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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

Saudi religious moderation: the world’s foremost publisher of Qur’ans has yet to get the message

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When the religious affairs minister of Guinea-Conakry visited Jeddah last week, his Saudi counterpart gifted him 50,000 Qur’ans.

Saudi Islamic affairs minister Abdullatif Bin Abdulaziz Al-Sheikh offered the holy books as part of his ministry’s efforts to print and distribute them and spread their teachings.

The Qur’ans were produced by the King Fahd Complex for the Printing of the Holy Qur’an, which annually distributes millions of copies. Scholar Nora Derbal asserts that the Qur’ans “perpetuate a distinct Wahhabi reading of the scripture.”

Similarly, Saudi Arabia distributed in Afghanistan in the last years of the US-backed government of President Ashraf Ghani thousands of Qur’ans produced by the printing complex, according to Mr. Ghani’s former education minister, Mirwais Balkhi. Mr. Balkhi indicated that the Qur’ans were identical to those distributed by the kingdom for decades.

Mr. Ghani and Mr. Balkhi fled Afghanistan last year as US troops withdrew from the country and the Taliban took over.

Human Rights Watch and Impact-se, an education-focused Israeli research group, reported last year that Saudi Arabia, pressured for some two decades post-9/11 by the United States and others to remove supremacist references to Jews, Christian, and Shiites in its schoolbooks, had recently made significant progress in doing so.

However, the two groups noted that Saudi Arabia had kept in place fundamental concepts of an ultra-conservative, anti-pluralistic, and intolerant interpretation of Islam.

The same appears true for the world’s largest printer and distributor of Qur’ans, the King Fahd Complex.

Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman has, since his rise in 2015, been primarily focussed on social and economic rather than religious reform.

Mr. Bin Salman significantly enhanced professional and personal opportunities for women, including lifting the ban on women’s driving and loosening gender segregation and enabled the emergence of a Western-style entertainment sector in the once austere kingdom.

Nevertheless, Saudi Islam scholar Besnik Sinani suggests that “state pressure on Salafism in Saudi Arabia will primarily focus on social aspects of Salafi teaching, while doctrinal aspects will probably receive less attention.”

The continued production and distribution of Qur’ans that included unaltered ultra-conservative interpretations sits uneasily with Mr. Bin Salman’s effort to emphasize nationalism rather than religion as the core of Saudi identity and project a more moderate and tolerant image of the kingdom’s Islam.

The Saudi spin is not in the Arabic text of the Qur’an that is identical irrespective of who prints it, but in parenthetical additions, primarily in translated versions, that modify the meaning of specific Qur’anic passages.

Commenting in 2005 on the King Fahd Complex’s English translation, the most widely disseminated Qur’an in the English-speaking world, the late Islam scholar Khaleel Mohammed asserted that it “reads more like a supremacist Muslim, anti-Semitic, anti-Christian polemic than a rendition of the Islamic scripture.”

Religion scholar Peter Mandaville noted in a recently published book on decades of Saudi export of ultra-conservative Islam that “it is the kingdom’s outsized role in the printing and distribution of the Qur’an as rendered in other languages that becomes relevant in the present context.”

Ms. Derbal, Mr. Sinani and this author contributed chapters to Mr. Mandaville’s edited volume.

The King Fahd Complex said that it had produced 18 million copies of its various publications in 2017/18 in multiple languages in its most recent production figures. Earlier it reported that it had printed and distributed 127 million copies of the Qur’an in the 22 years between 1985 and 2007. The Complex did not respond to emailed queries on whether parenthetical texts have been recently changed.

The apparent absence of revisions of parenthetical texts reinforces suggestions that Mr. Bin Salman is more concerned about socio-political considerations, regime survival, and the projection of the kingdom as countering extremism and jihadism than he is about reforming Saudi Islam.

It also spotlights the tension between the role Saudi Arabia envisions as the custodian of Islam’s holiest cities, Mecca and Medina, and the needs of a modern state that wants to attract foreign investment to help ween its economy off dependency on oil exports.

Finally, the continued distribution of Qur’ans with seemingly unaltered commentary speaks to the balance Mr. Bin Salman may still need to strike with the country’s once-powerful religious establishment despite subjugating the clergy to his will.

The continued global distribution of unaltered Qur’an commentary calls into question the sincerity of the Saudi moderation campaign, particularly when juxtaposed with rival efforts by other major Muslim countries to project themselves as beacons of a moderate form of Islam.

Last week, Saudi Arabia’s Muslim World League convened some 100 Christian, Jewish, Hindu, and Buddhist religious leaders to “establish a set of values common to all major world religions and a vision for enhancing understanding, cooperation, and solidarity amongst world religions.”

Once a major Saudi vehicle for the global propagation of Saudi religious ultra-conservatism, the League has been turned into Mr. Bin Salman’s megaphone. It issues lofty statements and organises high-profile conferences that project Saudi Arabia as a leader of moderation and an example of tolerance.

The League, under the leadership of former justice minister Mohammed al-Issa, has emphasised its outreach to Jewish leaders and communities. Mr. Al-Issa led a delegation of Muslim religious leaders in 2020 on a ground-breaking visit to Auschwitz, the notorious Nazi extermination camp in Poland.

However, there is little evidence, beyond Mr. Al-Issa’s gestures, statements, and engagement with Jewish leaders, that the League has joined in a practical way the fight against anti-Semitism that, like Islamophobia, is on the rise.

Similarly, Saudi moderation has not meant that the kingdom has lifted its ban on building non-Muslim houses of worship on its territory.

The Riyadh conference followed Nahdlatul Ulama’s footsteps, the world’s largest Muslim civil society movement with 90 million followers in the world’s largest Muslim majority country and most populous democracy. Nahdlatul Ulama leader Yahya Cholil Staquf spoke at the conference.

In recent years, the Indonesian group has forged alliances with Evangelical entities like the World Evangelical Alliance (WEA), Jewish organisations and religious leaders, and various Muslim groups across the globe. Nahdlatul Ulama sees the alliances as a way to establish common ground based on shared humanitarian values that would enable them to counter discrimination and religion-driven prejudice, bigotry, and violence.

Nahdlatul Ulama’s concept of Humanitarian Islam advocates reform of what it deems “obsolete” and “problematic” elements of Islamic law, including those that encourage segregation, discrimination, and/or violence towards anyone perceived to be a non-Muslim. It further accepts the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, unlike the Saudis, without reservations.

The unrestricted embrace of the UN declaration by Indonesia and its largest Muslim movement has meant that conversion, considered to be apostasy under Islamic law, is legal in the Southeast Asian nation. As a result, Indonesia, unlike Middle Eastern states where Christian communities have dwindled due to conflict, wars, and targeted attacks, has witnessed significant growth of its Christian communities.

Christians account for ten percent of Indonesia’s population. Researchers Duane Alexander Miller and Patrick Johnstone reported in 2015 that 6.5 million Indonesian had converted to Christianity since 1960.

That is not to say that Christians and other non-Muslim minorities have not endured attacks on churches, suicide bombings, and various forms of discrimination. The attacks have prompted Nahdlatul Ulama’s five million-strong militia to protect churches in vulnerable areas during holidays such as Christmas. The militia has also trained Christians to enable them to watch over their houses of worship.

Putting its money where its mouth is, a gathering of 20,000 Nahdlatul Ulama religious scholars issued in 2019 a fatwa or religious opinion eliminating the Muslim legal concept of the kafir or infidel.

Twelve years earlier, the group’s then spiritual leader and former Indonesian president Abdurahman Wahid, together with the Simon Wiesenthal Center in Los Angeles, organised a conference in the archipelago state to acknowledge the Holocaust and denounce denial of the Nazi genocide against the Jews. The meeting came on the heels of a gathering in Tehran convened by then Iranian president Mahmoud Ahmadinejad that denied the existence of the Holocaust.

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Middle East

Iran Gives Russia Two and a Half Cheers

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Photo: Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov meets with his Iranian counterpart Hossein Amir-Abdollahian in Moscow, March 15 2022. Credit: @Amirabdolahian via Twitter.

Iran’s rulers enthusiastically seek to destroy the liberal world order and therefore support Russia’s aggression. But they can’t manage full-throated support.

For Iran, the invasion of Ukraine is closely related to the very essence of the present world order. Much like Russia, Iran has been voicing its discontent at the way the international system has operated since the end of the Cold War. More broadly, Iran and Russia see the world through strikingly similar lenses. Both keenly anticipate the end of the multipolar world and the end of the West’s geopolitical preponderance.

Iran had its reasons to think this way. The US unipolar moment after 1991 provoked a deep fear of imminent encirclement, with American bases in Afghanistan and Iraq cited as evidence. Like Russia, the Islamic Republic views itself as a separate civilization that needs to be not only acknowledged by outside players, but also to be given ana suitable geopolitical space to project influence.

Both Russia and Iran are very clear about their respective spheres of influence. For Russia, it is the territories that once constituted the Soviet empire. For Iran, it is the contiguous states reaching from the Persian Gulf to the Mediterranean — Iraq, Syria, Lebanon — plus Yemen. When the two former imperial powers have overlapping strategic interests such as, for instance, in the South Caucasus and the Caspian Sea, they apply the concept of regionalism. This implies the blocking out of non-regional powers from exercising outsize economic and military influence, and mostly revolves around an order dominated by the powers which border on a region.

This largely explains why Iran sees the Russian invasion of Ukraine as an opportunity that, if successful, could hasten the end of the liberal world order. This is why it has largely toed the Russian line and explained what it describes as legitimate motives behind the invasion. Thus the expansion of NATO into eastern Europe was cited as having provoked Russian moves. “The root of the crisis in Ukraine is the US policies that create the crisis, and Ukraine is one victim of these policies,” argued Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei following the invasion.

To a certain degree, Iran’s approach to Ukraine has been also influenced by mishaps in bilateral relations which largely began with the accidental downing of a Ukrainian passenger jet by Iranian surface-to-air missiles in January 2020, killing 176 people. The regime first denied responsibility, and later blamed human error.

Iran, like several other of Russia’s friends and defenders,  the ideal scenario would have been a quick war in which the Kremlin achieved its major goals.

Protracted war, however, sends a bad signal. It signals that the liberal order was not in such steep decline after all, and that Russia’s calls for a new era in international relations have been far from realistic. The unsuccessful war also shows Iran that the collective West still has very significant power and — despite well-aired differences — an ability to rapidly coalesce to defend the existing rules-based order. Worse, for these countries, the sanctions imposed on Russia go further; demonstrating the West’s ability to make significant economic sacrifices to make its anger felt. In other words, Russia’s failure in Ukraine actually strengthened the West and made it more united than at any point since the September 2001 terrorist attacks on the US.

A reinvigorated liberal order is the last thing that Iran wants, given its own troubled relations with the collective West. The continuing negotiations on a revived nuclear deal will be heavily impacted by how Russia’s war proceeds, and how the US and EU continue to respond to the aggression. Iran fears that a defeated Russia might be so angered as to use its critical position to endanger the talks, vital to the lifting of the West’s crippling sanctions.

And despite rhetorical support for Russia, Iran has been careful not to overestimate Russia’s power. It is now far from clear that the Kremlin has achieved its long-term goal of “safeguarding” its western frontier. Indeed, the Putin regime may have done the opposite now that it has driven Finland and Sweden into the NATO fold. Western sanctions on Russia are likely to remain for a long time, threatening long-term Russian economic (and possible regime) stability.

Moreover, Russia’s fostering of separatist entities (following the recognition of the so called Luhansk and Donetsk “people’s republics” and other breakaway entities in Georgia and Moldova) is a highly polarizing subject in Iran. True there has been a shift toward embracing Russia’s position over Ukraine, but Iran remains deeply committed to the “Westphalian principles” of non-intervention in the affairs of other states and territorial integrity. This is hardly surprising given its own struggles against potential separatism in the peripheries of the country.

Many Iranians also sympathize with Ukraine’s plight, which for some evokes Iran’s defeats in the early 19th century wars when Qajars had to cede the eastern part of the South Caucasus to Russia. This forms part of a historically deeply rooted, anti-imperialist sentiment in Iran.

Iran is therefore likely to largely abstain from endorsing Russia’s separatist ambitions in Eastern Ukraine. It will also eschew, where possible, support for Russia in international forums. Emblematic of this policy was the March 2 meeting in the United Nations General Assembly when Iran, rather than siding with Russia, abstained from the vote which condemned the invasion.

Russia’s poor military performance, and the West’s ability to act unanimously, serve as a warning for the Islamic Republic that it may one day have to soak up even more Western pressure if Europe, the US, and other democracies act in union.

In the meantime, like China, Iran will hope to benefit from the magnetic pull of the Ukraine war. With so much governmental, military and diplomatic attention demanded by the conflict, it will for the time being serve as a distraction from Iran’s ambitions elsewhere. 

Author’s note: first published in cepa

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Middle East

Ignoring the Middle East at one’s peril: Turkey plays games in NATO

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Image source: NATO

Amid speculation about a reduced US military commitment to security in the Middle East, Turkey has spotlighted the region’s ability to act as a disruptive force if its interests are neglected.

Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan set off alarm bells this week, declaring that he was not “positive” about possible Finnish and Swedish applications for membership in the North Atlantic Treaty Organisation (NATO) in the wake of the Russian invasion of Ukraine.

NATO membership is contingent on a unanimous vote in favour by the organisation’s 30 members. Turkey has NATO’s second-largest standing army. 

The vast majority of NATO members appear to endorse Finnish and Swedish membership. NATO members hope to approve the applications at a summit next month.

A potential Turkish veto would complicate efforts to maintain trans-Atlantic unity in the face of the Russian invasion.

Mr. Erdogan’s pressure tactics mirror the maneuvers of his fellow strongman, Hungarian Prime Minister Victor Orban. Mr. Orban threatens European Union unity by resisting a bloc-wide boycott of Russian energy.

Earlier, the United Arab Emirates and Saudi Arabia rejected US requests to raise oil production in an effort to lower prices and help Europe reduce its dependence on Russian energy.

The two Gulf states appear to have since sought to quietly backtrack on their refusal.

In late April, France’s TotalEnergies chartered a tanker to load Abu Dhabi crude in early May for Europe, the first such shipment in two years.

Saudi Arabia has quietly used its regional pricing mechanisms to redirect from Asia to Europe Arab “medium,” the Saudi crude that is the closest substitute for the main Russian export blend, Urals, for which European refineries are configured.

Mr. Erdogan linked his NATO objection to alleged Finnish and Swedish support for the Kurdish Workers Party (PKK), which has been designated a terrorist organisation by Turkey, the United States, and the EU.

The PKK has waged a decades-long insurgency in southeast Turkey in support of Kurds’ national, ethnic, and cultural rights. Kurds account for up to 20 per cent of the country’s 84 million population.

Turkey has recently pounded PKK positions in northern Iraq in a military operation named Operation Claw Lock

Turkey is at odds with the United States over American support for Syrian Kurds in the fight against the Islamic State. Turkey asserts that America’s Syrian Kurdish allies are aligned with the PKK.

Turkish Foreign Minister Mevlut Cavusoglu warned that Turkey opposes a US decision this week to exempt from sanctions against Syria regions controlled by the Kurdish-led Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF).

“This is a selective and discriminatory move,” Mr. Cavusoglu said, noting that the exemption did not include Kurdish areas of Syria controlled by Turkey and its Syrian proxies.

Referring to the NATO membership applications, Mr. Erdogan charged that “Scandinavian countries are like some kind of guest house for terrorist organisations. They’re even in parliament.”

Mr. Erdogan’s objections relate primarily to Sweden, with Finland risking becoming collateral damage.

Sweden is home to a significant Kurdish community and hosts Europe’s top Kurdish soccer team that empathises with the PKK and Turkish Kurdish aspirations. In addition, six Swedish members of parliament are ethnic Kurds.

Turkey scholar Howard Eissenstat suggested that Turkey’s NATO objection may be a turning point. “Much of Turkey’s strategic flexibility has come from the fact that its priorities are seen as peripheral issues for its most important Western allies. Finnish and Swedish entry into NATO, in the current context, absolutely not peripheral,” Mr. Eissenstat tweeted.

The Turkish objection demonstrates the Middle East’s potential to derail US and European policy in other parts of the world.

Middle Eastern states walk a fine line when using their potential to disrupt to achieve political goals of their own. The cautious backtracking on Ukraine-related oil supplies demonstrates the limits and/or risks of Middle Eastern brinkmanship.

So does the fact that Ukraine has moved NATO’s center of gravity to northern Europe and away from its southern flank, which Turkey anchors.

Moreover, Turkey risks endangering significant improvements in its long-strained relations with the United States.

Turkish mediation in the Ukraine crisis and military support for Ukraine prompted US President Joe Biden to move ahead with plans to upgrade Turkey’s fleet of F-16 fighter planes and discuss selling it newer, advanced  F-16 models even though Turkey has neither condemned Russia nor imposed sanctions.

Some analysts suggest Turkey may use its objection to regain access to the United States’ F-35 fighter jet program. The US cancelled in 2019 a sale of the jet to Turkey after the NATO member acquired Russia’s S-400 anti-missile defence system.

Mr. Erdogan has “done this kind of tactic before. He will use it as leverage to get a good deal for Turkey,” said retired US Navy Admiral James Foggo, dean of the Center for Maritime Strategy.

A top aide to Mr. Erdogan, Ibrahim Kalin, appeared to confirm Mr. Foggo’s analysis.

“We are not closing the door. But we are basically raising this issue as a matter of national security for Turkey,” Mr. Kalin said, referring to the Turkish leader’s NATO remarks. “Of course, we want to have a discussion, a negotiation with Swedish counterparts.”

Spelling out Turkish demands, Mr. Kalin went on to say that “what needs to be done is clear: they have to stop allowing PKK outlets, activities, organisations, individuals and other types of presence to…exist in those countries.”

Mr. Erdogan’s brinkmanship may have its limits, but it illustrates that one ignores the Middle East at one’s peril.

However, engaging Middle Eastern autocrats does not necessarily mean ignoring their rampant violations of human rights and repression of freedoms.

For the United States and Europe, the trick will be developing a policy that balances accommodating autocrats’, at times, disruptive demands, often aimed at ensuring regime survival, with the need to remain loyal to democratic values amid a struggle over whose values will underwrite a 21st-century world order.

However, that would require a degree of creative policymaking and diplomacy that seems to be a rare commodity.

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