If one steps back from the daily chaos of the Syrian civil war, the Islamic State emergence, and the sectarian violence in Turkey, one can begin to see the rising potential for an historic demographic shift that could leave a significant proportion of the Syrian population in Turkey in exchange for a new Kurdish state in northwestern Syria, leaving Assad holding only the coastline and Damascus as an Iranian/Russian client.
Erdogan wants influence over Syrians and now appears to have committed himself to alienating Kurds in order to gain the overwhelming support of Turkish citizens not of Kurdish ethnicity. Rather than acquiring influence over Syria, as the result of Putin’s sudden intervention, Erdogan is acquiring Syrians: 2,000,000–10% of the Syrian population–being already in refugee camps in Turkey, with tens of thousands more massing at border posts desperate to escape from a civil war that Turkey’s Syrian clients are losing. Meanwhile, Erdogan is making it clearer every day that Turkey’s Kurds are not welcome in their increasingly racist homeland: not as peaceful participants in the democratic process, not as apolitical citizens practicing their own culture.
The curious result is that Kurds are being alienated but detained while Sunni Syrians are being accepted but kept isolated in camps. The logical next steps are that Ankara offer the Syrian refugees integration into Turkish society with the prospect of future citizenship and offer Turkish Kurds the option of escaping. Give all individuals the option of voting with their feet. Treating an ethnic group with hatred, destroying its political freedom, wrecking its economy but insisting that it remain–marginalized in a virtual prison–creates a permanent drain on a society’s future.
Admittedly, Erdogan can for a time win political support through a fear campaign, but he is risking war with Russia and the violent dismemberment of Turkey. For Erdogan to alienate Turkish Kurds while attacking Syrian Kurds is illogical: if he does not want a multiethnic society, then the solution is to facilitate the move of Turkish Kurds to Rojava, while welcoming fellow Sunnis from Syria as replacements to maintain the Turkish population.
The principal here is simple: instead of war, it is better for groups not wanted to be allowed to leave peacefully and for groups that want liberty to have a homeland.
Several broader international goals would also be served by this logical solution to the trap that Turkey now finds itself caught in:
- Iran would have its access to Damascus secured;
- Russia would have its position in the Mideast established;
- Saudi Arabia would have the satisfaction of seeing Assad at least taken down a peg;
- the U.S. would have a Kurdish state ally against the Islamic State, a plus that Russia and Iran could also appreciate;
- and the momentum of violence in Syria would be undercut by giving safe zones to Allawites, Kurds, Shi’a, and Sunnis.
Consider the alternative. Not facing up to this demographic shift that is already well under way will leave in place a huge number of problems:
- Having pushed all the 10-15 million Turkish Kurds together in self-defense, Ankara will somehow have to deal with this huge, alienated population now backed into a corner.
- Ankara will have to continue caring for 2,000,000 refugees who perform no useful function, with the certain knowledge that this number will continue to rise.
- The plight of Turkey’s Kurds will only serve to tempt Syrian Kurds to try to help them, provoking exactly the dangerous instability that Erdogan claims to be trying to prevent.
- The presence of the Syrian Sunni minority with no escape will endlessly add gasoline to the fire of Syrian civil war, offering a permanent opening for the Islamic State and all other forms of Salafi extremism.
- What, in the end, will happen to the 2,000,000 Syrian refugees already in Turkey? Would Europe or the U.S. be willing to offer them new homes?
- The presence of millions of civilians in Syria with no security will continue to push Russia and Turkey closer to open conflict.
Five years of conflict has only demonstrated the inability of the world to find a solution within the narrow framework allowed by the outdated assumption that a state, no matter how repressive, has the right to imprison its population.
At the moment Ankara is being squeezed hard by a Syrian Kurdish/U.S. effort to cut the Islamic State off from Turkey and a Russian campaign to slaughter, crush, or cleanse from the Syrian-Turkish border region all pro-Turkish Syrians. Rather than pursuing further a military solution that threatens to turn into a costly Turkish defeat, Erdogan would do far better to offer the Kurds a safe haven outside of Turkey and leave Moscow with a ruined Syrian enclave half empty of people. After all, it seems that this is happening anyway…