Serious future analyses of Turkish security performance over 2013-2016 will have to deal with the reality of the Gülenist presence inside the Turkish state. Then the difficult issue will be to decipher exactly what Gülen’s adherents can or cannot be blamed for. Meanwhile, there is something that most foreign commentators, and certainly those concentrating on security issues, have been neglecting all along: the Turkish security forces are exhibiting a definite, clear-cut learning curve -- on both the individual level and the institutional level.
The previous article (1) broadly summarized the political and security situation that the AKP faced in 2014-2015. Because of the ongoing struggle with Gülen’s cult, with IS/Daesh, and with the PKK, in Turkey those two years were marked by extreme political tension and violence. But neither the Turkish state security forces’ decisive victory over the PKK’s urban guerrillas and militia, nor Demirtaş’s political collapse, nor the repeated electoral victories achieved by the AKP ended the violence. After November 2015, all militant groups persisting in trying to inflict violence on Turkish society continued to demonstrate an ability to detonate explosive-laden vehicles or carry out armed attacks in both Ankara and Istanbul.
So a principal question that has to be answered is why the PKK, the DHKP-C, and IS/Daesh were successfully able to carry out such horrific violence against Turkish society in 2015-2016. Was it because it was facilitated and enabled by Gülen’s supporters in the security forces? Or was it simply incompetence on the part of the Interior Ministry and/or the security forces?
In the wake of the failed 15th July 2016 coup such extremist groups were unable, until December, to perpetrate the sort of violence, in Turkey’s two biggest cities, that they had repeatedly carried out before the coup. And after that last spate of violence in December 2016-January 2017, all such groups have once again gone to the ground -- even though we know that they have not reneged on their ideological determination to harm Turkish citizens and security forces.
Süleyman Soylu replaced Efkan Ala as Interior Minister in late-August 2016, since when we have observed a much more aggressive profile in security activities, especially during the winter months. But Soylu did not become Interior Minister until more than a month after the failed coup, and also after the Euphrates Shield operation was initiated in Northern Syria. Euphrates Shield removed IS/Daesh from proximity to the Turkish border, which both made it more difficult for Daesh to smuggle its operatives over the border, and abruptly ended Daesh missile and mortar attacks on Turkish territory. For those reasons, Soylu cannot be given sole credit for curbing the activities of these violent organizations.
International observers, and even some foreign security services, have expressed surprise that the Turkish government was able to begin purging suspected Gülenist elements from state institutions so quickly after the failed 15th July military coup. For example, a good amount of ink was devoted to claiming that President Erdoğan already had “lists” of people to purge – this was then used to imply yet again that the coup had been staged all along.
Frankly, as someone who has lived through the last four years in Turkey, it is not possible for me to take such uninformed attitudes seriously. In fact, purges of the police and juridical staff shuffling began immediately after the December 2013 corruption cases. And foreign media did report on those events -- how could they forget? Really, if the AKP hadn’t begun to put together lists of possible Gülenist infiltrators in the army and the bureaucracy, it would have been tantamount to dereliction of duty. The AKP should all along have been trying to identify and weed out people who had already exposed themselves as a threat to Turkey’s democracy. At the same time, as Yıldıray Oğur has been patiently explaining (2), Gülen’s adherents had come to dominate certain key sub-sectors of the Turkish security forces (such as army personnel departments) so thoroughly that efforts to identify and expel Gülen’s people evolved only with great difficulty. This is why the government seems to have had only limited success in this regard in 2014-2015.
Consequently, serious future analyses of Turkish security performance over 2013-2016 will have to deal with the reality of the Gülenist presence inside the Turkish state. Then the difficult issue will be to decipher exactly what Gülen’s adherents can or cannot be blamed for. But my guess is that the situation is akin to an iceberg -- the true dimensions of the problem are not yet visible.
Furthermore, I want to suggest something that most foreign commentators, and certainly those concentrating on security issues, have been neglecting all along: the Turkish security forces are exhibiting a definite, clear-cut learning curve. And this learning curve exists on both the individual level and the institutional level. On the staff and individual level, Turkish security forces are gradually becoming more and more professional. This trend had already begun in the past decade -- despite Gülenist influence in the police. I expect the trend to continue and deepen now that Gülen’s moles are being expelled from positions of influence.
Secondly, Turkish security institutions are also part of this trend. Again, even before the failed coup, Turkish security forces had shown greater capacity to effectively counter the PKK than had been the case in the past. Especially the urban warfare initiated by the PKK in July 2015 was a test entirely different than what the Turkish military had previously encountered. The PKK used methods developed by IS/Daesh in Syria and Iraq, using trenches and barriers to hinder an attacking force’s advance, IEDs to make imprudent advance deadly, and tunnels that function as a different, even more unpredictable type of sally port. The PKK further deployed conventional weapons like Kalashnikov assault rifles and RPGs to wield firepower over this “prepared” space. But notably, the Turkish security forces effectively ended the PKK’s self-declared “autonomous zones” in six months.
Similar techniques were then used against Daesh, in conjunction with the Free Syrian Army, during Operation Euphrates Shield in Northern Syria. Daesh added explosives-laden moving vehicles and drones to the hazards faced by Turkish soldiers. Despite nasty comments from the Pentagon -- given anonymously to a conservative newspaper, of course (3) -- Operation Euphrates Shield quickly rolled back Daesh from a large swath of territory and uprooted it from the heavily-defended Al-Bab (see the banner picture above).
Meanwhile, in Iraq, the U.S.-backed effort to free Mosul drags on. The no-fly/safe zone that once again became a topic after Trump bombed the Al Shayrat airport used by the Syrian regime for chemical weapons strikes? Turkey has already established it, all by herself. So we should not forget that many Turkish soldiers sacrificed life and limb in efforts against the PKK or Daesh that most others were busy denigrating. A further point is that Turkey received essentially no aid from the U.S., the E.U. or others while accomplishing these military operations.
But in terms of domestic politics, security is now a topic that the AKP is entirely responsible for. If the constitutional amendments pass this Sunday’s referendum, we shall be entering a new phase or situation where (starting in 2019) the president will also be responsible for appointing all ministers and other top-ranking functionaries. The “tutelage” or “caretaker establishment” created by the Turkish “historical bloc” will have had all political reins taken from its hands. With Gülen’s cult also declining as an institutional force, responsibility will be falling entirely on the shoulders of President Erdoğan and the AKP. This will herald an era when ministers (or their own appointed subordinates) should be expected to resign if they fail to competently conduct their responsibilities.
- The struggle against Gülen’s cult after December 2013 (9) 05.04.2017
- Latent or leftover Marxism in the Turkish opposition (3) 29.03.2017
- Latent or leftover Marxism in the Turkish political opposition (2) 20.03.2017
- Latent or leftover Marxism in the Turkish political opposition (1) 15.03.2017
- For the record (4) Turkey’s or America’s interests are not Russia’s interests 07.03.2017
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