lay a flag on her, inshallah. She is ready for everything, isn’t she?” Mashallah means “as Allah willed,” while inshallah means “if Allah wills it.”
The little girl replied, “Yes,” as the crowd roared with war chants asking Erdogan to finish the job of conquering Afrin, a task which has proven unexpectedly difficult for the Turkish military and allied Syrian militia.
“While Turkish news agencies focused on the girl’s emotions – portraying her as brave and resolute – some online commentators called the use of such a young child as a political prop inappropriate,” writes the New York Times, which identifies the girl as a first-grader named Amine Tiras.
The Times notes that Erdogan-friendly media has been studiously avoiding photos and video clips that show little Amine crying as Erdogan fawned over her, instead telling their readers that the president was offering her paternal support after the crowd made her cry.
Erdogan’s actions were swiftly denounced as child abuse by his harshest critics. Some pointed to the impropriety of the president of a NATO country saying that a five-year-old child’s death in battle would be an act of divine will.
“It’s a shame. It’s very bad. She’s just a child. You don’t wish her dead and you don’t say ‘God willing’ for that!” read a response on Twitter quoted by the BBC. The BBC notes that Erdogan has a troubling habit of portraying Turkish military and security actions as holy crusades and describing the dead as “martyrs.”
“The mindset that abuses children by promising them death will lose. We will win the struggle for the children’s free and happy life,” said the opposition HDP party, a pro-Kurdish party that has been strongly critical of Erdogan’s assault on Kurdish-held positions in Syria. Ertugrul Kurkcu, the former co-chair of the HDP, went further by explicitly accusing Erdogan of child abuse in violation of international criminal law.
Meral Aksener of the IYI Party, also known as the “Good Party” because it was established to offer an alternative to Erdogan’s authoritarian style (“iyi” is the Turkish word for “good”), accused the president of “following Hamas” by endorsing martyrdom for tots.
“I am calling on Mr. Erdogan to stop being a loudmouth. Get serious,” she said.