The Reconstruction of the Southeast and Turkey’s War in Syria

by Robert Olson

Turkey’s Prime Minister Binali Yildirim said on September 4 that Turkey would make a massive investment of $3.4 billion to rehabilitate the heavily Kurdish-populated southeast. The inclusion of substantial economic incentives could push the total package to $140 billion over the coming years. The plan has the support of some of Turkey’s largest companies. Vast swathes of the southeast, including the historical center of Sur in Diyarbakir province, were destroyed in the war that erupted in July 2015. Damage to buildings and infrastructure has been estimated at $10 billion, and the state nationalized 9,000 house and properties.

Yildirim’s announcement came as Turkey is engaged more deeply in the war against the Islamic State (ISIS or IS) and the People’s Protection Units (YPG), the armed force of the Kurdish Democratic Union Party (PYD).

The investment plan is five or six billion dollars less than former Prime Minister Ahmet Davutoglu’s “action plan” announced in the southeast city of Mardin on February 5. The reconstruction was part of a strategy to incorporate the governors, all belonging to the Justice and Development Party (AKP), into a more effective communication and surveillance network tied to the National Intelligence Agency (MIT).

Davutoglu was forced from office in May, so his plan was never implemented. Turkey’s general election in June, then another election in November, and the ongoing war with the Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK) prevented any further chance of implementing reconstruction in the southeast. After Davutoglu’s resignation, the AKP government felt a pressing need to address the hardships facing an estimated 350,000 to 400,000 people displaced by the ongoing fighting with the PKK.

In July, Development Minister Lutfi Elvan said that the government would “introduce big changes” in its regional development strategy that would include other provinces in addition to those in the “problem-free” (meaning PKK-free) southeast. The government would provide companies with interest-free loans to boost the regional economy in an effort to reach a 4.5 percent growth rate for the entire country. Elvan was especially interested in revitalizing the livestock industry, which had been devastated by the earlier conflict between the state and the PKK in the 1990s that resulted in the flight of an estimated 3 million Kurds from the area. Elvan said the government would move to prevent further migration. The government would build factories free for any business groups or individuals that agreed to move from Istanbul to the east and southeast regions. Elvan promised a reduction in bureaucratic taxes and the costs of setting up new factories.

Yildirm, meanwhile, announced the latest economic package in Diyarbakir, the largest and most important city in the region, which also has extensive economic and trading relations with the Kurdistan Region Government (KRG), especially the Kurdistan Democratic Party (KRG), headed by Massoud Barzani, a strong ally of President Erdogan. Yildirim stressed that the first $3.4 billion would be invested in the seven districts— Sur, Shirnak, Silopi, Idil, Cizre, Yuksekova, and Nusaybin—most severely damaged during the war (mostly by the Turkish armed forces). The agency responsible for the reconstruction will be the Mass Housing Administration, which is closely tied to the AKP and which has privatized an estimated $47 billion worth of properties over the last decade. The AKP has used much of these funds to cover budget deficits.

Yildirm also promised that the government would build new soccer stadiums in Diyarbakir, Malatya, and Batman. Building huge soccer stadiums has been a key Turkish government strategy to counter the appeal of Kurdish nationalist movements in the southeast and east. He said that 15 new hospitals would be built along with 67,000 houses but did not say how people would pay mortgages or rent. Importantly, he said, “the state would deliver food and clothes, provide education, shelter and transportation to citizens who have suffered from the clashes: We will build 10 factories in eight of the 23 cities every year.”

The prime minister ended his talk by saying that the war against the PKK would continue: “In the year of 2015, the number of youngsters joining the PKK was 4,000. It has dropped to 400 this year. This number will be zero. That’s why they [PKK] are in panic. They can’t find youngsters to die.”

The government announced its plan to rehabilitate the southeast as Turkey’s army and Turkish-backed forces invaded Syria to weaken and, if allowed by the U.S., to destroy the YPG as an effective fighting force. The weakening of the YPG would also weaken the PKK and its political arm, Kurdistan Communities Union (KCK). Turkey sees the PKK/KCK and the PYD/YPG as Turkey’s biggest national security threat.

Yildirm’s rehabilitation program indicates that Turkey, its newly nationalist armed forces, and the AKP might be able to contain the PKK/KCK effectively enough through a large coalition of the ultra-nationalist National Action Party (MHP), a flaccid Republican People’s Party (CHP), Village Guards, anti-PKK and religiously conservative Kurds, and the AKP-voting Kurdish bourgeoisie. The strategy depends as well on an acquiescent judiciary, an enfeebled news media, an increasingly authoritative state, a timid EU, and a dysfunctional U.S. The plan also suggests that Turkey is in a stronger position to take advantage of the war in Syria to advance its geopolitical interests in the region at the expense of Kurdish nationalists.

Photo: Binali Yildirim

Robert Olson

Robert Olson is Professor of Middle East history and politics at the University of Kentucky (Emeritus). He is the author of ten books of various aspects of Middle East history and politics. His major books are: The Siege of Mosul and Ottoman- Persian Relations: 1718-1743; The Emergence of Kurdish Nationalism and the Sheikh Said Rebellion: 1880-1925; Turkey's Relations with Iran, 1979-2004;The Kurdish Question and Turkish-Iranian Relations:From World I to 2000; Blood, Beliefs and Ballots: The Management of Kurdish Nationalism in Turkey, 2007-2000; The Kurdish Nationalist Movements in Turkey: 1980-2011; The Goat and the Butcher: Nationalism and State Formation in Kurdistan-Iraq since the Iraqi War War. He is the author of 75 referred research articles and 60 edited research articles. He was distinguished Professor of the University of Kentucky in 2000. He is married and lives in Lexington, Kentucky.


One Comment

  1. I don’t think investment is really the issue. If the Turkish state would stop trying to ban the Kurds’ culture, language, traditions, education, would stop burning them in their homes and shooting their kids with snipers, would stop arresting their politicians, lawyers and journalists, and would stop trying to islamise them into salafism, that would be a start…

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