Turkey’s Demographic Winter and Erdogan’s Duplicity with Europe
Turkish president Recep Tayyip Erdogan plays every side of every issue — from Turkey's standing with the UN to population control.
Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan demanded that Turkish women abandon contraception in a televised address May 30, Reuters reported. “We will multiply our descendants. They talk about population planning, birth control. No Muslim family can have such an approach,” Erdogan said. The Turkish leader has denounced Turkish women for refusing to have more babies on many earlier occasions.
Erdogan has played every side of every issue, alternately courting and rejecting the European Union, claiming the United States as an ally against ISIS while aiding the terrorist army on the sly, succoring Hamas while proposing to rebuild relations with Israel, helping Iran run sanctions while claiming the Gulf States as Sunni allies. Christina Lin catalogued his double-dealings in a May 31 news analysis .
When he talks about Turkey’s failing demographics, though, Erdogan is speaking from the heart. Turkey’s Kurdish citizens continue to have three or four children while ethnic Turks have fewer than two. By the early 2040s, most of Turkey’s young people will come from Kurdish-speaking homes. The Kurdish-majority Southeast inevitably will break away. Erdogan’s hapless battle against the inevitable motivates the sometimes bewildering twists and turns of Turkish policy.
A review of the recently-released 2015 population data shows that the demographic scissors between Kurds and Turks continues to widen. Despite Erdogan’s exhortations on behalf of Turkish fertility, the baby bust in Turkish-majority provinces continues while Kurds sustain one of the world’s highest birth rates. Even worse, the marriage rate outside of the Kurdish Southeast of the country has collapsed, portending even lower fertility in the future.
According to Turkstat, the official statistics agencies, the Turkish provinces with the lowest fertility rates all cluster in the north and northwest of the country, where women on average have only 1.5 children. The southeastern provinces show fertility rates ranging between 3.2 and 4.2 children per female.
Even more alarming are Turkey’s marriage statistics as reported by Turkstat. Between 2001 and 2015, the number of marriages in Istanbul, the country’s largest city, fell by more than 30%, and by more than 40% in the capital Ankara. Most of the northern and northwestern provinces report a decline of more than half in the number of marriages. Not only are Turkish women refusing to have children; they are refusing to get married. The plunge in the marriage rate among ethnic Turks makes a further sharp decline in fertility inevitable.
As I reported in my 2011 book Why Civilizations Die (and Why Islam is Dying, Too), Muslim countries that achieve a high rate of adult literacy jump from infancy to senescence without passing through adulthood. Like their Iranian, Algerian and Tunisian counterparts, Turkish women reject the constraints of Muslim family life as soon as they obtain a high school education. The shock of sudden passage from traditional society into the modern world has produced the fastest-ever fall in fertility rates in the Muslim world.
Iran, whose fertility rate fell from 7 children per female in 1979 to less than 1.8 today, has the fastest-aging population of any country in the world. Turkey has an average total fertility rate of 2.18, or just at replacement, but the split between ethnic Turks and ethnic Kurds will make Turkey’s present geographic configuration untenable.
The Kurds’ courage and military prowess leave Turkey in a quandary. Any effective action against ISIS enhances the Kurds’ political standing and advances the day when they will have their own state including the northwest of Iraq and the southeast of Turkey, as well as the southwest corner of Iran and a large swath of northern Syria. But Turkey cannot abandon the NATO alliance, which stands as a guarantor of its territorial integrity. It has no choice but to play both sides, playing the public role of an alliance member while covertly sabotaging the effort to destroy ISIS.
That is the origin of the present refugee crisis.
From the start of the present refugee wave this summer, European security services have blamed Turkey for provoking the migration crisis. Last August the Daily Telegraph showed that Turkey’s electronic visa system allowed instant access to Turkey for migrants from 89 countries, as long as the travelers use Turkey’s national airlines. Migrants required no proof of identity to obtain a visa, and were subject to virtually no controls on arrival at Istanbul.
Whether Turkey opened its borders to boost the revenues of its national airlines, or planned to employ the migrants as a bargaining chip from the beginning, is unclear. But Turkey’s President Tayyip Recep Erdogan long since worked out that Turkey’s position as a valve in the great migration gives it enormous bargaining power with Berlin. In return for the promise of 6 billion Euros and visa-free travel in Europe for holders of Turkish passports, Erdogan has closed off the border to migrants — which implies that he might have done so a year ago when the migrant wave peaked.
Europe and the Gulf States, meanwhile, have stepped up their lending to the Turkish economy, which has incubated a consumer debt bubble worse than the 2008 subprime problem in the United States, as I documented on April 29. Erdogan’s popular support depends on the free flow of credit, especially in commercial construction and private housing. A financial reckoning would make his position untenable, and the Europeans and Sunni Gulf States are at pains to prop him up.
The West has chosen to give Erdogan all the slack he wants, which leaves the Levant and Mesopotamia in a state of permanent civil war. May 19 marked the centenary of the Sykes-Picot agreement under which France and Britain carved up the Middle East into spheres of influence, respectively controlling Syria and Iraq. The imperialists who imposed their maps on the Middle East did not have the welfare of the region in mind, but they did accomplish one important thing. They stabilized the region for nearly a century.
In a 2012 essay for Asia Times, I consulted the ghost of Cardinal Richelieu (metaphorically, of course) for an explanation of why Sykes-Picot had worked so well for so long. The Cardinal explained:
It is a simple exercise in logique. You had two Ba’athist states, one in Iraq and one in Syria. Both were ruled by minorities. The Assad family came from the Alawite minority Syria and oppressed the Sunnis, while Saddam Hussein came from the Sunni minority in Iraq and oppressed the Shi’ites.
It is a matter of calculation — what today you would call game theory. If you compose a state from antagonistic elements to begin with, the rulers must come from one of the minorities. All the minorities will then feel safe, and the majority knows that there is a limit to how badly a minority can oppress a majority. That is why the Ba’ath Party regimes in Iraq and Syria — tyrannies founded on the same principle — were mirror images of each other.
What happens if the majority rules?, I asked.
The moment you introduce majority rule in the tribal world, the cardinal replied, you destroy the natural equilibrium of oppression.
That is precisely what the Bush administration did in 2007 by foisting majority (that is, Shi’ite) rule upon Iraq. As Angelo Codevilla explained, the Sunnis responded by fighting to the death. Their rebellion against the Shi’ite majority was postponed by then-US commander Gen. David Petraeus, who hired them to be the “Sons of Iraq” and the “Sunni Awakening.” Without a permanent US occupation force, Iraq and Syria inevitably devolved into civil war.
Whether the continued oppression of majorities by minorities might have kept Syria and Iraq stable for another century is a matter of pure conjecture. The world of Sykes-Picot is forever gone and cannot be restored.
The only way to end the permanent civil war is on the model of the former Yugoslavia: create ethnic and confessional enclaves where Sunnis, Shi’ites, Christians, Kurds, Druze and others will be safe from those who wish to exterminate them. Devolution is simply the next-to-worst solution, but it is the only one that will reduce the pace of killing. And it would not affect the flow of economic migrants from Pakistan or sub-Saharan Africa. It would be messy, with a lot of population transfers, but it is a lot better than mass extermination.
There is, however, one insuperable obstacle to the creation of such enclaves, and that is Turkey. The first and most viable such enclave would be a Kurdish state. Turkey is violently opposed to a Kurdish State, which inevitably would carve off a large chunk of its own southeast.
Nonetheless, there has to be a fall guy, just like in the detective novel, and Turkey is the sole candidate for the position. A humanitarian solution in the region requires putting Turkey in its place. Instead, Washington and Berlin have given President Erdogan the wherewithal to strut and posture for some time to come. And that will keep the region at war indefinitely.
Originally published May 31, 2016, at Asia Times. Republished with permission.