The Turkish conflict between the state and the minority Kurds is often referred to in ethnic terms, but it’s an error to frame the two groups in such a dichotomous way.
To add to the complexity are interwoven elements of nationalism, political ideologies, cultural heritage and socio-economics. But it’s crucial first to explain the nature and difficulty of the struggle that began, essentially, with the founding of the Turkish republic and continues today, though the conditions and protagonists have changed.
The Kurdish-majority southeast of Turkey is an area roughly equivalent to 16 percent of the entire national territory and has a population of around 13 million. These two numbers are only quantitatively indicative of the importance of the region for the country. Although more economically depressed than other regions, it’s home to important resources and has a strategic position that Turkey and its allies do not intend to let go.
Turkey can be considered a fairly rich country in terms of water resources thanks to the Tigris and Euphrates river basin, which by itself represents about a third of the entire country’s water potential.
The strategic importance of the basin to the Turkish state can be summed up by the Southeast Anatolia Project (Güneydoğu Anadolu Projesi, or GAP, in Turkish), an investment plan as old as the republic itself and whose modern contours were formed around the 1980s.
It covers areas such as agriculture and irrigation, the production of hydroelectric energy, rural and urban infrastructure, and forest management. It consists, among other things, of 22 dams and 19 hydroelectric plants, enough to provide the country with 23 percent of its energy needs. The estimated cost of the project has undergone several revisions and stands at around $32 billion.
To quell the restlessness of the local Kurdish population, Ankara has tried to revitalize the local economy, doubling the extension of arable land and generating employment opportunities that could quiet discontent and appease the push for independence.
In reality, the GAP is perceived by a substantial part of the local population as a form of colonization and exploitation of resources, which, in the view of Kurdish separatism, not only do not belong to the Turkish state but are being exploited as a way also to claim the historical identity and cultural memory of the region.
Beyond subjective perceptions of the project, it is undeniable that the impact would not always be beneficial to the environment or to the Kurdish community. The construction of the dam system implies an irreversible upheaval with impacts on aquatic biodiversity and river basins.
The flooding of entire valleys has caused the forced displacement of thousands of families, usually to major urban centers, and even the loss of archaeological sites. One of the most controversial projects, the Ilisu Dam, caused the forced migration of the population involved and the destruction of some historical sites including that of Hasankeyf, which in 2008-2009 saw the withdrawal of foreign funding.
The project continues with state investment, despite a survey by the Kurdish Human Rights Project that estimated between 50 and 68 rural villages will be completely flooded, while another 57 will be partially flooded, changing the lives of about 25,000 inhabitants.
The Tigris and Euphrates rivers not only have an impact on the Turkish economy, but also on those of neighboring Syria and Iraq. That’s been the cause of frequent tensions between the three countries for years. Syria and Iraq have often complained about the lack of cooperation from Turkey in the global management of water reservoirs.
Turkey, for its part, lays claim to the water resources to meet its food and, above all, energy needs, through the production of hydroelectricity. This is because Turkey is a country largely poor in fossil resources compared to its far more wealthy neighbors and has to import oil and gas from abroad, with a cost to the state estimated at $60 billion per year. But one of the few oil reserves it does have just happens to be in the southeast, around the city of Batman.
Turkey’s oil and gas supply comes in through three main corridors. The first is on the Turkish-Georgian border, with incoming flows from Russia that make Turkey substantially dependent on Moscow in terms of energy. The second is located in the Kurdish and Armenian minority districts in Agri, where natural gas is imported from Iran.
The third corridor originates from Iraqi Kurdistan, in particular from the region around Erbil. It comes in through the pipelines that crosses the border in the Kurdish district of Cizre, where the fiercest clashes between Turkish and Kurdish forces took place in recent months.
For Turkey, access to the energy reserves in the Iraqi Kurdish region, estimated at around 45 billion barrels of oil and 106 trillion cubic meters of natural gas, is of strategic importance to the diversification of supply, ensuring the nation cannot be held hostage by foreign powers.
In essence, due to its geographical location Turkey aspires to become a global energy hub, especially in light of its plans to build new pipelines connecting Israel, Qatar and Iraq to oil-hungry Europe. But Turkey can only achieve this goal as long as it keeps firm control over the southeastern region.
The borders with Syria, Iraq and Iran are also important for geopolitical reasons. Turkey’s loss of the region would not only mean the loss of access to these three countries for Turkey, but also for NATO.
The consequences of the Turkish-Kurdish conflict, in particular from 1990 onwards, led to profound changes in the social composition of the country. There have been massive migrations from rural to urban areas — not only to southeastern cities, which grew dramatically and tragically in the 1990s and 2000s, but also to big Western cities of Istanbul, Izmir and Ankara.
With the conflict re-igniting over the past two years, the violence has affected neighborhoods full of the same people who migrated only 20 years before, who now must flee again.
The reconstruction of these devastated areas, managed directly by the state through expropriation and emergency procedures, has taken place in an atmosphere of violence and a lack of consultation with residents. The experience has led many to believe that the interests of the central government will come at the expense of local communities, hardly a gesture of appeasement, with consequences that will remain for decades to come.