Over the past decade or so, several states have invested increasing resources into building walls and fences along their borders. One might think that the leaders of the pack would be authoritarian regimes; however, several liberal democracies, including India, Israel and the USA, are barrier builders.
How things have changed from the 1990s, when everyone appeared to be championing the globalisation of cultures and regions. There was no shortage of commentators predicting the ‘end of geography’ and the declining importance of boundaries. The expansion of the EU to include Central and Eastern European states consolidated this sense of territorial homogenisation. Although the 11 September 2001 attacks on the USA weren’t the pivotal event, they contributed to a shift in the geopolitical zeitgeist. Suddenly, territorial borders were the focus of anxieties about the control and regulation of mobility (of people, objects and even ideas).
Within this context, Turkey has experienced ongoing anxiety in relation to Kurdish nationalism and the activities of the Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK), which is considered to be a terrorist organisation by the USA and the EU. Under the banner of the so-called War on Terror, the Turkish parliament has encouraged the USA to act against PKK training camps in northern Iraq and has consequently approved border crossings by the US military.
This context matters because in November last year, it was reported that Turkey was building a new wall along its border with Syria. Since civil war engulfed Syria in March 2011, large numbers of civilians have fled the country and been housed in refugee camps within Turkey.
The Syria–Turkey borderlands are tense, and to this day, Syria disputes Turkey’s annexation of Hatay Province during the late 1930s. Syrian support of the PKK and the Armenian Secret Army for the Liberation of Armenia also contributes to Turkey’s view that the Syrian state sponsors terrorism. Relations were strained again recently when Syrian forces fired at rebel positions that were on the Turkish side of the border.
Without consulting local communities, Turkish workers began constructing a two-metre-high wall close to the 80,000-strong town of Nusaybin in southeastern Turkey. The town is adjacent to the border and is separated from the Syrian city of Al-Qamishli by a thin strip of land replete with the customary barbed wire and landmines.
While the Turkish government has cited ‘security reasons’ and the control of smuggling and illegal crossings as motives for constructing the wall, according to its critics, it’s actually designed to divide the cross-border Kurdish population. Local people have engaged in protests and Nusaybin’s mayor has complained of a ‘wall of shame’ and engaged in a hunger strike. Kurdish communities on both sides of the border point to the presence of landmines as evidence that any border crossing is already inherently dangerous.
What is clear is that this security wall is unlikely to improve Kurdish–Turkish relations, which have been largely characterised by conflict and tension extending over 30 years. For Kurdish supporters, the wall is a provocation and one that is geographically selective.
Although hostile to Kurdish ‘terrorism’, the Turkish government has been willing to support insurgent groups in Iraq and Syria. It has been accused of supporting the Al-Nusra Front, which remains an active participant in the campaign to dislodge the Assad regime in Syria.
The front is also accused of attacking Kurdish villages in Syria. The most notorious attack was in late July and early August last year; human rights activists suspect that as many as 450 Kurdish civilians were massacred. This has led to Turkey being accused of using a terrorist proxy to suppress Kurdish communities in Syria. Unsurprisingly, Syrian Kurds have fled across the border to Turkey; concerns have also been expressed about who and what (specifically weapons) is heading across the border in the other direction.
So the wall project isn’t simply a matter for the cross-border community close to Nusaybin. It’s also a portal to understanding how states on the one hand attempt to secure their borders through walls and fences and on the other are prepared to violate the sovereignty of other states.
Kurdish communities directly affected by the wall-building project have called for the construction to stop and for the barbed wire and landmines to be cleared. Paradoxically, security projects such as these often encourage the very thing that the initiating governments are keen to prevent, namely smuggling and illegal crossings. But the wall, the barbed wire and the landmines continue to divide families and communities and, as such, will remain a source of frustration and anger.
This story was published in the January 2014 edition of Geographical Magazine