In the aftermath of the Arab Spring in 2011, Ahmet Davutoglu, then Turkish minister of foreign affairs and now prime minister, vowed that Turkey would be the “game setter” of the Middle East. Today, such notions of grandeur seem outrageous. After the bombing of a military convoy in Ankara on February 17, which the Turkish government blamed on the Kurdish People’s Protection Units, Davutoglu stated that the latest Kurdish territorial gains in Syria against Islamic rebels such as al Nusra Front—what Turkey calls “moderate” rebels—represent a threat to the “survival of the state” of Turkey. Ankara has apparently felt this way for a while. Since last year, the Turkish army has turned the Kurdish cities in Turkey’s southeast into war zones in its effort to dislodge Kurdish militants who have barricaded themselves in these areas. More recently, Turkey has even started firing on Kurdish forces in northern Syria.
Understanding Turkey’s fears—and its reaction to them—requires a look at the long history of the territory that it covers. The Turkish republic, established in 1923, was built on a weak foundation: throughout its existence, its population has been divided ethnically and along sectarian lines. When we study Anatolia, the peninsula that covers 97 percent of Turkey, we see that it has been difficult to unite. It took two millennia—from antiquity to the Byzantine era—before the adoption of a common language: Greek. It took another thousand years before the Hellenistic majority transformed into a Turkish one (in terms of language) and adopted Islam as its religion. This process began in 1071 when Turkish tribes entered Anatolia after the Seljuk army defeated the Byzantine army in the Battle of Manzikert. Over a few centuries more, indigenous Christians gradually—but largely superficially—converted to Islam, making Anatolia nominally majority Muslim.