Security Challenges Faced by Turkey!

Turkey chapter discusses the security implications of the failed coup plot, the underlying dynamics of the PKK insurgency and IS militancy and the government’s response to these twin security challenges.

Post-coup commentary has focused primarily on the bitter feud between President Recep Tayyip Erdogan and the reclusive Pennsylvania-based Muslim cleric, Fethullah Gulen. That’s unsurprising, in the light of the Turkish Government’s allegation that Gulen had a central role in the coup plot.

However, this oversimplifies the coup by sheeting it home to the relationship between two consequential personalities while ignoring the deep polarisation in Turkish society as its root cause. Recent opinion polls reveal the extent to which ideological, sectarian and ethnic divisions bedevil Turkish politics and society.

Turkey’s botched coup and its aftermath have occurred at a time of a rising PKK insurgency and IS militancy. Wholesale changes to the military, intelligence apparatus and security forces have raised concerns over the country’s readiness to counter security threats, whether from Kurdish nationalism or Islamist militancy.

Turkey’s secular–religious and Turkish–Kurdish cleavages created the enabling environment for the botched coup. Putschists sought to exploit fractures in society and visceral feelings towards Erdogan but underestimated the overwhelming popular preference for electoral politics over military intervention.

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For example, according to a 2015 survey by the German Marshall Fund, a US think tank, 74% of respondents won’t allow their children to play with children whose parents support a different political party.1 The survey also indicates that backers of the ruling Islamist-rooted Justice and Development Party (AKP) and those of the opposition parties hold diametrically opposite views on confidence in democracy and state institutions.

Equally, polls indicate the glaring dividing lines between Turkish and Kurdish nationalisms. In a 2015 survey, Ali Carokoglu—a leading political science professor in Turkey—found that the majority of Turks and Kurds don’t see eye to eye on policies to resolve the Kurdish question.2 Moreover, that survey demonstrated that 60% of voters for Turkish parties believe that the Kurdish political movement’s ultimate aim is an independent Kurdish state, whereas only 33% of pro-Kurdish Peoples’ Democracy Party (HDP) voters hold that opinion.

Turkey’s secular–religious and Turkish–Kurdish cleavages created the enabling environment for the botched coup. Putschists sought to exploit fractures in society and visceral feelings towards Erdogan but underestimated the overwhelming popular preference for electoral politics over military intervention. Societal disunity breeds volatility and instability, which can only be addressed by adopting a more conciliatory political tone and implementing democratic and secular reforms.

However, post-coup policies seem to be exacerbating social tensions. Large swathes of the Turkish population disapprove of official attempts to use the coup to rewrite the national identity of Turkey in a more conservative and religious direction and to consolidate power in a centralised executive presidency by the middle of 2017. So far, Erdogan has been governing by presidential decree under a highly controversial state of emergency.

Similarly contentious is the government’s aim to increase civilians’ political, as opposed to democratic, control and oversight over the military, intelligence and security apparatus. Among the changes is that the president and prime minister will be able to issue orders directly to the commanders of Turkey’s land, air and sea forces, thereby reducing the Chief of Staff to the role of coordinator. Erdogan has appointed 61 new police chiefs in Turkey’s 81 provinces and assigned 51 police chiefs to central departments that play an important part in CT activities. Many of the appointees are quite young, nationalistic, relatively inexperienced and fiercely loyal to the political leadership and the state.

Security experts fear that the structural overhaul of the armed forces and mass dismissals of mid-ranking and senior officers will undermine the military’s institutional integrity, intensify the rivalry between the branches and create a more restive officer corps. They are concerned that, coupled with the restructuring of the intelligence and security forces, this may significantly affect the state’s capability to combat the PKK insurgency and IS militancy.

So far, the intensity of these two security challenges is being suppressed by the progressive erection of the concrete wall along the entire Turkey–Syria border, Turkey’s greater adoption of UAVs, the military operations in northern Syrian and the Iraqi and US coalition campaigns against IS strongholds in Iraq and Syria. Yet, those tactics merely tackle the symptoms and not the root cause: the political polarisation and ideological cleavages plaguing Turkish politics and society. Without solving those problems, the most likely long-term scenario for Turkey is the stubborn persistence of its security challenges. [Continue]

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