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Reconstruction in Syria

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From the beginning, for Turkey the war in Syria has been a “domestic” problem- albeit not entirely so.

 For the West, it has been an opportunity to hurt a Russian ally, but it has failed, thus also making Syria become one of the areas for the strategic expansion of Shiite Iran. Giving ground to the enemy is a fundamental strategic mistake.

 Incidentally it seems that the Global Strategy is lost memory for the West – more or less like political economy is completely forgotten, faced with market fluctuations and Stock Exchange algorithms.

 On the one hand, however, at the beginning of the Syrian crisis, Erdogan aroused the pride of his nationalist voters while, on the other, he justified the increase in domestic prices and inflation with the vast Turkish operation in Syria.

 Two propaganda solutions for the same problem, i.e. the Turkish hegemony in Central Asia.

 Obviously, the primary goal of the Turkey led by the AKP – a party born of an old Muslim Brotherhood network – was to enter Syria to eliminate Assad’s Baathist power, with a view to replacing it with a clearly pro-Turkish regime.

 To this end, Turkey accepted the presence of “terrorists” and the Turkish military support for the Syrian jihad, and even the hidden support for the so-called “Caliphate”, with a view to stopping the expansion of Syrian-Iraqi Kurds and their connection – also at territorial level – to the Anatolian Kurds.

 That was the aim of the Operation “Olive Branch” that the Turkish Armed Forces carried out in early 2018.

 In that case, it was a matter of blocking the Kurdish administration of Afrin to prevent the Kurdish YPG from creating its own strategic and territorial continuity in Northern Syria, up to coming into contact with the Anatolian Kurds.

  The Turkish forces also moved many Turks to the area.

 Currently Turkey has three goals: the agreement with Russia for the future of Syria; the maintenance of Iran’s neutrality in Syria and in the rest of the region and even the internal stability of Bashar al-Assad’s regime.

 Erdogan would also like to have good relations with the United States, which is acting in Syria with ideas that are still very vague.

 Unfortunately, this currently holds true for many strategic players in Syria.

 After eight years of war, the World Bank has calculated that only material damage to houses and infrastructure is worth no less than 197 billion US dollars.

 A quarter of all Syrian houses has been destroyed, but it is estimated that the cost for returning to the status quo ante ranges between 300-400 billion dollars. The most pessimistic ones estimate it at 450 billion US dollars.

 We believe that currently the real cost is equal to 400 billion dollars. Assad’ Syrian forces and Syria’s inhabitants keep on discovering unknown disasters.

 Considering the amount of money needed, however, the only two external supporters of Assad’s regime, namely Russia and Iran, are not in a position to contribute to the Syrian reconstruction.

 Furthermore, the USA and the EU are not interested in funding Syria’s return to pre-conflict economic conditions, unless there is a “political transition”, i.e. unless Bashar al- Assad leaves power.

 The problem is that he has won with the help of Russia and Iran, while the West – with its infinite coalition – has lost. Who can send away who?

 Indeed, the US and European economic sanctions against Syria have become stricter in early 2019, and the country has a population of 13 million inhabitants, who urgently need support, aid, medicines and food.

 Hence the greatest humanitarian crisis since the Second World War, but both the USA and Germany, in particular, are only interested in ousting the “tyrant” Assad – possibly for recreating the jihadist void that Syria has just overcome and that the West would not know how to manage, regardless its being for or against.

 Currently the US sanctions impose a block on all exports to Syria or on any financial transactions involving Syrian entities.

 80% of those who need serious hospital care cannot be treated. There is a lack of doctors, drugs and hospitals.

 The sanctions also concern drugs and medical technologies, as well as all electrical, electronic, industrial and oil components.

 Even the simplest electrical devices and their spare parts are affected by sanctions.

 Given the new EU political configuration, however, Syria may receive some abstract political support, but certainly not tangible aid.

Here we can think of the Assembly of Hungarian nobles, to whom Marie Therese of Austria asked to support her war against Frederick II of Prussia who had invaded Silesia.

 “We will give our lives for the Queen, but not the oats for horses”.

China could certainly be a solution.

 To date, China has not shown particular interest in the matter, but it anyway participated in the meeting between 70 countries and international institutions, held in April 2017 for the reconstruction of Syria.

 However, China has not provided direct support to the  “tyrant” Assad, who anyway rescued his people and the West itself from the “sword jihad” which, from Syria, would spread everywhere in the Middle East and probably also to Eastern Europe.

 Meanwhile, between 2018 and 2019 China has already granted 2 billion to be invested in the Syrian industry.

  For 2019 and beyond, there are additional 23 billion granted by China through the Cooperation Forum between China and the Arab States.

 Obviously China does not want to be involved in the Middle East chaos. It has no interest in it.

 Syria, however, plays a significant role in the Belt and Road Initiative (BRI).

 Tripoli in the Lebanon has already been planned to be a BRI Special Economic Zone, considering that the Lebanese Tripoli port will be the basis for BRI transport to the whole East-Mediterranean region.

 In order to revitalize this port, China plans to build the Tripoli-Homs railway, while in October 2018 China already donated as many as 800 electricity generators to the city of Latakia.

 Another fundamental Syrian port.

 Back in 2017, China hosted the “First Trade Fair on Syrian Reconstruction Projects”, with the two aforementioned billion for Syrian companies and, above all, the tangible aid  for the reconstruction of over 150 Syrian companies.

 China is interested in the local Syrian companies that deal with steel and energy. Moreover, the China National Petroleum Corporation is already present in the shareholding structure of two of the largest Syrian oil companies, namely the Syrian Petroleum Company and Al Furat Petroleum.

 There is also a Chinese project for technological and training support to the Syrian Armed Forces.

  Furthermore, there is the Chinese automotive sector – a market that China shares with Iran.

 With a shrewd exchange between arable land and technology, Iran has already provided Syria with its mobile telephone network, as well as the management of some phosphate mines.

 All Iranian economic operations are made by leaders of the Revolutionary Guard and probably the Iranian military will call upon Chinese companies at the right time.

  One option for Assad could be the support – not yet politically mature, but certainly not impossible – of the United Arab Emirates and Saudi Arabia.

 The two powers of the Arabian peninsula are above all interested in limiting the power projection of Turkey and Qatar – the two main supporters of the opposition (and the jihad) against Bashar al-Assad – while they consider Iran’s control over Syria scarcely relevant from the economic viewpoint. At least for the time being.

 In late 2018, however, embassies were reopened in Syria, Bahrain and the Emirates.

 Furthermore, as can be easily imagined, manpower is lacking throughout Syria.

 Many people have migrated to the Lebanon, Jordan or Europe.

 Nevertheless, there is still a shortage of capital, which also leads to manpower shortage.

 From this viewpoint, Bashar al-Assad’s regime has developed a model of public-private partnership (PPP), which is almost the sole legal criterion for reconstruction.

 Decree No. 19,issued by President Assad in May 2015, lays down that the various administrative units, including governorates and municipalities, can establish their autonomous investment companies.

 In January 2016, Assad’s government enacted the Law on Public-Private Partnerships, which allows private companies to manage and develop all the public assets they hold or control.

 For example, the Governor of Damascus is the President of the company that is investing in the real estate sector of Basateem al-Razi, a district of the Syrian capital city.

Obviously the recourse to private individuals is not enough. The PPP systems are based mainly on bank loans. Nevertheless, certainly also the banks have not all the capital available for reconstruction at their disposal.

 According to the latest calculations, all Syrian banks have a reserve of 1.7 trillion Syrian pounds, equivalent to 3.5 billion US dollars. Hence the primary role will inevitably be played by donors, particularly the foreign ones.

 Obviously Russia, China and Iran, but there are also North Korea, Brazil and India – and we will soon see them at work.

 What about Iran, in particular? Iran has recently signed a Memorandum of Understanding for the construction of as many as 200,000 houses for civilian use in Damascus.

 Considering the US and EU policies, many transactions will be made outside the SWIFT system.

 The aforementioned system has two processors – one in the Netherlands and the other one in the USA – that work independently. Often the transactions will not take place in US dollars.

 Iran also wants to build a power plant in Latakia, while the Ayatollah regime still supports Bashar al-Assad with as many as 6 billion US dollars a year.

 If economic and military support are considered together, some analysts maintain that Iran’s transfers to Syria range between 15 to 20 billion US dollars a year.

  Furthermore, if there are credible links between Iran’s investments and Syria’s political attitudes, Iranian money will continue to flow.

 The Russian Federation has also carried out a strong lobbying activity for Syrian reconstruction, with a direct intervention by Chief of Staff Gerasimov vis-à-vis the United States.

 The response has been almost immediate: the political “transition”, i.e. Assad’s quick leaving the scene, is the prerequisite for funding.

 Assad, although having won against the jihad- often organized by Western allies – is now only guilty of having remained in power, instead of leaving Syria in the hands of Islamic terrorists, whom the West claimed it wanted to fight.

 It is strange that some worshipers of democracy stoop to this type of blackmail.

 After being contacted by Vladimir Putin in August 2018, Chancellor Merkel said she wanted to avoid a “humanitarian disaster” that has already been in place for some time. She also said, however, she didn’t want to participate in a reconstruction process in Syria led – like it or not – by the Syrian winner, namely Bashar al-Assad.

 The same was said by the French leaders. Good old days when, in a heavily-indebted Germany, Hjalmar Schacht, known as “Hitler’s banker” – a Jew and a Freemason, but anyway still free – created an investment bank in Munich to help the Middle East and Africa.

 Again in August 2018, Russia also put new pressure on Saudi Arabia, although the latter has certainly never been friendly to the Alawite and pro-Iranian regime in Syria.

 Certainly, even now Saudi Arabia does not want to bear the cost for Syria’s reconstruction.

 Obviously, the Saudi regime may see investments in Syria as an antidote to the Iranian presence, although nothing has been decided yet.

 Nevertheless, the forces within Mohammed bin Salman’s inner circle are not entirely opposed to a serious and heavy financial operation in Syria to definitively drive Iran away.

 A balance of threats and signals could make – possibly with the military protection of Russia, which certainly does not want a Shiite hegemony over Syria – part of Saudi funds reach Syria – not exclusive, but also alien to the West, which sees nothing else that the naive escape of the “tyrant”.

 The Libyan disaster was not enough for Westerners, who now want the escape of the Alawite and Baathist Syrian leader, although he has won.

What will happen later? Either the jihadist chaos, of which they believe they can take advantage to the detriment of Iran, or the Chinese penetration, which will certainly not be friendly to Western business.

 As already seen, the other financial option for Syria is China.

  China, however, will really take no action until the US troops move permanently from the Syrian region to the Far East.

 In January 2018 Russia signed a contract enabling its companies in the sector to exclusively exploit oil and gas fields under the direct control of Assad’s forces.

 The Syrian oil and gas reserves are, above all, in the North-Eastern regions, in areas controlled by the Syrian Democratic Forces in the hands of the YPG Kurds.

 Other Russian projects are the following: electricity generation in the Homs district; a new railway line connecting Damascus International Airport to the city centre and a series of manufacturing industries.

 The Russian entrepreneurial zeal has not even failed to upset Iran: Russia has “snatched” from Iran a fifty-year contract for the use of phosphates.

 Hence, for the time being, the Russian Federation has won the struggle for Syrian reconstruction, but then there will inevitably be also China. Later, if the West remains deaf – and maybe even silly – there will be nothing left for Syria, which will recreate the conditions for a new regional war that the West will certainly lose again.

Advisory Board Co-chair Honoris Causa Professor Giancarlo Elia Valori is an eminent Italian economist and businessman. He holds prestigious academic distinctions and national orders. Mr. Valori has lectured on international affairs and economics at the world’s leading universities such as Peking University, the Hebrew University of Jerusalem and the Yeshiva University in New York. He currently chairs “International World Group”, he is also the honorary president of Huawei Italy, economic adviser to the Chinese giant HNA Group. In 1992 he was appointed Officier de la Légion d’Honneur de la République Francaise, with this motivation: “A man who can see across borders to understand the world” and in 2002 he received the title “Honorable” of the Académie des Sciences de l’Institut de France. “

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Middle East

China-US and the Iran nuclear deal

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Chinese Foreign Minister Wang Yi told his Iranian counterpart Hossein Amirabdollahian that Beijing would firmly support a resumption of negotiations on a nuclear pact [China Media Group-CCTV via Reuters]

Iranian Foreign Minister Hossein Amir Abdollahian met with  Chinese Foreign Minister, Wang Yi on Friday, January 14, 2022 in the city of Wuxi, in China’s Jiangsu province.  Both of them discussed a gamut of issues pertaining to the Iran-China relationship, as well as the security situation in the Middle East.

A summary of the meeting published by the Chinese Foreign Ministry underscored the point, that Foreign Ministers of Iran and China agreed on the need for  strengthening bilateral cooperation in a number of areas under the umbrella of the 25 year Agreement known as ‘Comprehensive Cooperation between the Islamic Republic of Iran and the People’s Republic of China’. This agreement had been signed between both countries in March 2021 during the Presidency of Hassan Rouhani, but the Iranian Foreign Minister announced the launch of the agreement on January 14, 2022.

During the meeting between Wang Yi and Hossein Amir Abdollahian there was a realization of the fact, that cooperation between both countries needed to be enhanced not only in areas like energy and infrastructure (the focus of the 25 year comprehensive cooperation was on infrastructure and energy), but also in other spheres like education, people to people contacts, medicine and agriculture. Iran also praised the Belt and Road Initiative (BRI) and said that it firmly supported the One China policy.

The timing of this visit is interesting, Iran is in talks with other signatories (including China) to the JCPOA/Iran nuclear deal 2015 for the revival of the 2015 agreement. While Iran has asked for removal of economic sanctions which were imposed by the US after it withdrew from the JCPOA in 2018, the US has said that time is running out, and it is important for Iran to return to full compliance to the 2015 agreement.  US Secretary of State Antony Blinken in an interview said

‘Iran is getting closer and closer to the point where they could produce on very, very short order enough fissile material for a nuclear weapon’

The US Secretary of State also indicated, that if the negotiations were not successful, then US would explore other options along with other allies.

During the course of the meeting on January 14, 2022 Wang Yi is supposed to have told his Chinese counterpart, that while China supported negotiations for the revival of the Iran nuclear deal 2015, the onus for revival was on the US since it had withdrawn in 2018.

The visit of the Iranian Foreign Minister to China was also significant, because Foreign Ministers of four Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) countries – Saudi Arabia, Kuwait, Oman and Bahrain — and Secretary General of GCC,  Nayef Falah Mubarak Al-Hajraf were in China from January 10-14, 2022 with the aim of expanding bilateral ties – especially with regard to energy cooperation and trade. According to many analysts, the visit of GCC officials to China was driven not just by economic factors, but also the growing proximity between Iran and Beijing.

In conclusion, China is important for Iran from an economic perspective. Iran has repeatedly stated, that if US does not remove the economic sanctions it had imposed in 2018, it will focus on strengthening economic links with China (significantly, China has been purchasing oil from Iran over the past three years in spite of the sanctions imposed by the US. The Ebrahim Raisi administration has repeatedly referred to an ‘Asia centric’ policy which prioritises ties with China.

Beijing is seeking to enhance its clout in the Middle East as US ties with certain members of the GCC, especially UAE and Saudi Arabia have witnessed a clear downward spiral in recent months (US has been uncomfortable with the use of China’s 5G technology by UAE and the growing security linkages between Beijing and Saudi Arabia). One of the major economic reasons for the GCC gravitating towards China is Washington’s thrust on reducing its dependence upon GCC for fulfilling its oil needs. Beijing can utilize its good ties with Iran and GCC and play a role in improving links between both.

The geopolitical landscape of the Middle East is likely to become more complex, and while there is not an iota of doubt, that the US influence in the Middle East is likely to remain intact, China is fast catching up.

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Middle East

Egypt vis-à-vis the UAE: Who is Driving Whom?

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Image source: atalayar.com

“Being a big fish in a small pond is better than being a little fish in a large pond” is a maxim that aptly summarizes Egyptian regional foreign policy over the past few decades. However, the blow dealt to the Egyptian State in the course of the 2011 uprising continues to distort its domestic and regional politics and it has also prompted the United Arab Emirates to become heavily engaged in Middle East politics, resulting in the waning of Egypt’s dominant role in the region!

The United Arab Emirates is truly an aspirational, entrepreneurial nation! In fact, the word “entrepreneurship” could have been invented to define the flourishing city of Dubai. The UAE has often declared that as a small nation, it needs to establish alliances to pursue its regional political agenda while Egypt is universally recognized for its regional leadership, has one of the best regional military forces, and has always charmed the Arab world with its soft power. Nonetheless, collaboration between the two nations would not necessarily give rise to an entrepreneurial supremacy force! 

Egypt and the UAE share a common enemy: political Islamists. Yet each nation has its own distinct dynamic and the size of the political Islamist element in each of the two countries is different. The UAE is a politically stable nation and an economic pioneer with a small population – a combination of factors that naturally immunize the nation against the spread of political Islamists across the region. In contrast, Egypt’s economic difficulties, overpopulation, intensifying political repression, along with its high illiteracy rate, constitute an accumulation of elements that serves to intensify the magnitude of the secreted, deep-rooted, Egyptian political Islamists.

The alliance formed between the two nations following the inauguration of Egypt’s President Al Sisi was based on UAE money and Egyptian power. It supported and helped expand the domestic political power of a number of unsubstantiated Arab politicians, such as Libya’s General Khalifa Haftar, Tunisia’s President Kais Saied and the Chairman of Sudan’s Transitional Sovereignty Council, Lieutenant-General Abdel-Fattah Al-Burhan. The common denominator among these politicians is that they are all fundamentally opposed to political Islamists.

Although distancing political Islamists from ruling their nations may constitute a temporary success, it certainly is not enough to strengthen the power of the alliance’s affiliates. The absence of true democracy, intensified repression by Arab rulers and the natural evolution of Arab citizens towards freedom will, for better or for worse, lead to the re-emergence of political Islamists. Meanwhile, Emirati wealth will always attract Arab hustlers ready to offer illusory political promises to cash in the money.   

The UAE has generously injected substantial amounts of money into the Egyptian economy and consequently the Egyptian State has exclusively privileged Emirati enterprises with numerous business opportunities, yet the UAE has not helped Egypt with the most critical regional threat it is confronting: the Grand Ethiopian Renaissance Dam. Meanwhile, Egyptian President Abdel Fatah El Sisi’s exaggerated fascination with UAE modernization has prompted him to duplicate many Emirati projects – building the tallest tower in Africa is one example.

The UAE’s regional foreign policy that hinges upon exploiting its wealth to confront the political Islamist threat is neither comprehensible nor viable. The Emirates, in essence, doesn’t have the capacity to be a regional political player, even given the overriding of Egypt’s waning power. Meanwhile, Al Sisi has been working to depoliticize Egypt completely, perceiving Egypt as an encumbrance rather than a resource-rich nation – a policy that has resulted in narrowing Egypt’s economic and political aspirations, limiting them to the constant seeking of financial aid from wealthy neighbors.

The regional mediating role that Egypt used to play prior to the Arab uprising has been taken over by European nations such France, Germany and Italy, in addition of course to the essential and ongoing role of the United States. Profound bureaucracy and rampant corruption will always keep Egypt from becoming a second UAE! Irrespective of which nation is in the driver’s seat, this partnership has proven to be unsuccessful. Egypt is definitely better off withdrawing from the alliance, even at the expense of forgoing Emirati financial support.

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Middle East

Kurdish Education in Turkey: A Joint Responsibility

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Turkish elites often see Kurds as posing a mortal threat to their homeland’s territorial integrity. Kurdish elites often harbor pan-Kurdish dreams of their own.

Modern Turkish nationalism based its identity on statist secularism practiced by Muslims who are Turks. The secularist paradigm of a “Turkish Nation” struggled hard with accommodating Christians (Armenians, Greeks, Assyrians) and Kurdish-speaking Muslims. Kurdish coreligionists were expected to become Turks, i.e., to abandon their cultural heritage for the “greater good” of a homogenous Turkish nation.

This cultural-identity conundrum led to a century-long violent conflict, but also to genuine efforts by many Kurds and Turks to reach a common vision that would accommodate both Turkey’s territorial integrity and Kurdish cultural rights.

The rise to power of Erdogan’s Islamist Justice and Development Party (AKP) in 2002 appeared to imply a watershed, bringing about a measure of cultural liberalization toward the Kurds. More Islam seemed at first to signal less nationalistic chauvinism.

IMPACT-se, a think tank focusing on peace and tolerance in school education, pointed out in “Two Languages One Country,” a 2019 report that showed liberal elements being introduced in the Turkish curriculum by the AKP government. These “included the introduction of a Kurdish language elective program, the teaching of evolution, expressions of cultural openness, and displays of tolerance toward minorities.”

And while no open debate was permitted, IMPACT-se noted “a slight improvement over past textbooks in recognizing the Kurds, although they are still generally ignored.” Yet, the name “Kurd” is no longer obliterated from the curriculum. Kurdish-language textbooks were authored as part of a wider Turkish-Kurdish rapprochement.

In June 2012, the Turkish government announced for the first time, that a Kurdish elective language course entitled: “Living Languages and Dialects” (Yaşayan Diller ve Lehçeler), would be offered as an elective language for Grades 5–7 for two hours per week.

IMPACT-se studied these textbooks (published in 2014 and 2015 in Kurmanji and Zazaki) in its report  and found that the elective Kurdish-language program strengthens Kurdish culture and identity, while assuming a pan-Kurdish worldview devoid of hate against Turks. Included are Kurdish-historic places in Turkey, Iran and Iraq (but not Syria). The textbooks cover issues such as the Kurdish diaspora in Europe, the Kurdish national holiday of Newroz, with the underlying revolutionary message of uprising against tyranny. Children’s names are exclusively Kurdish. Turks and Turkey are not represented in the elective Kurdish books (but are obviously present across the rest of the curriculum).

The latter is a surprising and counter-intuitive finding. Textbooks published by Turkey’s Ministry of Education focus solely on the Kurdish side, with pan-Kurdish messaging, and no Turkish context. There could be several explanations for this, but the fact remains that Turkish-Kurdish relations are still not present in Turkey’s Kurdish language program.

The overall conclusion of IMPACT-se has been that this program is pioneering and generally excellent. There are some problems, however. One problem is that the elective program is minimalistic and does not meet Kurdish cultural needs. However, the program ignores the Turkish-Kurdish dilemma, hence projecting an inverted mirror image of the Turkish curriculum at large, which ignores the Kurdish question. There is no peace education in either curriculum. Therefore, IMPACT-se recommended enhancing the Kurdish-language program, while adding a healthy dose of pertinent peace education to the curriculum’s Turkish and Kurdish textbooks.

Sadly, the last few years have also seen broader moves by the Turkish government to quash Kurdish cultural and educational freedoms. The armed conflict between separatist groups and the Turkish military resumed in 2015, followed by the 2016 detention of high-ranking officials of the peaceful pro-minority People’s Democratic Party (HDP). By 2020, 59 out of 65 elected Kurdish mayors on the HDP ticket in previous years had been forced out or arrested by security forces.

Simultaneously, elective programs such as Kurdish have been neglected and largely replaced by religious “elective” courses, which are often mandatory. Specifically, elective Kurdish courses are being clamped down or de facto erased in certain schools (despite being originally offered in 28 cities and with an expected enrollment as high as 160,000).

And then there is the question of full education in Kurdish. Article 42 of the Turkish Constitution bans the “teaching of any language other than Turkish as a mother tongue to Turkish citizens at any institution of education.” And yet, Turkish authorities looked the other way between 2013 and 2016, as five fully Kurdish elementary private schools were opened in the southeastern provinces of Diyarbakır, Şırnak and Hakkari. The last of these schools, Ferzad Kemanger in Diyarbakır, was closed on October 9, 2016. Apparently these schools conveyed pan-Kurdish messaging (Ferzad Kemanger was an Iranian-Kurdish elementary school teacher. He was wrongly accused of being a terrorist and executed by Tehran in 2010).

There can be no Kurdish heritage without Kurdish languages, making the current situation untenable. Kurdish education should become a priority again.

But this is not enough. A common Turkish-Kurdish vision should be developed. Educationally, a serious effort should be directed toward educating both Turks and Kurds about the other’s identity, culture, shared history, commonalties, conflicts and interactions. 

Two ethnicities sharing one homeland in a volatile region pose a great challenge for both. A careful educational plan can lay the groundwork for peace and prosperity. Kurdish education in Turkey should be considered a joint responsibility leading to a common vision.

The views and opinions expressed in this article are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect an official position of IMPACT-se.

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