Both assertions are dangerously wrong.
As Turkish tanks roll into Syria to take territory from U.S.-allied Syrian Kurdish fighters, I worry about the long-term effect of Trump’s reductionist understanding of our region of the world. I worry about rising nationalism in Turkey. I worry about the further tightening of free speech under our beleaguered democracy. I worry about the increasingly unbridgeable gap between Turkey and the West and how that can impact our lives.
A series of terrible decisions have brought us here.
Months of negotiations between Turkey and the United States to create a safe zone were going relatively well, with joint Turkish-U.S. patrols and surveillance of the area. An orderly transition was possible. There was no reason to rush to war.
The Syrian Kurds on our borders who have been fighting the Islamic State alongside the Americans have never directly attacked Turkey. They are our neighbors and relatives. There are millions of Turks like me who do not see Syrian Kurds as a threat but rather as a buffer in a chaotic region. We need to normalize our relations with Syrian Kurds and engage in a political solution to the Kurdish issue, which touches on Iraq, Syria and Turkey — not sow seeds of hostility for generations to come.
Turks and Kurds have been living together for over a thousand years. We are not natural enemies. Kurds roughly make up a fifth of our population and are our immediate neighbors in Syria and Iraq. They are seamlessly integrated in cities across Turkey, share the same culture and vote for the same political parties. Even though the Turkish government has been fighting the Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK) for decades, Ankara also engaged in a very detailed peace process with it for limited local autonomy inside Turkey, involving direct negotiations with the PKK and its imprisoned leader Abdullah Öcalan. That process, which came to an abrupt end in the summer of 2015, had broad popular support. Even as recently as June, the Turkish government hailed Öcalan’s weighing in on the local elections, because it played in Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan’s favor.
Why the rush to war now? If Erdogan was promoting Öcalan’s position only months ago, if the third-largest party (pro-Kurdish Peoples’ Democratic Party) in Turkey’s own parliament is sympathetic to Öcalan’s cause, if millions tend to vote in the direction of his movement inside Turkey, how hard is it to talk directly with them on the ground in Syria?
There are several issues with Turkey’s desire to create a safe zone inside Syria. First, it will not make us any safer. Turkey wants to rid the area of armed elements of Syrian Kurdish forces, namely the People’s Protection Units, linked to the PKK, and push the Kurdish forces 15 to 30 kilometers away from the border. But what happens south of that? No matter where you draw the line, we will always share a border with a group of people who define themselves as Kurds and whom Turkey defines as terrorists. Isn’t it better to normalize relations with Syrian Kurds and enhance our security through a Kurdish belt on our borders?
Fear is what makes Turkey act. Turkish officials tell me disrupting an autonomous Kurdish zone is an existential necessity for Turkey, and that stems from a fear that Turkey’s own Kurds might want to secede one day. That’s like saying you will never take your husband to a party for fear he will be tempted to cheat. If the foundations of your marriage are so weak, you need to think deeper. I point out to these officials that the heart of the problem is in Turkey — not Syria. We fear Syria because in parts of Turkey, Kurds have traditionally felt so alienated and repressed that they have rebelled. The way you deal with that rebellion is establishing a real democracy where everyone feels equal and free. That’s the only long-term panacea against the threat of secession.
That’s more or less what Turkey tried before. And it worked. During the peace process, polls indicated that an overwhelming number of Turkey’s Kurds did not want to live anywhere else but Turkey. They wanted political representation, Kurdish language education and other things that were close to being achieved.
Turkey’s proposal to settle refugees on the safe zone is also problematic. Erdogan wants to build new towns to settle at least one million refugees from Turkey and Idlib. At the United Nations, he showed computer-generated graphics with towns, homes, schools, mosques and gardens. The reality is more complicated: Most of Turkey’s Syrian refugees are not from the safe-zone-designated area and will not move to northern Syria. We also don’t have the resources to build towns and villages. Almost two centuries of demographic engineering failed to address the political demands from restless populations across the Ottoman Empire. His plan is doomed from the start.
This military operation comes at a time of visible political vulnerability for the Turkish president. His ruling AKP party suffered a massive loss in local elections in June, and efforts are underway to form new splinter parties by former AKP heavyweights like Ahmet Davutoglu and Ali Babacan. Erdogan believes that the refugee population in Turkey — nearly 4 million inside Turkey and another 4 million on its borders — is one of the main reasons for AKP’s declining popularity, currently below the 51 percent threshold for him to be elected for president.
And then there’s the serious issue of our partners against the Syrian Kurds. Turkey has organized an army of Syrian Sunni militias for the fighting and administering of the so-called safe zone. Among them are very unsavory groups with a terrible record of atrocities and radicalism. How is empowering these Islamist militants to displace secular Kurds on our doorstep making Turkey safer?
Trump is wrong on Turks and Kurds. The Turkish government is wrong on the real threats we are facing. Fratricide among Turks and Kurds and a zone of Sunni Islamist militants on our borders will not make us safer.
Only building and strengthening our democracy to include Kurds will.