Understanding the Tensions

Majority Kurdish provinces in Turkey
Majority Kurdish provinces in Turkey

Turkey sits between Europe and the Middle East. About three percent of it on the western side of the narrow passage through the Bosporus, the Sea of Marmara, and the Dardanelles is in Europe, and the rest, situated on the Anatolian Peninsula, is the western most extension of Asia. It is 99.8 percent Muslim. Aside from the United States, Turkey is the most populous nation in the NATO alliance with 82 million people. It has a free market economy, which is the 13th largest in the world. With 355,000 active military and 170,000 ready reserves, it has the largest armed forces in NATO except for the U.S. The Turkish Army has 2,500 tanks and over 9,000 other armored fighting vehicles.

 The Turkish Army has long held the reputation of one of the toughest fighting forces in the world. The Turkish Air Force has 635 aircraft of which 240 are modern F-16 Falcons, and 49 are F-4E Phantom II attack bombers. It has 90 nuclear bombs located at the USAF air base at Incirlik.  The U.S. canceled Turkey’s order for 30 advanced F-35 Lightning aircraft, when the Turkish government purchased advanced S-400 Surface-to-air missile (SAM) systems from the Russians. The Turkish Navy is the 4th largest in NATO with a variety of surface ships, 12 submarines, 52 aircraft, and Marines and Special Forces personnel.

About 25 percent of the Turkish economy is involved in manufacturing including automobiles and electronic equipment. Twenty-five percent are involved in the agricultural economy, and about 50 percent are in service industries. Turkey is not energy independent, so it must inevitably cultivate some Arab allies. Turkey is a modern and powerful nation, but divided.

The population of Turkey is 72 percent Turkish, 19 percent Kurdish, and 9 percent other minorities. The Kurds are most concentrated and constitute the majority of the population in its eastern and southeastern provinces. The Kurds are a people, but not a nation. There are about 28 million Kurds spread over Turkey (more than 14 million), northern Syria (2 million), northern Iraq (5 million), and Iran (7 million).  These connected areas are often referred to as Kurdistan,  and ever since the fall of the Ottoman Empire following World War I, of which Turkey was the heart, many Kurds have dreamed of having their own nation, Kurdistan, or at least have autonomous Kurdish controlled areas in their present home countries. The Kurds in Syria have now established an autonomous regional government in Northeastern Syria. There are another 2.0 million Kurds spread over the world, including 1.5 million Kurds in Germany.

The Western coasts of Turkey were heavily settled by Greeks beginning about 1200 BC. They became part of Alexander’s Empire in 325 BC.  The seven churches of the Book of Revelations in the Bible were all in western Turkey, and Ephesus and Smyrna (now Izmir) became important sea ports. The Apostle Paul was from Tarsus now in eastern Turkey. Western Turkey was especially important in Christian history with many decisive Church Councils being held there, such as the Council of Nicaea in 325 AD.  Constantinople (or Byzantium) became the capitol of the Byzantine Empire in 330 AD.  When Rome fell in 476, Constantinople became for awhile the center of world Christianity. When Rome and Constantinople split in 1054, Constantinople became the center of Eastern Orthodox Christianity. 

Following the death of Muhammad in 632, Islam began to spread in the Middle East, Western Asia, North Africa, and even Europe. By 1100 Muslim Turks occupied much of eastern and central Anatolia. By 1240, they were pressing a shrinking Byzantine Empire. Ottoman Turks finally took Constantinople in 1453. At its peak, the Ottoman Empire grew to encompass vast areas of the Middle East, North Africa, and Southeastern Europe. It was in decline by 1798 but hung on. The Ottoman Empire allied with the Germans in World War I and was defeated. It was finally dissolved and replaced by the Turkish Republic in 1923. However, from 1894 to 1918, the Ottoman Turks and their successors were responsible for massive genocides, totaling at least 2.75 million Armenian, Greek, and Assyrian Christians.  The Kurds assisted in the Armenian Genocide in which approximately 1.5 million Armenian Christians died. The Kurds have admitted to their part of it, but the Turks never have.

Mustafa Kemal Ataturk, a Turkish Field Marshall and hero of the World War I Battle of Gallipoli in 1915 and the Greek-Turkish War of 1919 to 1922, became the Turkish Republic’s first President and served until his death in 1938.  His leadership undertook sweeping liberal reforms, which modernized Turkey into a secular, industrial nation. Ideologically a secularist and nationalist, his theories and policies became known as Kemalism. His most powerful support came from like-minded secularist Turkish military officers. The Turkish military continued to be the source of political power subject to several military coups until the election of Recep Tayyik Erdogan to the presidency in 2014. The tension between Ataturk inspired secularism and fundamentalist Islam had always been great, but it increased immensely when Erdogan and his Justice and Development Party (AKP) established power. The AKP is a fundamentalist Islamic party founded in 2001 and reflects the “conservative” adherence to the Koran and teachings of Muhammad still held by a majority of Turks despite 96 years of secularist Turkish government. About 81 percent of Turkey’s Muslims, including the Kurds, are Sunni Muslim, most of the rest, 17 percent are Shia Muslims. This raises the specter of a resurgence of the Sunni Muslim Ottoman Caliphate and Empire, with Erdogan appointing and overseeing the key leadership.

Discomforted by Erdogan’s new anti-secularist and pro Islamic fundamentalist positions, the military became uneasy. This is the background of the July 15, 2016, failed coup attempt, with the fundamentalist crowds in the streets emerging victorious with the help of military officers loyal to Erdogan. Over 77,000 people were arrested, and 160,000 fired. Erdogan managed to rule under emergency conditions until a referendum changing the Constitution passed and was implemented in January of 2018. The Republic of Turkey is now in reality dead, and Turkey is ruled under a Presidential system, which appoints and removes all executive positions and judges at Erdogan’s will. Turkey has become much more autocratic in government and much more Islamist in religion. Nationalist sentiments continue as always to be strong in Turkey. Its past genocides have been as much inspired by nationalism as religion.

The Kurds speak neither an Arab nor a Turkic tongue. The Kurdish language is of Iranian origin. The male Y-DNA of Turks and Kurds is not too dissimilar. Both have a strong Iranian/Persian/Sumerian contribution. The Turks show comparatively little central Asian contribution.  Turks show more influence from the Caucasus than the Kurds, and the Kurds show some possible minority influences from Northwestern and Eastern Europe. Both have reputations as fierce combatants.  Kurds tend to be more moderate in their religious practices and tolerances than most Sunni Muslims. Their social customs and values are strongly based on family, hospitality, honor, and clan.  Few Kurds live alone. Respect for the elderly and older family members is strong. Family leadership is strongly patriarchal, and their social values are firmly conservative. Mothers are highly respected, and motherhood is a highly dominant goal for young women, but many women serve in military combat capacities.  Despite their valor against ISIS, the terrorism against Turks perpetrated by the PKK, and their role in the Armenian Genocide has caused some to remark that the Kurds are wonderful allies, but “they are not angels.” The Kurdistan Workers Party (PKK) is a leftist party operating in Turkey and Iraq.

Turkey has long aspired to be a full member of the European Union. However, due to the EU’s open door immigration policy within EU boundaries, Turkish membership would likely result in EU countries being overrun with Turkish migrants, accelerating and making almost certain the Islamization of Europe.

In 2011, before the Muslim Brotherhood backed Arab Spring and civil war against the Assad regime in Syria, there were about 2.0 million Christians in Syria. They had good relations with the moderate Alawite branch of Shia Islam that ruled Syria under Assad. They were, in fact, protected by the Assad regime. ISIS made a concentrated attempt to eradicate them and other minorities. Nobody seems to know how many are left. Only about 500,000 can be accounted for with any certainty. Many may be refugees in United Nations camps. Few arrived in the U.S. or Europe as refugees. No peace that results in their genocide would be honorable or real peace.

A Turkish or Iranian invasion of Syria or a Muslim Brotherhood backed radical Sunni Muslim regime in Damascus would be disastrous. Since there is apparently a strong revival of the Orthodox Church in Russia, which Putin has encouraged, a continued Russian presence in Syria may be a protective advantage to the predominantly Orthodox Christians in Syria.  

I hope you now know more about the tensions in Turkey, Syria, and other Kurdish areas of the Middle East.

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