War and Peace in Turkey: From the attack on Syria’s border to the PKK’s retreat
Giuseppe Didonna 3 June 2013

The Hatay is an area that, when looking at a map clearly appears to be a part of Syria, but in reality belongs to Turkey since the 1939 referendum when the inhabitants of the region chose Ankara instead of Damascus as its capital. As soon as the Syrian-spring started, the Hatay region became a safe haven for approximately 200,000 refugees though now the perspective of a contamination by the Syrian civil war has stirred up debate and worry in the Turkish public opinion.

Even though there is no connection between these two events, they represent the main factors of the fast and radical changes along the 1300km Turkish southern border. In order to get a better understanding of what is going on in that particular area, I will attempt to clarify and simplify the issue by dividing the southern border in three different areas: the Kurdish-Iraqi area, the Kurdish Syrian area and the Hatay area.

The Turkish-Iraqi border

In the last years, the Hakkari and Sirnak provinces have been the setting for the most violent and deadly clashes between the Turkish army and the PKK guerrillas. This tragic situation has been facilitated by the back drop of a mountainous territory, well known by the guerrillas and at the same time, difficult for Turkish soldiers to effectively monitor.. Nestled in this area is the village of Uludere, where only one and a half years ago, thirty three civilians were killed by the Turkish air force because they were mistaken for members of the PKK simply because they were walking in a line through a narrow path of a mountain slope. Starting from the first week of May, the Iraqi border became the stage for the PKK’s retreat toward their main hubs nestled in the Kandil mountains. It was a silent retreat, without taking off the kalashnikov from their shoulders, because after a conflict that lasted 28 years conflict “you never know”. More than a truce, the first step towards a peace process that is presumed to end in October, regardless if it is successful or not, will represent a historic turn for both Turkish and Kurdish people. In conclusion, after decades, the Iraqi border has not experienced any conflict.

The Turkish-Syrian border

I shall make reference to approximately 600 of the 900 kilometers of border line which Turkey shares with Syria. An area that is almost completely flat, it was the setting for an appeasement which started in 1968, just after Hafez al Assad (Bashar’s father) signed an agreement with the Turkish government in Antalya. Al Assad actions were aimed to deny logistic support to the PKK which he considered to be a terrorist organization.

In the initial aftermath of the Syrian spring, this equilibrium fell apart. Assad allowed the Syrian branch of the PKK, PYD, together with other minor Kurdish groups, to administer and monitor their own territory in order to avoid that Syrian Kurds would join the opposition movements fighting against him. Moreover, Assad was fully aware that this change would have caused a raise on the PKK’s activity, as a consequence of the Kurdish network’s extension along the southern border of Turkey.

This Assad’s indirect revenge expanded the stage for Turkey-PKK warefare and as a consequence the death toll in the conflict increased in 2012, reaching 700 – the highest number of bloodshed since 1999. However, the peace process involving the PKK of course involved this area as well. The PYD is currently occupied in managing an autonomy that was absolutely unpredictable just three years ago, and is responsible for a territory that currently represents one of the most stable areas in Syria. Indeed, there stability is a key factor for carrying out a positive peace process involving their PKK Turkish cousins.

Hatay’s border

The Hatay region shares the western border with the Mediterranean Sea, the southern with Alevi-Nusayri area of Syria, and the eastern with Arab-Siria (not Kurd). In the last two years almost 200,000 refugees left Syria and have reached this region where the refugee camps are in deplorable conditions and on the verge of collapsing. This first factor played a crucial role in the increased tension in the area. Moreover, the 52 people who died in the Reyhanli explosions certified a radical change, considering that for the 28 years of Turkish-Kurd conflict, this region has been considered the most stable along the border. At the same time the explosions in Reyhanli constitute the bloodiest event in Turkish territory since 1968. Fifty two victims in Reyhanli, 14 in Cilvegozu in February of this year and 8 in Gaziantep last August. Numbers confirming beyond a doubt that if there is a risk of a new frontline, it will most likely be open in this area across the Turkish southern border..

What happens in Turkey

The Prime Minister Erdoğan and the Minister of Foreign Affairs Davutoğlu have been strongly criticized in the aftermath of the attack in Reyhanli. . Davutoğlu has addressed the substantial failure of the “zero problems with neighbours” doctrine. Indeed the same Minister of Foreign Affairs has been the first one providing an official version of the results of the first investigationto be the fault of an Alawi-Nusayris militia, the same twelve Shia sect of Assad’s family, with the approval of Assad’s secret service . According to what Davutoğlu said, this same militia is also responsible for an ethnic cleansing in the city of Banyas wherein an undisclosed number of sunnis people have been killed in the perspective of a creation of a Nusraytis small state, in case Siria splits. This last circumstance is supported by the presence of the Russian navy base located in Tartus, just 35 kilometers south of Banyas.

On the other side, the Prime Minister recently made a diplomatic visit to Washington to meet with President Obama. Moreover, just before leaving Turkey, Erdoğan “inspired” the decision of the Court carrying out the investigation on the attack to forbid any reportage, picture or footage from Reyhanli. As a consequence of this prohibition, a great part of the public opinion openly protested, accusing Erdoğan of denying the right to information in order to curb any loss of consent that necessarily invested him and his party. Upon his return from the USA, the Prime Minister announced that he will visit Reyhanli as soon as possible. Turkey is now waiting to see if he will provide explanations or if this visit will be just an opportunity for him to launch a demagogic speech in order to gain the consent he needs to change the Constitution, realizing reforms that will allow him to run for the presidency of Republic in a new French inspired style of governance.