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Anchored by Jake Tapper, The Lead airs at 4 p.m. ET on CNN.

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June 3rd, 2013
06:16 PM ET

Why do Turkish protests matter when we're half a world away?

At one point, it was a zoning controversy - locals who didn’t want to see their city park razed to build a shopping mall.

Now it’s grown into the latest flare-up in the Middle East and devolved into violent clashes across the country between protesters – throwing rocks at the police – and the police, who turned tear gas and water cannons on the protesters.

But, says Richard Haass of the Council on Foreign Relations, “if it wasn’t caused by this plan to bulldoze this park and build a shopping mall, it would have been caused by something else.”

“What you have is essentially a large group of Turks who feel alienated by this government that’s been in power for 10 years,” he said Monday on CNN’s “The Lead with Jake Tapper.”

But Turkey is an ocean away from the United States, which has generally taken a skeptical tone toward direct involvement in other instances of the Arab Spring.

Why is this one significant?

“It’s about 80 million people. It’s got a fairly large economy, some say about the 17th largest in the world,” Haass said. “It’s a NATO ally so we have all sorts of obligations. It borders on Syria, so for better or for worse, it can both effect and be affected by the crisis there.”

For those reasons, he said, “how goes Turkey could have a big impact on the political trajectory of the entire Middle East.”

The chasm has also emerged on religious lines.

Protesters, Haass said, “are mainly young … quite secular” and see the government as overly conservative Islamic. There are objections to restrictions on the sale of alcohol, for example.

In recent days, protesters have called for Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan to step down, though thus far he has remained defiant.

On the streets, the clashes have been deadly: in the past two days, one person was killed and more than 3,000 were injured.

If one needs a sign of how dangerous the unrest is in Turkey, one can look to its war-torn neighbor, Syria.

Amid a civil war there which has killed some 80,000, the government of President Bashar al-Assad recently warned its citizens against visiting Turkey because of “the violence practiced by Erdogan's government against peaceful protesters."

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