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.

A map showing Anatolia in 1654.

The ethnic groups and popular religious sects in Anatolia resisted the attempts by successive states to impose centralized control and cultural uniformity through orthodox religion. Until the foundation of Turkey, there had been only two Anatolian states that controlled most of the peninsula: the first was the Hittite Empire in the second millennium BC, and the second was the Turkish Seljuk sultanate from the eleventh to the thirteenth century. The latter succeeded in winning over large parts of the Greek-speaking, Christian peasant population because it did not impose an orthodox religion. That is how the Byzantine Empire lost Anatolia. The principalities in Anatolia also put up a fierce fight against the Ottomans, who conquered the region in the fifteenth century. Still, Anatolia continued to resist the empire's centralization and imposition of religious orthodoxy. In fact, the Ottoman Empire nearly collapsed in the early seventeenth century after a particularly aggressive series of popular uprisings in Anatolia. The revolts were crushed, but the long-standing struggle between the Anatolian provinces and Istanbul has never ended.

The transformation of Anatolia into the heartland of a Turkish nation-state was even bloodier. At the beginning of the twentieth century, a fifth of the population in Anatolia—Armenians, Greeks, and Assyrians—remained Christian. The Ottoman Empire sanctioned genocide against these groups and forced their migration to create a homogeneous country. But even among those who were left, ethnic and religious divisions remained. The Kurds and the Alevis, a heterodox Muslim minority that has been oppressed for centuries, have resisted assimilation. 

The Turkish state, fearful of crumbling, sought to suppress its remaining ethnic minority, the Kurds, by either internally displacing or slaughtering them, as it did in 1931 in Agri province and in 1937 and 1938 in Dersim province. Not surprisingly, the brutal policy failed to bring about national homogeneity. In the 1980s, after staging a coup to crush the ascendant political left the military made a renewed effort to bolster both Turkish nationalism and Sunni Islam as an antidote to leftist ideas. The military regime made religious instruction compulsory and built a mosque in nearly every village that did not already have one. However, the combination of Turkish nationalism and Islamization was not enough to check the rise of secular Kurdish nationalism, which became a serious challenge after the Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK) began its insurrection in 1984.

The moderate Islamist Justice and Development Party (AKP), which came to power in 2002, appeared to be a unifying force for the divided country, since the party appealed to both conservative Turks and conservative Kurds. Its rise suggested that Turkish-Kurdish unity could be secured on the basis of Sunni Islam. In 2012, shortly after the Kurdish region in Syria known as Rojava declared autonomy, the Turkish state began to conduct talks with Abdullah Ocalan, the PKK’s imprisoned leader. These talks bore fruit in 2013, when Ocalan called on his organization to end violence against the Turkish state. By then, around 40,000 people, mostly Kurdish militants, had died in the clashes between the Turkish state and the PKK. The government hoped to secure the PKK’s disarmament without having to make any significant concessions to the Kurds. It thought that the solution to the Kurdish question was to emphasize that the Turks and the Kurds were united by an Islamic “brotherhood.”

Prime Minister Ahmet Davutoglu chats with Chief of Staff General Hulusi Akar while standing near President Tayyip Erdogan, Ankara, Turkey, February 18, 2016.
Umit Bektas / Reuters

Ocalan also evoked the unity of Turks and Kurds, who, he said, had “been marching under the banner of Islam for a thousand years.” Ocalan extended this vision of unity beyond Turkey’s borders, arguing that Turks and Kurds were the “two fundamental strategic elements of the Middle East,” who have a regional mission to unite “Kurds, Turkomans, Assyrians, and Arabs” in Iraq and Syria who had wrongly been separated from Turkey after the end of the Ottoman Empire following World War I. In fact, Ocalan’s vision was very much in line with Turkish goals. A former deputy head of Turkey’s National Intelligence Agency had likewise stated that “Turkey’s settlement of the Kurdish problem [could] bring about changes of the borders and of the map in the region,” which implied that parts of Syria and Iraq, populated by Kurds, might be incorporated into Turkey.

However, the Turkish state elite began to fear that with the new assertiveness of the Kurds in Syria, the PKK was once again a threat. Following the success of the pro-Kurdish Peoples’ Democratic Party in the July 2015 parliamentary elections, the Turkish regime broke off a two-and-a-half-year peace process with the Kurds, and the war between Turkey and the PKK resumed.

The end of this trial Turkish-Kurdish alliance has pushed the AKP closer to its former adversary, the military, which had made its opposition to the peace talks with the PKK well-known. (As late as 2014, it had threatened that if the AKP crossed the military’s “redlines,” which it defined as “the unity of the nation,” the military would “act accordingly.”)  Since then, the government has adopted the Kurdish policy prescribed by the generals. Last year, it transferred responsibility for “counterterrorism efforts”—the AKP considers the Kurds a terrorist group—from the civilian authorities to the armed forces. Nowadays, military commanders and AKP officials speak the same language and pledge to make Turkey exclusively Turkish. For example, President Recep Tayyip Erdogan recently stated, “We are a nation who for a thousand years has always paid the price for living on this land. We know very well that behind what is currently happening is a settling of accounts in this geography that has lasted thousand years.” In a separate statement, the chief of the general staff, General Hulusi Akar, claimed that “Anatolia was inscribed as a Turkish abode with the victory at the Battle of Manzikert on August 26, 1071.” In yet another ethnically charged, defiant proclamation, the country’s top general said that “Turkey is the republic of Turks.”  

It is time that the Turkish leaders end the brutal crackdown on the Kurds and accommodate the Kurds’ demands for local autonomy. The military will oppose this. However, the AKP could overcome the opposition of the military and other hard-line nationalists if it once again reached out to the constituencies—liberal Turks and Kurds—that had helped to bring it to power. Turkey’s leaders must realize that invoking Anatolia’s past means recognizing its history as an ethnically diverse land. The victory in Manzikert that gave Turks an entry into Anatolia did not turn it into a “Turkish abode,” as Turkish nationalists claim. If Turkey looks to its past, it will realize that insisting on imposing homogeneity will not only continue to divide the country but break it in the process.

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  • HALIL KARAVELI is a Senior Fellow at the Central Asia–Caucasus Institute and Silk Road Studies Program’s Joint Center, where he heads the Turkey Initiative. He is also Editor of the Turkey Analyst.
  • More By Halil Karaveli