100,000 refugees, Lots of Kurds and Two Foreign Ministers

Six weeks after moving here, I’m starting to feel at home in Istanbul.

My days are full. I’m in the classroom three hours a day, stuffing my head with Turkish grammar. I’m hanging out in shabby pavement cafes and plush roof-top bars, meeting academics and businessmen, musicians and artists. I’m devouring newspapers like a true addict.

But I’m also developing a sense of comfortable routine, which to me means one thing: it’s time to get on the road again.

Where the real action is

For once, that fits with my professional objectives. I want to write about Turkey, and the big, tectonic-plate-moving, narrative-changing events are unfolding hundreds of miles from Istanbul. The south is where it’s all happening. Once I can speak basic Turkish, that’s where I’ll be heading.

There are two big stories unfolding in Turkey’s southern provinces. One is the presence of some 100,000 Syrian refugees who have fled violence back home. Many are recent arrivals, but some have been here for months. With violence still raging, there is little prospect of them returning to a stable Syria any time soon.

I think it’s fair to give Turkey some credit for accommodating this massive influx of people. It has spent over $300 million constructing camps to house and support them. While conditions in the camps are basic, they are far better than those faced by many other refugees around the world.

But supporting these refugees is a huge job. Foreign Minister Ahmet Davutoglu has rightly argued that “this burden should not be shared only by [Syria’s] neighbouring countries… but by the international community, too.”

Ankara has backed down from a threat to stop letting people in once numbers hit 100,000. However the government is now scrambling to find less burdensome solutions to the refugee crisis.

Davutoglu recently appealed to the UN to set up “safe zones” for refugees inside Syria, protected by an internationally enforced no-fly zone. But with the Security Council in permanent stalemate over the Syrian crisis, the Turkish request was a non-starter.

*     *     *

The other story that draws me south is the rise in violence between Kurdish militants and Turkish forces.

After a few years of relative calm in the south east, this summer has seen a surge in violence between the Kurdish People’s Party (PKK) and the Turkish army. Bombings, shoot-outs and kidnappings have left hundreds dead in Turkey’s bloodiest summer since the early 1990s.

The Kurds, spread across the area where Iran, Iraq, Syria and Turkey meet, have long been used as proxies in interstate rivalries. For years, whenever the Assad regime was having a spat with Ankara, it used the PKK to kick up trouble in Turkey.

It seems to be happening again.

Fairly early on in the Syrian uprising, Assad’s forces pulled out of Kurdish-dominated areas in the north, effectively securing a ceasefire there so it could focus on crushing rebels elsewhere. This seems to have been a trigger for the PKK to ramp up its campaign for autonomy inside Turkey.

Turkey’s Prime Minister, Recep Tayyip Erdogan, now accuses Damascus of arming the PKK in retaliation for Turkey’s anti-Assad stance.

In addition, Israel’s Foreign Minister Avigdor Lieberman, never one to serve his country’s interests by mending fences when he can win domestic popularity by pissing off foreigners, has also threatened to offer the PKK arms in order to “punish” Turkey over the Mavi Marmara row.

What would a Kurdish foothold in Syria mean? For Ankara, it’s a dim prospect, regardless of Syrian or Israeli involvement. Indeed, it could be the last nail in the coffin of Davutoglu’s policy of “zero problems with the neighbours”.

So events in the south and east seem to be affecting Turkey’s whole foreign policy outlook. The refugees and the Kurdish uprising give fascinating insights into Turkey’s role in the region and the world.

I haven’t mentioned Ankara’s complex relationships with the Syrian opposition or the Kurdistan regional government in Iraq. Both of these are important elements of Turkey’s regional policy, and in both cases, the action is far from the Istanbul traffic, the tourist crowds in Sultanahmet and the ferries that criss-cross the Bosphorus.

Events in the south over the next few months could have massive impacts on the country’s regional standing and international relations. So as soon as my Turkish is up to a level of basic competence, that’s where I’ll be heading.



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