Still serious about that wall, Mr. President?
The United States has a 3,300-km border with Mexico. President Donald Trump ran on a campaign promise to build a “big beautiful wall” along it, and though he seems less enthusiastic about it these days, he still hasn’t backed away from the project.
Turkey in this regard, is well ahead of its American ally. We have already covered more than half our 911-km Syrian border with a wall. It’s reinforced concrete, with watchtowers, patrols and military vehicles driving up and down the thing. This could be a good talking point when Erdoğan meets Trump this week. “Still serious about that wall thing, Mr. President? Let me tell you how right you are, and why we are building ours.” It’s sure to resonate more than that obvious line about the People’s Protection Units (YPG)/Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK) being a terrorist organization. Why?
Let me start with the wall. Turkey has already completed 61 percent of the Syrian border wall. The construction has been undertaken by the Housing Administration of Turkey (TOKİ), which has experience in creating cities out of concrete in a manner of months. In the past, Turkish companies even contributed to the Israeli wall around Palestine. Criticize the Turkish economy all you want, but nobody can dispute our skill and speed when it comes to pouring cement.
More than that, we have a reason in building the Syrian wall. And that reason, I presume, will resonate with what President Trump has been saying about “bad hombres passing through the border illegally coming to our side to do bad things.” The “bad hombres” in Syria are a security threat not just to Turkey, but to Europe as well.
Unlike Trump, Erdoğan cannot make the Syrians pay for his wall. Lucky for him, he also doesn’t have an opposition breathing down his neck about budget discipline. But why isn’t Turkey getting money from the Europeans? The wall is critical to European security, and might even weaken Turkey’s hand in future migration deals with the EU. No one is talking about that, probably due to the grave security threats at play. Turkey feels the threat and does its utmost to prevent terror attacks, and the Israeli experience shows that walls are an effective anti-terror mechanism.
Yet this does not mean that the YPG/PKK angle is unimportant, especially on the centenary of the Sykes-Picot agreement. Turkey is the remnant of an empire that crumbled in the early 20th century. This is a country of migrants from all Ottoman lands. Our founding fathers were officers of an imperial army, and inscribed their existential angst into the DNA of the republic.
This existential angst became overbearing not once but three times in modern Turkish history. In the first case, Turkey tore up the 1920 Treaty of Sèvres with the 1923 Treaty of Lausanne, setting up the republic against all odds. In the second case, Turkey acquired the province of Hatay in 1938, taking a bite out of Sykes-Picot. This it did peacefully. The third was the Turkish military excursion into Cyprus in 1974.
Turkey has been a NATO member since 1952, entrusting its security to its allies. When the Syrian Civil War hit, Turkey’s psyche was still the same, despite its lately diminished planning capacity. The result has been a gaping security deficit, a PKK state on Turkey’s border, and a deep crack running down the country’s most important alliance. But the border wall is part of the solution. It’s about regaining control, and containing the YPG/PKK.
President Trump likes big construction projects, and he respects strength. I think the Turkish team has a lot to work with here.