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Turkey’s Fix for the “Kurdish Problem”

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From the beginnings of modern Turkey, the Kurds have been considered outsiders, often not even allowed to speak their own language without the threat of punishment.

With Mustafa Kemal Atatürk modeling the nascent republic on the somewhat ethnically homogeneous European nation-states of the time, and the constitution declaring that “the Turkish state, with its territory and nation, is an indivisible entity,”[1] there was little room for permitting, and certainly not encouraging, the open expression of disparate ethnic or national identities within Turkey’s borders. Instead, Ankara’s answer to the “Kurdish question” has been, more often than not, to deny the existence of the Kurds altogether and simultaneously to attempt to pacify the region militarily, crushing all dissent while forcibly assimilating its “mountain Turk,” that is Kurdish, population.

In more recent times, the Turkish government has sought to exploit a massive infrastructure undertaking, the Southeast Anatolian Project (Güneydoğu Anadolu Projesi or GAP), as a means of resolving the Kurdish dilemma. How this project came about and how it came to be seen as a solution to a largely self-created problem is a tale unto itself with roots in the nineteenth century and the dissolution of the Ottoman Empire.

Roots of the Kurdish Problem

Defining what is meant by a Kurd can be a difficult task. The Kurdish people presently live in large numbers in four major states—Iran, Iraq, Syria, and Turkey—speak numerous languages alongside Kurdish, which itself has several different dialects, and profess several different religions besides the predominant one, Sunni Islam. Kurdish world population is estimated at thirty million, the largest ethnic group without its own state.[2] The Kurdish population in Turkey is estimated to be between ten and twenty million; such a wide range reflects the difficulty of obtaining population statistics for a people that has been for a long period of time denied existence by the state. Whatever the precise numbers, the Kurds are clearly the second largest ethnic group within the Turkish state behind the Turks themselves. Kurds can be found in all of Turkey’s geographical regions but are concentrated in the eastern and southeastern sections of the country.[3]

In the aftermath of World War I, the Allied powers attempted to split the Ottoman Empire into a rump Turkish state, a series of great-power “zones of influence,” and a few independent states for minority populations, one of which was for the Kurds. This 1920 Treaty of Sevres firmly planted the idea in the Turkish psyche that the West had conspiratorial designs against the Turks. In this view, the formation of any Kurdish entity would inevitably weaken the Turkish state.[4]

While there had been clashes with Kurdish leaders in the late Ottoman period, largely in conjunction with the government’s centralizing initiatives, tensions between the Kurds and the Turkish government came to a head in 1925 with the Sheikh Said rebellion. The rebellion sought a degree of independence, or at least a voice, for the Kurdish peoples of Anatolia.[5] This threatened the Kemalist idea of a unified secular Turkish state. The revolt was crushed by the Turkish military; martial law was declared, and fifty-two thousand Turkish troops were introduced into predominantly Kurdish regions. Subsequent Kurdish rebellions, in Ararat in 1930 and Dersim in 1938, were similarly met with force and crushed by Ankara.[6] A 1927 law allowed the Turkish government to forcibly relocate “an indefinite number of Kurds” from the southeastern provinces while the 1934 Law No. 2510 granted the state the power to assimilate forcibly or “evacuate” areas of the country with “non-Turkish culture” or language.[7] Thus the Kurds were viewed from an early date in the history of the Turkish Republic as a threat that demanded a firm government response.

Turkey’s Kurds in Modern Times

Beginning in 1978, Turkey’s political order began to spiral out of control, leading the military to intervene and culminating in a 1980 coup, which led to the drafting of the constitution of 1982. But while the military went back to their barracks in 1983 to make way for a return of civilian government, their intervention had a devastating impact on the Kurds.

The religious threat to Turkey’s newly-created, secularist identity was one of the key pretexts to the military intervention, and the members of the general staff focused on the Kurdish population as part of the problem. One method employed by the generals in an effort to defuse tensions was to establish a “village guard system” that provided tribal leaders in southeastern Anatolia who demonstrated loyalty to the state with weapons and funds to pacify their territory.[8] However, this system only increased hostility toward the state by many Kurds as it resulted in deepening tribal tensions between those backed by the state and those who were not. Meanwhile, the Kurdistan Workers’ Party (Partiya Karkerên Kurdistan or PKK), which had begun to attack the machinery of government in the late 1970s, increased its violent activities, directly targeting the village guards.[9]

The PKK received support not only from Kurds within Turkey’s borders but from external sources, including the Soviet Union, and the Kurds of Iraq, Syria, and Iran, as well as from the Syrian government, which sought to weaken Turkey.[10] As the 1980s progressed and the village guard system failed to provide the security sought by the state, the government imposed a state of emergency in 1987, which lasted until 2002. During this period, 378,335 Kurds were forced to evacuate their villages while 55,371 were arrested on charges relating to terrorism.[11]

In the 1990s, the unofficial war between the Turkish government and the PKK ebbed and flowed, alternating between periods of escalating conflict and temporary cease-fires. As a consequence of the 1991 Kuwait war and the establishment of a no-fly zone in heavily Kurdish northern Iraq, the PKK was provided a safe haven from which it could launch operations on Turkish targets.[12]

For Turkey in the late 1980s and through the 1990s, political instability led to a series of short-lived coalition governments unable to develop and sustain coherent policies toward the Kurds. Thus, under the political leadership of Prime Minister (later president) Turgut Özal (1983-89) as well as Prime Minister Suleyman Demirel (1991-93), a new path, which countered the traditional Kurdish policy set by the military command was sought. Shortly after reassuming the office of prime minister, Demirel declared:

Turkey’s border, flag, and official language cannot be debated, but ethnic groups [sic] demand to retain their own ethnic identity and culture should not be rejected … They have their own history, language, and folklore. If they wish to develop them, let them do so.[13]

PKK leader Abdullah Öcalan joined in similar sentiments, but the thaw abruptly ended when clashes between Kurds and Turkish soldiers broke out surrounding the 1991 Newruz New Year celebrations, originally a Persian holiday but long observed by the Kurds.[14]

A later 1993 unilateral cease-fire, declared by Öcalan, failed to “translate into concrete actions”[15] despite rhetorical support by Ankara. Under Prime Minister Necmettin Erbakan (June 1996-June 1997), the Welfare Party (RP) made overtures to the Kurdish population; the RP included Kurds and Turks in their proposed “Islamic nation” and advocated a poorly defined “just solution” to the Kurdish problem as well as advocating lifting emergency rule in the southeast.[16] The Kurdish population, however, was less receptive to the cause of Muslim unity than to defending its Kurdish identity,[17] and in any event, the RP’s weakness made carrying out its policies difficult. Instead, most of the decade witnessed continued military control over the “formulation of Turkey’s Kurdish policies” due to “divisions within the civilian elite and [the civilian elite’s] abdication of control over all aspects of the operations in the southeast against the ongoing insurgency.”[18]

But by the late 1990s and early 2000s, events steered the Turkish government toward an evolving policy vis-à-vis the Kurds. The staging of Turkish forces on the Syrian border in 1998 led to the exile from Syria, and eventual capture by Turkish forces, of Abdullah Öcalan. With the PKK leader in custody, the organization made a transition to peaceful opposition at the urging of Öcalan, who declared that the Kurds “want to give up the armed struggle and have full democracy.”[19] The current governing party of Turkey, the Justice and Development Party (Adalet ve Kalkınma Partisi, AKP), has sought a solution to the problem with a much publicized “Kurdish initiative.” However, any progress on the issue must overcome a variety of obstacles, foremost the resurgence of an armed PKK. After the cease-fire declared by Öcalan in 1998, as well as additional cease-fires in 2002 and 2010, conflict continued to boil to the surface. Following the June 2011 election and the revoking of the previous year’s cease-fire, Öcalan called for the PKK’s removal of arms from Turkish soil in March 2013 in a cease-fire agreement, which has lasted to date.[20]

Since 2011, Ankara has been forced to deal with the PKK within the context of responding to turmoil and changes with two of its own neighbors. Turkey’s response to the ongoing conflict in Syria and the uprising seeking to oust President Bashar al-Assad has effectively ended its “zero problems with neighbors” policy.[21] As of July 12, 2013, there were 381,462 Syrian refugees registered with the United Nations in Turkey with over 400,000 estimated to be in the country. These numbers pose a problem for the Turkish government as they remain in the southeastern, largely Kurdish portion of the country.[22] Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdoğan’s call for the removal of Assad triggered a counter-response by the Syrian government that has allowed the PKK to fill a power vacuum in the territories near the Turkish border.[23] The Party of Unity and Democracy, the PKK’s Syrian offshoot, has so far held its grip on power in the region, forcing Turkish foreign minister Ahmet Davutoğlu to declare that Kurdish autonomy in northern Syria would be acceptable in a post-Assad environment.[24]

Coinciding with this public acceptance of Kurdish autonomy in a bordering state, Turkey has supported the Kurdistan Regional Government (KRG) in Iraq as the KRG has assisted in efforts to contain the PKK on its soil. Meanwhile, Ankara’s own relations with the government in Baghdad have soured: A proposed Turkish-KRG oil pipeline would bypass the Baghdad government and would provide the Kurdish government in northern Iraq with a source of independent funding.[25] The quid pro quo in this relationship relies on the KRG’s ability to assist in containing the PKK.[26] Iraqi Kurdistan president Masoud Barzani’s call for the PKK to “lay down its arms” or else “bear the consequences”[27] has demonstrated that the KRG is seeking better relations with Turkey to provide support against the government in Baghdad.

While Turkey has shown its support for Kurdish autonomy in Syria and Iraq, within its own borders, Kurdish autonomy is still viewed as a threat, despite the PKK and other Kurdish groups’ official statements that they no longer seek an independent Kurdistan but rather equal rights within the state.[28] Erdoğan responded characteristically that Kurdish calls for a federal structure were “[d]aring to abuse the democratization efforts in order to subvert national unity … a political assassination directed against the nation’s will.”[29] For the foreseeable future, the Kurds will remain a marginalized and excluded group within the Turkish state.

Framing the Kurdish Problem

The issue of how to manage the Turkish Kurds—specifically dealing with the reasons behind and solutions to the violence that recurs in predominantly Kurdish areas—is framed in one of three ways by the Turkish state. These frames offer differing views on why the Kurds are a problem, why they fail to assimilate into the Turkish state, and why the Kurds continue to support PKK activities. Underlying these views is the belief that the Kurdish problem is essentially one of terrorism.[30]

As a result of this premise, one viewpoint posits that the problem is primarily due to domestic Kurdish support for terrorism, necessitating population control and monitoring. This framing underlies Turkish attempts to introduce the village guard system that would secure areas for the Turkish military and create a population loyal to Turkey.[31]

Another standpoint views the Kurdish situation as a function of international terrorism. Thus Turkey’s Kurdish problem is due to support received from Syria and Iraq, both from the central governments themselves and from their local, indigenous Kurdish communities; without such international support, Kurds would voluntarily join and integrate into the Turkish state. This framing blames international actors for keeping a Kurdish identity alive in order to destabilize Turkey. From this perspective, border control and pressure on foreign governments will solve the Kurdish issue. This point of view is most responsible for bilateral Iraqi-Turkish agreements that allowed Turkey to conduct several cross-border raids into Iraq in the late 1980s in pursuit of PKK terrorists.[32] Both viewpoints are widespread within Turkey and have the support of both nationalistic political parties and the military.

The final frame of reference examines the Kurdish problem from a civilizational approach, concluding that the poor socioeconomic status of the region has resulted in violence.[33] The solution to the problem is then perceived as one of economic and social development. In practice, initiatives in this direction have resulted in forced assimilation and the social and cultural destruction of Kurdish identity. The displacement and assimilation policies of the Turkish state, dating back to 1927 and 1934 laws, were intended to weaken traditional social bonds, encourage urbanization and educational assimilation.[34]

None of these approaches to the Kurdish issue include the possibility of a rejection of the ethnic Turkic identity of the nation-state, which leaves no room for minority expression. Although, since the late 1980s, there have been moves on the part of the government to allow at least some form of Kurdish cultural or political expression, these efforts were relatively limited and often failed to translate into practice. While not mutually exclusive, each of the frames of reference outlined above leads to differing conclusions about how to proceed toward a solution to the problem. However, the project which offers solutions to all three frames simultaneously is the Southeast Anatolian Project or GAP.

The Southeastern Anatolia Project

The history of GAP goes back to the foundations of the Turkish Republic. Atatürk called for surveying and mapping southeastern rivers within the Tigris-Euphrates basins as a starting point to harnessing their power in order to satisfy the growing energy needs of the country.[35] The current form of the project, however, only began to develop in the 1980s. Currently, GAP is the largest internal developmental project in Turkey and is one of the largest in the world. GAP has been supported by every governing party and coalition since the 1980s.[36]

GAP covers nine Turkish provinces, an area of 75,358 square kilometers, nearly 10 percent of Turkey. The area is bordered by Syria and Iraq in the south and southeast. The population within this area is largely Kurdish, and the region itself is one of the poorest regions within the country.[37] So far, Ankara has built 22 dams, 19 hydroelectric plants, and extensive irrigation systems on the Tigris and Euphrates rivers.[38] It consumed 7 percent of all public investment in Turkey throughout the 1990s[39] and has continued apace since then. In 2009, total investment in GAP was US$4.68 billion, 14.4 percent of which was public investment according to government statistics.[40] This was a large increase over public investment in 1990-2007, which averaged 7 percent showing a continued and, in fact, increasing public interest in the project.[41]

Initially seeking to provide power for the western regions of Turkey, GAP has since expanded to include nearly every manner of developmental initiative and has grown into a catchall developmental project.[42] Due to international criticism over the social and environmental impacts of dams in the 1990s, the project’s goals shifted to improving the economic situation, increasing political stability, and supporting urban and industrial development within Turkey.[43] With Ankara’s application to accede to the European Union in 1987 and human rights concerns voiced by the EU in the late 1990s and 2000s, the project began to emphasize “the need for community participation, improved basic education, health, and social services, the advancement of women, the creation of more employment opportunities, efficient use of resources, and environmental preservation.”[44]

While the stated goals of GAP may be to increase agricultural trade—especially to the Middle East—and to provide social and economic development, so far it has only served to increase power generation within Turkey.[45] There has been little progress in any other sector with regional employment in particular showing few gains.[46] Despite decreasing economic dependence on agriculture, the high level of government spending on GAP would indicate that GAP is more a nationalistic, political project than an economic one.[47] While some economic benefits are expected to accrue, GAP mainly serves the political goal of addressing the Kurdish issue.

GAP and Framing the Kurdish Problem

Internationally, GAP serves a public relations function, something that can be sold to foreign investors and governments to show that Turkey is attempting to make progress on human rights and environmental concerns. GAP was cited by the Turkish government as a fulfillment of the Copenhagen criteria for Turkey’s entrance into the EU.[48] This repackaging occurred without any major change in the schedule of construction or its ultimate goals. The fact that the main focus of the program could switch from irrigation and electrical generation to one that sought environmental, social, and health benefits demonstrates that it was merely a rebranding decision on the part of Ankara. GAP is in essence a program whose major goal is internal security and homogenization of the state.

In fact, the international PR campaign is less important to the state than issues of domestic security. Turkey has, in several instances, continued controversial GAP projects, such as the Ilisu dam, despite international concerns and withdrawal of foreign investment. When European capital pulled out, due to projected environmental, cultural, and social damages, Turkey merely sought funds from China and chose to increase government funding for the dam.[49] Negative European perceptions, even when the campaign for EU membership was in full swing, were an acceptable price for Turkey.

GAP was begun for “domestic political reasons” in order to “dilute potential Kurdish national aspirations for an independent homeland.”[50] Thus, the perceived domestic benefits of the project, especially potential political stability, far outweigh any resulting international tensions with neighbors or the loss of European support. GAP can be seen as a response to the three viewpoints through which the Turkish state perceives the “Kurdish question.” When one views the Kurds as a domestic terrorism problem, increased governmental control and monitoring of the local population is necessary. GAP addresses this by using dam projects, such as the Ilisu, to cut off routes that the PKK use while reservoirs, such as the one behind the Keban dam, force the local population to use the limited number of military-controlled ferries for transport. This centralization of transport allows the military to monitor the inhabitants closely,[51] transforming water control into a method of population control.[52]

Looking at the Kurdish issue as an international terrorism problem shifts the focus to PKK support from neighboring states and their Kurdish populations. GAP serves to limit the international dimensions of Ankara’s Kurdish problem by creating a giant water moat between Turkey, Iraq, and Iran. The eleven dams envisioned in this project serve little purpose in generating hydroelectric power—the Ilisu dam, for example, will produce only an estimated 2 percent of Turkish electrical needs[53]—or in providing irrigation for a sparsely populated region. Instead, their main function is to make it difficult for the PKK to receive supplies or to operate across Turkey’s borders.[54] According to analysts Soner Cagaptay and Altay Sedat Otun, these dams would flood the canyons and terrain utilized by the PKK, providing the Turkish government with a “hydro-victory” against the Kurdish rebels.[55] The string of dams along the border with Iraq in the Sirnak and Hakkari provinces would make any PKK incursions into Turkey more difficult while generating only token amounts of hydroelectric power.[56]

GAP has also provided the Turkish government with an effective tool for pressuring neighboring governments. It has limited water flow to downstream nations, particularly Syria, and reduced overall water quality because of agricultural runoff and other pollutants.[57] The resulting control over water flow allowed Turkey to threaten Syria with a cutoff of water in 1998, which in turn compelled Damascus to end overt support for the PKK and forced Öcalan out of the country.[58] GAP has also prompted the construction of new military roads and bases in the border regions, both to protect the dams and to allow ease of military transport.[59] This increased ease of transport helps the military combat the externally-based PKK irregulars.

The ruling AKP party has, more recently, emphasized the socioeconomic framing of GAP over the terrorist perspective, which was in vogue in the early and mid-1990s. This avoids ruptures with the AKP constituencies in the southeast and increases AKP support by Turkish businesses and industry while effectively continuing the antiterror strategy, which has the support of the military. But it also has important and potentially destructive ramifications for the Kurdish way of life. While GAP will purportedly industrialize the region, it will also force the urbanization of the population in the southeast by forcing Kurds from their ancestral homes. This serves to eliminate traditional social and cultural networks and encourages the breakup of families.[60] Displaced rural Kurds are encouraged to move to cities where educational opportunities are supposedly available. Living in cities, however, also forces Kurdish assimilation into “mainstream Turkish society and culture.”[61]

Within seemingly benign official language, GAP’s website boldly declares its intention to “enhance the presence and influence of modern organizations and institutions” and remove traditional ones “which impede development.” The objectives of GAP also include creating “an infrastructure upon which local subculture elements may form a positive synthesis with the national culture.”[62] This clearly implies the absence or the inadequacy of the culture already in the area. GAP will destroy the centers of Kurdish culture and identity. For example, the Munzur dams will uproot the only concentrated population that still speaks the Kurdish dialect of Zaza.[63] These dams will also flood battlefields associated with the 1930s uprisings, which remain important cultural and historical links for the Kurdish people. The Ilisu dam will flood Hasankeyf, one of the most important sites of Kurdish heritage with its wealth of archeological sites dating from the Kurdish-origin Ayyubid dynasty.[64]

It bears repeating that the three framings of the Kurdish issue are not mutually exclusive; in fact, solutions to one also tend to further others. The concentration of population allows for closer government monitoring (the domestic terrorism frame), but it also advances the assimilation and industrializing aims of the socioeconomic frame. Infrastructure projects, likewise, improve the economic potential of the region, but they also allow easier military access and often serve to reroute long-existing transportation networks.

By reinforcing all three of these standpoints at the same time, GAP provides increased political stability to the Turkish state, resulting in its widespread support, both through time and across the political spectrum. The military supports GAP because it allows a military-oriented solution in the southeast seen through the terrorist framework. Various business groups support GAP because the socioeconomic framing of the problem opens up the economic potential of the region and increases opportunities for investments. By ignoring the underlying issues driving approaches to the “Kurdish question,” such as the single-minded focus on a monoethnic Turkish nation, GAP allows the state to draw support from the maximum number of domestic groups without alienating any large constituency—except, of course, the Kurds.

Conclusion

The issue of the Turkish Kurds has bedeviled modern Turkey since its founding as a republic. Historically, the answer to the question has been to deny the Kurds’ existence and to pacify their communities through military force. Beginning in the 1980s, political openings appeared to offer a new way forward, and the Southeast Anatolian Project (GAP) seemed to offer a method through which to solve it. These political openings quickly floundered, and GAP became a vehicle through which the answer to the “Kurdish question” remained stuck in traditional Kemalist attitudes toward the minority.

The project provides a catchall solution to the three main ways in which the Kurdish problem is framed by the Turkish majority. GAP can solve the problem of domestic terrorism by limiting internal travel and concentrating populations, making the Kurds easier to control. GAP can solve the problem of international terrorism by providing the Turkish government with a tool with which to threaten foreign nations and by making cross-border incursions more difficult. Finally, GAP can solve socioeconomic problems by encouraging economic growth in the region while forcibly assimilating the society.

Initially an electrical generation project, GAP was sold as a way to improve the economic performance of Turkey and to build up the backward, underdeveloped southeastern region within the country. This integration approach was also intended to allay many European human rights concerns about Turkey and to expedite the process of Turkish inclusion in the European Economic Community and later the European Union.

Unfortunately, this has not proven to be the case. GAP has, in actuality, served as an alternative method of assimilation and government control over an area that is notorious throughout Turkish history for being difficult to dominate. Supported by other government policies, it encourages permanent displacement of Kurdish populations and the destruction of Kurdish culture. Even the regional socioeconomic improvements are implemented in a way that seeks to force the assimilation of the Kurdish population. Despite limited openings within Turkish politics and society for the Kurdish population, GAP continues to provide policy expression to the Kemalist idea of a nation-state based on the single ethnic identity of Turk. Far from developing and integrating the Kurdish populations, GAP furthers the solution of Turkey’s Kurdish problem by erasing the Kurds themselves.

Robert Hatem received B.A.’s in history and political science from UNC Wilmington and a M.A. in Middle East studies from George Washington University. Mark Dohrmann received his B.A. in political science from the UNC Wilmington and M.A. in international affairs from American University.

[1] The Constitution of the Republic of Turkey, 2001, amended, art. 3.
[2] Kerim Yildiz, The Kurds in Turkey: EU Accession and Human Rights (London: Pluto Press, 2005), p. 5.
[3] Kemal Kirisci and Gareth M. Winrow, The Kurdish Question and Turkey: An Example of Trans-State Ethnic Conflict (London: Frank Class, 1997), pp. 119-20.
[4] Phillip Robins, “The Overlord State: Turkish Policy and the Kurdish Issue,” International Affairs, Oct. 1993, p. 659.
[5] Yildiz, The Kurds in Turkey, p. 15.
[6] David McDowall, A Modern History of the Kurds (New York: I.B. Tauris and Co., Ltd., 2004), p. 197.
[7] Ibid., pp. 199, 207.
[8] Haldun Çancı and Şevket Serkan Şen, “The Gulf War and Turkey: Regional Changes and Their Domestic Effects (1991-2003), International Journal on World Peace, Mar. 2011, pp. 42, 46.
[9] Robins, “The Overlord State,” p. 662.
[10] James Brown, “The Turkish Imbroglio: Its Kurds,” Annals of American Academy of Political and Social Science, Sept. 1995, p. 119.
[11] Abdullah Bozkurt, “Raising the Specter of Emergency Rule Brings Back Forgotten Memories,” Today’s Zaman (Istanbul), Dec. 20, 2009.
[12] Çancı and Serkan Şen, “The Gulf War and Turkey,” p. 47.
[13] Hurriyet (Istanbul), Nov. 26, 1991.
[14] Brown, “The Turkish Imbroglio,” p. 121.
[15] Henri J. Barkey and Graham E. Fuller, “Turkey’s Kurdish Question: Critical Turning Points and Missed Opportunities,” Middle East Journal, Winter 1997, p. 68.
[16] Kirisci and Winrow, The Kurdish Question and Turkey, p. 145.
[17] Çancı and Serkan Şen, “The Gulf War and Turkey,” p. 58.
[18] Barkey and Fuller, “Turkey’s Kurdish Question,” p. 69.
[19] Abdullah Öcalan, quoted in Stephen Kinzer, Crescent and Star: Turkey between Two Worlds (New York: Farrar, Straus, and Giroux, 2001), p. 127.
[20] Gonul Tol, “The PKK cease-fire and Syria’s Kurds,” Foreign Policy, Mar. 22, 2013.
[21] On the zero problems policy, see Ilias I. Kouskouvelis, “The Problem with Turkey’s ‘Zero Problems,'” Middle East Quarterly, Winter 2013, pp. 47-56.
[22]Syrian Refugees Response Regional Overview,” The Office of the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees, Geneva, accessed July 14, 2013.
[23] Financial Times (London), Aug. 22, 2012.
[24] Today’s Zaman, Aug. 9, 2012.
[25] Gonul Tol, “Turkey’s KRG Energy Partnership,” Foreign Policy, Jan. 29, 2013.
[26] Yildiz, The Kurds in Turkey, p. 116.
[27] Today’s Zaman, Apr. 20, 2012.
[28] Michael M. Gunter, “The Continuing Kurdish Problem in Turkey after Ocalan’s Capture,” Third World Quarterly, Oct. 2000, pp. 855-6.
[29] Yildiz, The Kurds in Turkey, p. 116.
[30] Kirisci and Winrow, The Kurdish Question and Turkey, p. 46.
[31] Robins, “The Overlord State,” p. 664.
[32] Phebe Marr, “Turkey and Iraq,” in Henri J. Barkey, ed., Reluctant Neighbor: Turkey’s Role in the Middle East (Washington: United States Institute for Peace, 1996), p. 45.
[33] Kirisci and Winrow, The Kurdish Question and Turkey, p. 122.
[34] McDowall, A Modern History of the Kurds, p. 199.
[35]Southeastern Anatolian Project,” Foreign Agricultural Service, U.S. Department of Agriculture, Washington, D.C., accessed July 10, 2013.
[36] Alexendra M. Pool and Velma I. Grover, “GAPs in the Dialogue of Governance: Conflicting Ideologies of Development in Turkey” in Velma I. Grover, ed., Water: Global Common and Global Problems (Enfield: Science Publishers, 2006), p. 377.
[37] Ali Carkoglu and Mine Eder, “Domestic Concerns and the Water Conflict over the Euphrates-Tigris River Basin,” Middle Eastern Studies, Jan. 2001, pp. 44-5.
[38] Pool and Grover, “GAPs in the Dialogue of Governance,” p. 373.
[39] Paul Williams, “Turkey’s H20 Diplomacy in the Middle Easy,” Security Dialogue, 1 (2001), p. 31.
[40]GAP,” Office of the Prime Minister of Turkey, Ankara, Dec. 2010, p. 5.
[41] Ibid.
[42] Anna Brismar, “The Ataturk Dam Project in South-east Turkey: Changes in Objectives and Planning over Time,” Natural Resources Forum, May 2002, p. 104.
[43] Pool and Grover, “GAPs in the Dialogue of Governance,” p. 380.
[44] Brismar, “The Ataturk Dam Project in South-east Turkey,” p. 108.
[45] Abdullah Akyuz, Turkish politics and society, lecture, George Washington University, Washington, D.C., Apr. 7, 2011.
[46] Ibid.
[47] Jan Selby, “The Geopolitics of Water in the Middle East,” Third World Quarterly, 2 (2005), pp. 336-7.
[48] Pool and Grover, “GAPs in the Dialogue of Governance,” p. 378.
[49] “The Ilisu Dam Project,” Kurdish Human Rights Project briefing paper, London, Dec. 23, 2009, pp. 6-7.
[50] Murhaj Jouejati, “Water Politics as High Politics: The Case of Turkey and Syria,” in Barkey, ed. Reluctant Neighbor, p. 136.
[51] “The Cultural and Environmental Impact of Large Dams in Southeast Turkey,” Fact-Finding Mission Report, Kurdish Human Rights Project, London, Feb. 2005, p. 41.
[52] Selby, “The Geopolitics of Water in the Middle East,” p. 334.
[53] Inter Press Service News Agency, June 10, 2012.
[54] Joost Jongerden, “Dams and Politics in Turkey: Utilizing Water, Developing Conflict,” Middle East Policy Council, Spring 2010, p. 142.
[55] Soner Cagaptay and Altay Sedat Otun, “Flooding out terror? Turkey’s Ilisu dam project,” CNN World, May 3, 2012.
[56] Paul Williams, “Euphrates and Tigris Waters: Turkish-Syrian and Iraqi Relations,” in Dhirenda K. Vajpey, ed. Water Resource Conflicts and International Security: A Global Perspective (Plymouth: Lexington Books, 2011), p. 44.
[57] Frederick M. Lorenz and Edward J. Erickson, The Euphrates Triangle: Security Implications of the Southeastern Anatolia Project (Washington: National Defense University Press, 1999), p. 37.
[58] Mark Adams, Water and Security Policy: The Case of Turkey (Washington: National Defense University Press, 2000), accessed Apr. 15, 2011, p. 9.
[59] Jongerden, “Dams and Politics in Turkey,” p. 142.
[60] “The Cultural and Environmental Impact of Large Dams in Southeast Turkey,” p. 24.
[61] Ibid., pp. 34, 36.
[62]Objectives of GAP,” Turkish Ministry of Development, Southeastern Anatolia Project Regional Development Administration, Şanliurfa, 2011, accessed Mar. 10, 2012.
[63] “The Cultural and Environmental Impact of Large Dams in Southeast Turkey,” p. 59.
[64] Thomas Moran, “The Environmental and Socio-Economic Impacts of Hydro-electric Dams in Turkish Kurdistan,” Roskilde University Digital Archive, Trekroner, Den., accessed Mar. 10, 2012, pp. 80, 82.

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Middle East

After 10 years of war in Syria, siege tactics still threaten civilians

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The future for Syria’s people is “increasingly bleak”, UN-appointed rights experts said on Tuesday, highlighting escalating conflict in several areas of the war-ravaged country, a return to siege tactics and popular demonstrations linked to the plummeting economy.

According to the UN Commission of Inquiry on Syria, the country is not safe for refugees to return to, after a decade of war.

The panel’s findings come amid an uptick in violence in the northwest, northeast and south of the country, where the Commissioners highlighted the chilling return of besiegement against civilian populations by pro-Government forces.

“The parties to the conflict continue to perpetrate war crimes and crimes against humanity and infringing the basic human rights of Syrians,” said head of the Commission of Inquiry, Paulo Pinheiro. “The war on Syrian civilians continues, and it is difficult for them to find security or safe haven.”

Scandal of Al Hol’s children

Professor Pinheiro also described as “scandalous” the fact that many thousands of non-Syrian children born to former IS fighters continue to be held in detention in dreadful conditions in Syria’s north-east.

“Most foreign children remain deprived of their liberty since their home countries refuse to repatriate them,” he told journalists, on the sidelines of the 48th session of the Human Rights Council in Geneva.

“We have the most ratified convention in the world, the Convention on the Rights of the Child, is completely forgotten. And democratic States that are prepared to abide to this Convention they neglect the obligations of this Convention in what is happening in Al Hol and other camps and prison places.”

Some 40,000 children continue to be held in camps including Al Hol. Nearly half are Iraqi and 7,800 are from nearly 60 other countries who refuse to repatriate them, according to the Commission of Inquiry report, which covers the period from 1 July 2020 to 30 June 2021. 

Blockades and bombardment

The rights experts also condemned a siege by pro-Government forces on the town of Dar’a Al-Balad, the birthplace of the uprising in 2011, along with “siege-like tactics” in Quineitra and Rif Damascus governorates.

“Three years after the suffering that the Commission documented in eastern Ghouta, another tragedy has been unfolding before our eyes in Dar’a Al-Balad,” said Commissioner Hanny Megally, in reference to the siege of eastern Ghouta which lasted more than five years – and which the commissioners previously labelled “barbaric and medieval”.

In addition to the dangers posed by heavy artillery shelling, tens of thousands of civilians trapped inside Dar’a Al-Balad had insufficient access to food and health care, forcing many to flee, the Commissioners said.

Living in fear

In the Afrin and Ra’s al-Ayn regions of Aleppo, the Commissioners described how people lived in fear of car bombs “that are frequently detonated in crowded civilian areas”, targeting markets and busy streets.

At least 243 women, men and children have been killed in seven such attacks over the 12-month reporting period, they said, adding that the real toll is likely to be considerably higher.

Indiscriminate shelling has also continued, including on 12 June when munitions struck multiple locations in Afrin city in northwest Syria, killing and injuring many and destroying parts of al-Shifa hospital.

Insecurity in areas under the control of the Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF) in northeast Syria has also deteriorated, according to the Commission of Inquiry, with increased attacks by extremist “remnants” and conflict with Turkish forces.

Division remains

The Commissioners noted that although President Assad controls about 70 per cent of the territory and 40 per cent of the pre-war population, there seems to be “no moves to unite the country or seek reconciliation. On the contrary.”

Despite a welcome drop in the level of violence compared with previous years, the Commission of Inquiry highlighted the dangers that continue to be faced by non-combatants

The senior rights experts also highlighted mounting discontent and protests amongst the population, impacted by fuel shortages and food insecurity, which has increased by 50 per cent in a year, to 12.4 million, citing UNFPA data.

“The hardships that Syrians are facing, particularly in the areas where the Government is back in control, are beginning to show in terms of protests by Syrians who have been loyal to the State,” said Mr. Megally. They are now saying, ‘Ten years of conflict, our lives are getting worse rather than getting better, when do we see an end to this?’”

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Middle East

IAEA Director General reaches agreement in Tehran, as Biden’s clock is ticking

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IAEA Director General Rafael Grossi at a press conference. Photo: IAEA/Dean Calmaa

A meeting to resolve interim monitoring issues was held in Tehran on 12 September between the head of Iran’s Atomic Energy Organization, Mohammad Eslami, and the Director General of the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA), Rafael Grossi. Grossi was on a visit to Tehran to fix roadblocks on the stalled monitoring of Iran’s nuclear program, which is ever more challenging in a context where there is no diplomatic agreement to revive or supersede the JCPOA. Grossi said in a press conference on 12 September that the IAEA had “a major communication breakdown” with Iran. But what exactly does that mean?


The IAEA monitoring equipment had gone three months without being serviced and Grossi said he needed “immediate rectification” of the issues. He was able to get the Iranian side to come to an agreement. The news from Sunday was that the IAEA’s inspectors are now permitted to service the identified equipment and replace their storage media which will be kept under the joint IAEA and AEOI seals in Iran. The way and the timing are now agreed by the two sides. The IAEA Director General had to push on the terms of the agreement reached in February 2020.

Grossi underlined on Sunday that the new agreement can’t be a permanent solution. Data from the nuclear facilities is just being stored according to what commentators call “the continuity of knowledge” principle, to avoid gaps over extended time periods but the data is not available to inspectors.

When it’s all said and done, basically, it all comes down to the diplomatic level. The American withdrawal from the JCPOA nuclear agreement in 2018 keeps undermining the Iran nuclear inspections on the technical level. All the inspection activities have been stalled as a result of the broken deal. The IAEA’s strategy in the interim is that at least the information would be stored and not permanently lost.

Everyone is waiting for the JCPOA to be restored or superseded. As Vali Nasr argued in the New York Times back in April this year, the clock is ticking for Biden on Iran. Iran diplomacy doesn’t seem to be on Biden’s agenda at all at the moment. That makes the nuclear inspectors’ job practically impossible.  Journalists pointed out on Sunday that the Director General’s visit found one broken and one damaged camera in one of the facilities. Grossi assured it has been agreed with Iran that the cameras will be replaced within a few days. The IAEA report notes that it was not Iran but Israel that broke the IAEA cameras in a June drone attack carried out by Israel. Presumably, Israel aimed to show Iran is not complying by committing the violations themselves.

Grossi’s visit was a part of the overall IAEA strategy which goes along the lines of allowing time for diplomacy, without losing the data in the meantime. He added that he thinks he managed to rectify the most urgent problem, which is the imminent loss of data.

The Reuters’s title of the meeting is that the agreement reached on Sunday gives “hope” to a renewed Iran deal with the US, after Iran elected a hardliner president, Ebrahim Raisi, in August this year, but that’s a misleading title. This is not the bit that we were unsure about. The question was never on the Iranian side. No one really expected that the new Iranian president would not engage with the IAEA at all. Earlier in November 2019, an IAEA inspector was not allowed on a nuclear cite and had her accreditation canceled. In November 2020, Iranian lawmakers passed a law that mandated the halt of the IAEA inspections and not to allow inspectors on the nuclear sites, as well as the resuming of uranium enrichment, unless the US sanctions are lifted. In January 2021, there were threats by Iranian lawmakers that IAEA inspectors would be expelled. Yet, the new Iranian President still plays ball with the IAEA.

It is naïve to think that Iran should be expected to act as if there was still a deal but then again, US foreign policy is full of naïve episodes. “The current U.S. administration is no different from the previous one because it demands in different words what Trump demanded from Iran in the nuclear area,” Khamenei was quoted to have said in his first meeting with President Raisi’s cabinet.

“We don’t need a deal – you will just act as if there was still a deal and I will act as if I’m not bound by a deal” seems to be the US government’s line put bluntly. But the ball is actually in Biden’s court. The IAEA Director General is simply buying time, a few months at a time, but ultimately the United States will have to start moving. In a diplomatic tone, Grossi referred on Sunday to many commentators and journalists who are urging that it is time.

I just don’t see any signs on Biden’s side to move in the right direction. The current nuclear talks we have that started in June in Vienna are not even direct diplomatic talks and were put on hold until the outcome of Iran’s presidential elections were clear. US hesitance is making Grossi’s job impossible. The narrative pushed by so many in the US foreign policy space, namely that the big bad wolf Trump is still the one to blame, is slowly fading and reaching its expiry date, as Biden approaches the one-year mark of his presidency.

Let’s not forget that the US is the one that left and naturally is the one that has to restart the process, making the parties come back to the table. The US broke the deal. Biden can’t possibly be expecting that the other side will be the one extending its hand to beg for forgiveness. The US government is the one that ruined the multi-year, multilateral efforts of the complex dance that was required to get to something like the JCPOA – a deal that Republicans thought was never going to be possible because “you can’t negotiate with Iran”. You can, but you need skilled diplomats for that. Blinken is no Kerry. Judging from Blinken’s diplomacy moves with China and on other issues, I just don’t think that the Biden Administration has what it takes to get diplomacy back on track. If he follows the same line with Iran we won’t see another JCPOA in Biden’s term. Several weeks ago, Biden said that there are other options with Iran if diplomacy fails, in a White House meeting with Israel’s new prime minister Bennett. I don’t think that anyone in the foreign policy space buys that Biden would launch a military attack on Iran’s nuclear facilities. But I don’t think that team Biden can get to a diplomatic agreement either. Biden and Blinken are still stuck in the 2000, the time when others would approach the US no matter what, irrespective of whose fault it was. “You will do as I say” has never worked in the history of US foreign policy. That’s just not going to happen with Iran and the JCPOA. To expect otherwise is unreasonable. The whole “Trump did it” line is slowly and surely reaching its expiry date – as with anything else on the domestic and foreign policy plane. Biden needs to get his act together. The clock is ticking.

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Middle East

Elections represent an opportunity for stability and unity in Libya

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With just over 100 days until landmark elections in Libya, political leaders must join forces to ensure the vote is free, fair and inclusive, the UN envoy for the country told the Security Council on Friday. 

Ján Kubiš, Special Representative of the Secretary-General and Head of the UN Support Mission in Libya (UNSMIL) briefed ambassadors on developments ahead of presidential and parliamentary elections due to take place on 24 December. 

They were agreed under a political roadmap stemming from the historic October 2020 ceasefire between Libya’s rival authorities, and the establishment of a Government of National Unity (GNU) earlier this year. 

At the crossroads 

“Libya is at a crossroads where positive or negative outcomes are equally possible,” said Mr. Kubiš.  “With the elections there is an opportunity for Libya to move gradually and convincingly into a more stable, representative and civilian track.” 

He reported that the House of Representatives has adopted a law on the presidential election, while legislation for the parliamentary election is being finalized and could be considered and approved within the coming weeks.  

Although the High National Election Commission (HNEC) has received the presidential election law, another body, the High State Council, complained that it had been adopted without consultation. 

Foreign fighter threat 

The HNEC chairman has said it will be ready to start implementation once the laws are received, and will do everything possible to meet the 24 December deadline. 

“Thus, it is for the High National Election Commission to establish a clear electoral calendar to lead the country to the elections, with support of the international community, for the efforts of the Government of National Unity, all the respective authorities and institutions to deliver as free and fair, inclusive and credible elections as possible under the demanding and challenging conditions and constraints,” said Mr. Kubiš.  

“The international community could help create more conducive conditions for this by facilitating the start of a gradual withdrawal of foreign elements from Libya without delay.” 

Young voters eager 

The UN envoy also called for countries and regional organizations to provide electoral observers to help ensure the integrity and credibility of the process, as well as acceptance of the results. 

He also welcomed progress so far, including in updating the voter registry and the launch of a register for eligible voters outside the country. 

So far, more than 2.8 million Libyans have registered to vote, 40 per cent of whom are women.  Additionally, more than half a million new voters will also be casting their ballots. 

“Most of the newly registered are under 30, a clear testament to the young generation’s eagerness to take part in determining the fate of their country through a democratic process. The Libyan authorities and leaders must not let them down,” said Mr. Kubiš. 

He stressed that the international community also has a responsibility to support the positive developments in Libya, and to stand firm against attempts at derailment.  

“Not holding the elections could gravely deteriorate the situation in the country, could lead to division and conflict,” he warned.  “I urge the Libyan actors to join forces and ensure inclusive, free, fair parliamentary and presidential elections, which are to be seen as the essential step in further stabilizing and uniting Libya.”

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