The Demographic Sources of Turkey’s Foreign Policy Crisis

By David P. Goldman
JINSA Fellow

By David P. Goldman
JINSA Fellow

Syria’s two million Kurds have become a wild card in the country’s crisis, after the Assad regime encouraged Kurdish autonomy as a ploy against its Sunni opposition in the ongoing civil war. The importance of the small Syrian Kurdish zone extends far beyond its possible role as a base for PKK guerillas to attack Turkish security forces. The new self-assertion of Syria’s Kurdish minority forces a long-term problem onto the short-term regional agenda: the inexorable shift of the population balance in Anatolia towards the fast-growing Kurdish population at the expense of Turkish-speakers, whose fertility has fallen to Western European levels.

Turkey’s demographic time bomb has gone largely uncommented in the Western press, but it has the undivided attention of the Turkish media. The thesis that the Kurdish question may not be soluble within Anatolia over the medium term has gained wide credence among Turkish analysts. It helps to explain why Turkey appears paralyzed in the face of the Syrian conflict.

In a matter of months, Turkish foreign policy has devolved from Foreign Minister Ahmet Davutoğlu’s celebrated “zero problems” policy to severe problems on every border and beyond. If Turkey’s foreign policy travails stem from inexorable long-term trends rather than short-term mistakes, as some Turkish analysts argue, conventional wisdom about Turkey’s status as a pillar of the Western alliance deserves reexamination. If Turkey is fighting a rearguard battle against an inevitable Kurdish ascendancy, American policy should seek to ensure that the emerging Kurdish nationality remains supportive of Western goals. Because of the Turkish-Syrian conflict, there is competition for Kurdish sympathies.

The Assad regime has presented Turkey with a piece of poisoned bait by withdrawing the Syrian army from majority-Kurdish areas abutting the Turkish border. The result is a de facto autonomous Kurdish zone that acts as a buffer with Turkey. Assad evidently hopes that Kurdish ambitions will make it virtually impossible for Turkey to intervene in Syria’s civil war.

The Los Angeles Times reported Oct. 5 from the northern Syria town of Afrin that “conflict seems far away from Kurdish towns like this agricultural hub…While battles rage in Aleppo, just 40 miles to the southeast, markets here are lively and, in the evenings, men at animated eateries sip arak, the clear, anise-flavored liquor that turns cloudy when mixed with ice and water. Assad’s stretched forces gradually withdrew, culminating in a near-total pullout in July that occurred with barely a shot being fired, Kurdish leaders say…Nearby, rebel-held Arab cities like Azzaz and Al Bab have become doleful and depopulated battlegrounds, rubble-strewn ghost towns where remaining residents dart for cover when fighter jets buzz overhead.”

Josh Wood wrote in AI-Monitor Oct. 4, “As did the 28 million other Kurds in Iraq, Turkey and Iran, Syria’s Kurds endured decades of marginalization and subjugation under unfriendly governments. Now autonomy is on the minds of many here. With the state gone, they are organizing for self-governance – from garbage collection to town councils and armed forces – as they lay tentative claim to some areas. “Always the Kurdish people were soldiers for others, so we decided to be soldiers for ourselves, for the Kurdish people only,” said Saleh Mohammed, the leader of the most powerful Kurdish party in Syria, the Democratic Union Party (PYD).”

Turkey is most unlikely to make good on its threats to intervene in the Syrian civil war, in part because it would provoke responses from the Shi’ite world, as Emre Akoz warned in Sabah Oct. 11, not to mention from Russia. More to the point, Turkish armed forces entering Syria would have to contend with the newly confident Syrian Kurds, whom the Assad regime has left unmolested, widening the Kurdish conflict. That is the last thing that the Erdoğan government wants to do.

Russia evidently believes that the aspirations of the Syrian Kurds might enhance Moscow’s influence in the region. On Oct. 10, the Voice of Russia quoted Abdel-Hamid Darwish of the Kurdish National Movement in Syria saying that if Syrian-Turkish conflict “does break out, it would push to catastrophe all of the Middle East and the scale of that catastrophe is unpredictable.” In effect, the Russian official media incited the Kurds to admonish Turkey.

Turkey meanwhile is making conciliatory gestures to Kurdish leaders. On the eve of the ruling AKP’s general conference, Prime Minister Erdoğan announced that the imprisoned Kurdish Workers’ Party (PKK) leader Abdullah Ocalan would be released from solitary confinement and allowed family visits. Massoud Barzani, the leader of Iraq’s Kurdish autonomous region, was given a place of honor as a guest at the AKP conference. The Turkish Weekly of Oct. 1 quoted Barzani saying, “We are ready to try our best in order to help Erdoğan stop the bloodshed. Whatever necessary will be done and we are ready to do it. We do think that peace is the only way to understand each other accurately.”

Turkey is hoping that Barzani will mediate between Turkey and the Syrian Kurds, according to the website Timeturk. It also hoped that another prominent guest at the AKP conference, Egyptian President Mohamed Morsi, would help get the Syrian branch of the Muslim Brotherhood to cooperate with Turkish mediation efforts. Turkey’s efforts to date, though, have failed to find support among Syria’s divided rebels.

That leaves Turkey long on rhetoric and short on action, paralyzed in the face of a security threat that, in the medium term, could make the present boundaries of the Turkish state unsustainable. As Ümit Özdag observed in PressTurk on Oct. 10, the imprisoned Ocalan argued as back in 1989 that the Kurds would gradually overpower Turks in the Anatolian peninsula through sheer demographics. That is precisely what Kurdish leaders have in mind today, Özdag argued. “In 2011,” he reports, “a group of representatives from Iraqi Kurdistan met with a think-tank in Ankara. They said, ‘We are going to make Anatolia Kurdish in 100 years, the way that you made Anatolia Turkish a thousand years ago.

It is questionable whether the Kurds have a master plan for the demographic conquest of Anatolia, but Turkish paranoia about the Kurdish population time bomb has a basis in fact. A 2008 study in Population Policy Review concluded:

Fertility levels of Turks and Kurds are significantly different. At current fertility rates, Turkish-speaking women will give birth to an average of 1.88 children during their reproductive years. The corresponding figure is 4.07 children for Kurdish women. Kurdish women will have almost 2 children more than Turkish women…Results show that despite intensive internal migration movements in the last 50 years, strong demographic differentials exist between Turkish and Kurdish-speaking populations, and that the convergence of the two groups does not appear to be a process under way. Turks and Kurds do indeed appear to be actors of different demographic regimes, at different stages of demographic and health transition processes. [i]

The decline of Turkish fertility, along with rapidly falling fertility in all Muslim countries that display high literary rates, is a stealth phenomenon that only recently has drawn widespread attention. I review the data in my book How Civilizations Die and why Islam is Dying, Too (Regnery 2011). More recently, Nicholas Eberstadt and Poorvah Shah reviewed the data in a study in Policy Review. Muslim demographics have important strategic implications for a number of countries. Turkey’s situation, though, is unique in the extreme differences between Turkish-speaking and Kurdish-speaking fertility in Anatolia.

Prime Minister Erdoğan has made the revival of Turkey’s flagging birth rate a major political issue. Zaman reported during last year’s election campaign that he

… lashed out at his chief rival party for promoting birth control for years, reiterating his call for at least three children. Erdoğan, who has long claimed that for a healthy and vibrant society people must have at least three children, said the Western societies are now collapsing because of aging and urged his supporters in a campaign rally in Ankara on Monday not to ‘trap into this game.’ They [the opposition CHP] have inspired this nation with birth control for having aging population on the world stage,” Erdoğan told at the rally, adding that if population continues to increase at this level, Turkey will be among aging nations by 2038.

Erdoğan is focused on a critical weakness that Western analysts for the most part have overlooked. Within one generation, at current rates, half of Turkey’s military-age population will be born in households where Kurdish is the first language. The Turkish government’s hope of integrating the Kurds under the broader Islamic tent have failed, and the new ambitions of Syria’s Kurds expose the underlying weakness of Turkey’s strategic position and the likely effectiveness of its diplomacy.

It also calls into question the presumption that Turkey is America’s critical ally in the region. If Turkey is likely to be the loser on demographic grounds, American planners need to consider alternatives to reliance on Ankara for regional policy. If a Kurdish state is inevitable for demographic and other reasons, America may do best to place an early bet on the winner.

[i] Ismet Koc, Attila Hancioglu and Alanur Cavlin, “Demographic Differentials and Demographic Integration of Turkish and KurdishPopulations in Turkey,” in Population Research and Policy Review, Volume 27, Number 4, pp. 447-457.

David P. Goldman, JINSA Fellow, writes the “Spengler” column for Asia Times Online and the “Spengler” blog at PJ Media. He is also a columnist at Tablet, and contributes frequently to numerous other publications. For more information on the JINSA Fellowship program, click here. For more information on the JINSA Fellowship program, click here.