When smugglers were mistaken for militants in southeastern Turkey on December 28, 2011, a Turkish air raid killed 35 civilians who were carrying fuel across the Turkish-Iraqi border near the village of Ortasu, in the Uludere district. In the following days, media reports hinted that the Milli Istihbarat Teskilati (MIT – Turkey’s national intelligence organization) might have provided the military with misleading information in relation to the nature of expected movements across the border, resulting in the military’s mistaken threat assessment. The operation was launched after the smugglers were mistaken for militants belonging to the Partiya Karkeren Kurdistan (PKK), whose members generally infiltrate Turkey from northern Iraq using the same routes (Hurriyet, December 29, 2011). In an attempt to cast light on the incident, the Turkish General Staff released a statement which reported that an unmanned aerial vehicle (UAV) belonging to the Turkish Army spotted a group of people trying to cross the Turkish-Iraqi border from the Iraqi side at 06:39 PM, and that Turkish F-16 jet fighters carried out the subsequent air strike between 09:37 and 10:24 PM after the group failed to respond to warning shots and signals (Today’s Zaman, December 29, 2011).
Right after the incident, Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan seemed to be buying time while trying to come up with an explanation, stating that the operation was carried out on the basis of information MIT provided in the previous weeks, but that MIT did not provide any real time intelligence immediately before the operation was launched. The uncertainty was still apparent on January 2 when a meeting with the Chief of General Staff, General Necdet Ozel, did not lead to a joint official statement on the incident, suggesting that further examination of the case was needed (Hurriyet, December 31, 2011; Today’s Zaman, January 2). Following the incident, the MIT declared it had no role or responsibility in the air raid and released an official statement on January 5 claiming it did not share any intelligence on people, locations, dates or routes which might have been related to the attack (Cumhuriyet, January 6; Vatan, January 6; Hurriyet, January 6).
It seems unlikely that MIT had any responsibility for the incident. As stated by the military, reconnaissance and surveillance had been carried out through UAVs, which are controlled and monitored by the Army. Still, what Huseyin Celik, the deputy chairman of the ruling Adalet ve Kalk?nma Partisi (AKP – Justice and Development Party) described as an “unfortunate operational accident” might in fact be a demonstration of Turkey’s systemic intelligence gaps rather than the fault of a single institution (Hurriyet, December 29, 2011).
One of the problems the incident highlighted is the lack of civilian oversight of military operations. As the military stated, the UAV spotted the moving group at 06:39 PM, while jet fighters attacked at 09:37 PM. For a three hour-span, commanding officers were acting with total autonomy but clearly took some time before deciding to launch an air raid. The fact that the Prime Minister was collecting information from the military after the fact suggests there was no civilian monitoring of the operation. During that time the military did not contact any political or civilian authority to involve a civilian decision-maker in the operation. The absence of civilian oversight during military operations is a recurrent and troublesome element in Turkish civil-military relations, but it becomes particularly problematic in situations such as the one at Uludere, where the same institution ends up being in charge of both the intelligence cycle and the decision-making process.
Another systemic problem in Turkish intelligence is the lack of interagency cooperation. In the context of the Uludere case, the extent of cooperation between MIT and the military remains uncertain. The two institutions have a history of rivalry, especially since MIT came under civilian control 15 years ago, with the most recent example occurring in October 2011, when the chief of general staff General Ozel stated the military was absolutely in the dark about the fact that MIT was engaged in secret negotiations with PKK leaders, a fact that was revealed only after a secret recording of a meeting was leaked (Hurriyet, October 30, 2011). Recent reforms tried to diminish personnel attrition and distance between different intelligence bodies, but with no tangible results so far. The National Intelligence Cooperation Council, created in 2005, did not help in developing a cooperative culture amongst Turkey’s intelligence agencies. Even the creation in February 2010 of the Undersecretariat for Public Order and Security, conceived to ensure coordination between institutions involved in different aspects of counterterrorism, including intelligence, did not deliver significant results.
The head of the MIT, Hakan Fidan, is working in close cooperation with Prime Minister Erdogan in order to implement a reform of the intelligence system that will gather all relevant agencies around a new undersecretariat that will come under the authority of the MIT, an organization Fidan predicts will be one of the world’s ten largest intelligence agencies within the next two to three years (Hurriyet, January 6; Sabah, January 6). An important step in this process occurred earlier this month, when the MIT took control of most of the functions of the Joint Staff Electronic Systems Command, about 20 km south of Ankara. While some of the sophisticated communications equipment will continue to be used by the military for communications with Turkish forces operating outside of the homeland, the rest, including advanced monitoring equipment, will come under civilian control (Hurriyet, January 3). The promised reforms to Turkey’s intelligence institutions have significant potential, as they might help mitigate the existing lack of civilian oversight of Turkish military operations and promote interagency cooperation, but they need to succeed exactly where previous reforms have failed.
Francesco F. Milan is a PhD Candidate in the Department of War Studies at King’s College in London.