When Secretary of State John Kerry spoke to a captive audience of State Department employees to defend the U.S. abstention on a UN Security Council Resolution that reversed more than two decades of peace process agreements, he cited as his motivation, in part, demography. “There are a similar number of Jews and Palestinians living between the Jordan River and the Mediterranean Sea,” he said, adding, “They have a choice. They can choose to live together in one state, or they can separate into two states. But here is a fundamental reality: if the choice is one state, Israel can either be Jewish or democratic–it cannot be both.”
On the Arab-Israeli conflict, Kerry got demography wrong. He omitted Israel’s unilateral disengagement from Gaza and seemed not to realize that the Palestinian Authority double counts Israeli Arabs in Jerusalem, refuses to acknowledge population attrition through emigration, and sometimes just makes up its numbers.
That’s only half the irony, however, for part of the Kerry legacy may very be his blindness to the deliberate demographic games being played under his nose in the Middle East.
First, consider Turkey: President Recep Tayyip Erdogan has welcomed millions of Syrian refugees into Turkey, but that’s only half the story. Not every Syrian ends up a registered refugee. In areas that are traditionally Alevi—an offshoot of Shi’ism—Erdogan has offered Turkish citizenship to Sunni Arab refugees. In effect, he seeks to change the demography of provinces like Hatay and Gaziantep to shift permanently the demographic balance in favor of Sunnis over Alevis.
More recently, in the wake of the breakdown of the Turkish-Kurdish peace process, Kurds in Turkey say Erdogan is employing the same strategy in areas of southeastern Anatolia where Kurds have traditionally been the majority. The destruction of Cizre, Sur, Nusaybin, and Sirnak are traditional ethnic cleansing; replacing the Kurdish population with Arabs simply underscores the strategy.
Next, consider Syria. The violence inside Syria has been deliberate, not random. The reason for such fighting around Homs in the initial years of the Syrian civil war was so many ethnic and sectarian groups lived interspersed in and around the city. Some human rights groups have accused Syrian Kurds of engaging in similar ethnic cleansing as they tried to extend a corridor westwards along the Turkish border, a charge the Kurds fiercely deny.
The greatest effort to shift the religious demography have been conducted by Syrian President Bashar al-Assad. Early in the conflict, Assad’s forces cleansed Sunnis from Latakia, traditional home to the Alawis. Subsequently, Assad used his air force to spark the refugee flow that continues to the present day. Before President Obama ordered U.S. aircraft to bomb Islamic State targets in Syria in 2014, the only air force conducting operations over Syria was Assad’s. In the three years in which it had a monopoly over Syrian air space, it did not bomb the Islamic State capital of Raqqa a single time. Instead, Damascus focused on bombing civilians in predominantly Sunni population centers in order to force them to flee. Now, it seems, Assad’s benefactors in Iran hope to make the demographic shift permanent. According to The Guardian, Iran is now settling Shi’ites from Lebanon and Iraq in areas that were once Sunni strongholds but whose population has fled or been forced out.
It’s too bad that the biases and obsessions of Kerry and his inner circle blinded them to reality: There’s a demographic game afoot in the Middle East, but it is not primarily occurring in the West Bank or Israel. Rather, it’s happening in Turkey and Syria, catalyzed indirectly by the very policies—the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps’ disproportionate enrichment as a result of the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action as well as the kid gloves’ treatment of Erdogan–for which Kerry long fought.