Hugh Pope – Turkey, Syria, and the Kurds: The Blurring of a Middle Eastern Border

Hugh Pope is the Director of the Turkey/Cyprus Project of International Crisis Group, based in Istanbul. In his lecture for Club Turkey, Mr. Pope analyzed how the Turkish government initiated rapprochement with the Kurdish citizens of the country is closely related to Turkey’s regional and international relations, and the Turkish cope with the Syrian humanitarian crisis.

The definition of Kurdish identity in present-day Turkey is complex. Many Turkish citizens are ethnic Kurds, who are gradually being alienated from their Kurdish heritage, becoming more and more culturally Turkish. Not a few Kurdish families in Turkey have relatives across the Syrian border, as a result of population movement that occurred throughout the 20th century. These divided families often maintain close relation despite being on two different sides of the border.

The Turkish idea of “fellowship of Islamic states” rings hollow to political elites in the Middle East, having a bad memory of their Ottoman past . Despite a change of foreign policy orientation, Turkey has so far failed to become a major regional power in the Middle East, and its most significant relations remain with the US and Europe. Turkey is not interested in formally joining the EU, but rather in prolonging the accession process. This allows the ruling AKP to complete the anti-Kemalist reforms it is implementing in the country.

Turkey wrongly banked on a rapid fall of the Assad regime and is currently trying to handle the humanitarian crisis in the refugee camps on its soil, spending so far over one billion dollars in aid and relief operations. IHH (an Islamist relief organization with a terrorist arm) is also distributing large humanitarian aid to Syrian civilians in the battle zones. Although the AKP finds itself in a major quandary over Syria, it is clearly unprepared to act militarily, partly due to a lack of support for intervention domestically, partly because it is uncertain of how the military will perform if ordered to invade Syria.

The imprisoned PKK leader Abdullah Öcalan showed that he still retains effective control over PKK activists on the grounds. He also demonstrated that his intention to achieve a historic peace process with the Turkish state is sincere. The AKP government realized that the conflict with the PKK will not be decided on the battlefield and that they must find alternative solutions to the Kurdish issue. Hakan Fidan, head of the Turkish intelligence agency (MIT), has begun a series of meetings with Öcalan and declared that he believes that the Kurdish leader would be ready to compromise on some of his demands in order to reach an agreement. These meetings set ground for the current peace process.

On the government side, Erdoğan’s intentions towards the peace process seem genuine, and he is interested in achieving a lasting peace with the Kurds. He clearly has political ends in mind, such as gaining the support of the BDP for his constitutional reforms, but observers are convinced that he is serious in his commitment to a peaceful resolution of the Turkish-Kurdish conflict. Having legitimized the PKK and Öcalan, it will be very difficult for Erdoğan to turn the clock back and return to the earlier anti-Kurdish stance.