"The Demographic Sources of Turkey's Foreign Policy Crisis" -- a new report for JINSA

Mitt Romney had to say it: “Let me step back and talk about what I think our mission has to be in the Middle East and even more broadly, because our purpose is to make sure the world is more — is peaceful. We want a peaceful planet. We want people to be able to enjoy their lives and know they’re going to have a bright and prosperous future, not be at war. That’s our purpose.” Wanting is not getting, though. America also has to be prepared to maneuver in a world in which stability cannot be achieved by any means or at any price.

Last month I warned that Egypt may be ungovernable. One of the pillars of American policy in the region is crumbling beneath us. A second pillar, namely Turkey, is showing cracks. Both the Bush and Obama administrations have groomed Turkey as a key American ally. Turkey can’t be compared to Egypt, to be sure. It is in no danger of near-term instability. But the Syrian crisis points up Turkey’s long-term weakness and its likely inability to fulfill the role that American policy has projected for it.

In a new report for the Jewish Institute for National Security Affairs, where I am a Visiting Fellow, I argue that Turkey’s foreign policy meltdown stems in large part from the country’s Achilles Heel: the rapid growth of its restive Kurdish population. An excerpt:

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.


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.

Read the whole report here.