A few years ago, I had the pleasure of backpacking across Turkish Kurdistan. From the banks of the Euphrates to the birthplace of Abraham, Eastern Anatolia is rich with illustrious culture, and history. Drifting eastward from Batman, my travel partner and I happened upon Hasankeyf — a beautiful Kurdish village on the Tigris, preserved for roughly three millennia. While the villagers were extremely friendly, I sensed an underlying sadness beneath their warmth. As it turns out, this feeling of melancholy stemmed from a recent government decision to construct the Ilisu Dam, which upon completion, will flood the town and push its predominantly Kurdish population into exodus.
The townspeople believe this is being done with deliberate malice, in order to further marginalize the already disenfranchised Kurdish minority. Despite the international community agreeing with these sentiments (all foreign funding, coming from German, Swiss, and Austrian firms was eventually withdrawn from the project), Turkey’s Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan stood firm in his decision, stating defiantly that the construction will continue even if the funding is exclusively internal.
So by 2015, Hasankeyf, one of the oldest continuously inhabited cities in the world, will be submerged in the waters of a hydroelectric dam, whose power will pump back into Ankara, leaving the Kurdish town destroyed and in darkness. Along with Kurdish history, pieces of Armenian history will also perish, as the town of Hasankeyf had an Armenian majority before the Turkish government perpetrated one of the most gruesome and unsung genocides in modern history. This genocide is sandwiched between massacres of Greeks and Assyrians in the early 20th century and the occupation of Cyprus, which persists till today. Given it’s history, seething with belligerence, there’s almost no need to mention the daily comments that come from the country’s leadership which disparages Israel, supports Hamas, and confirms Turkey’s obvious democratic backslide. I don’t mean to spend too much time drumming up history, but it seems depressingly clear that Ankara is incapable of making a decision without being a total jerk about it.
These past weeks and months have been no different. So much of the rise of ISIS can be attributed to Ankara’s totally misguided foreign policy. Turkey’s porous border has become a nexus of ISIS trafficking. It’s how Jihadists come in, and it’s where their stolen oil goes out. The majority of ISIS’s income comes from oil trafficked through Turkey. Turkey won’t even allow the US basing rights from Incirlik, the closest airbase to the conflict, which would allow for more effective bombing of ISIS targets. While Turkey could clamp down on illegal trade and be more cooperative toward the anti-ISIS coalition, it seems Erdogan would rather watch a strong Islamic State, the Assad regime, and an autonomous Kurdish region devour each other.
It seems this week is shaping up to be the culmination of misstep in Turkish foreign policy. Kobanie, a key Kurdish town just a stone’s throw from the Turkish border, is currently under siege by ISIS. If the city falls, it will be a serious setback for both a future autonomous Kurdish state, and the US lead coalition, while serving as a major victory for the Islamic State, and being extremely destabilizing for the region. To meet this daunting challenge, Turkey allows Jihadists to traffic through its porous borders, while at the same time prohibiting Turkish Kurds from crossing the border in order to help their Syrian brethren. Syrian Kurds that came across the Turkish border as refugees, who have not been given food or shelter by the government, are not even permitted to return to their homes in Kobanie in order to defend it.
Instead of being complicit in this potential genocide and contributing to major regional instability, Turkey could support Kobanie and help the city actualize as a part of a future Kurdish autonomous state. After all, 25% of Turkey’s ethnic composition is Kurdish, and Turkey is already developing trade relations with the autonomous region of Iraqi Kurdistan. However, Erdogan would rather see the city fall to extremists, even at the expense of peace talks with its own Kurdish population. Sabri Ozdenmir, Mayor of Batman, and a leader of the Kurdish people in Turkey, said in a recent statement, “If Kobanie falls, the peace process between the government and the Kurds will end.” Unfortunately, it is more likely that Erdogan will let Kobanie go the way of Hasankeyf- flooded and destroyed by ill intention.
As Turkish tanks sit with their barrels pointed toward Kobanie, where almost 40,000 Kurds wage an Alamo-esque fight against ISIS, it’s hard to imagine how a member of NATO, accession candidate to the EU, and a self proclaimed liberal democracy could watch such a massacre unfold. But then I remember that it’s Turkey- and that’s just their style.