On October 14 the Turkish authorities announced that the Turkish Interior Ministry would be restructured to improve coordination of Turkey’s counter-terrorism efforts (Radikal, Milliyet, Vatan, NTV, October 15). The announcement was contained in a statement released after a meeting earlier in the day of the Supreme Council for the Struggle Against Terrorism (TMYK). It followed a flurry of high casualty attacks by the Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK) in early October that killed 23 members of the security forces (see EDM, October 6, 7, 9).
The TMYK brings together representatives of the Turkish military, led by Chief of Staff General Ilker Basbug, and the civilian institutions most closely involved in counter-terrorism. The TMYK meeting of October 14 lasted over six hours and was chaired by Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan.
No details were provided about the nature of the restructuring of the Interior Ministry, except that the decision had been made at the request of the Turkish military. The statement released after the TMYK meeting of October 14 said that the participants had engaged in a “comprehensive discussion of all the dimensions of the struggle against terrorism, particularly its socioeconomic, foreign policy, and legal aspects.” (Milliyet, Hurriyet, October 15) No further details were provided. Nor was there any indication as to whether an agreement had been reached on an earlier request by the Turkish military for an increase in the powers of the security forces; including an extension of the maximum time a detainee can be held without being charged from four to nine days, the removal of a suspect’s right to have a lawyer present during interrogation, and a relaxation of restrictions on the ability of the security forces to search property and interrogate suspects (see EDM, October 7).
On the same day that the TMYK was meeting in Ankara, Turkish officials were in Iraq pursuing a new policy of engagement with the Iraqi Kurds (see EDM, October 14). On October 14 Murat Ozcelik, the Special Envoy to Iraq at the Turkish Ministry for Foreign Affairs, and Ahmet Davutoglu, Erdogan’s chief foreign policy advisor, held meetings in Baghdad with representatives of the Kurdistan Regional Government (KRG), including a two hour meeting with KRG President Massoud Barzani. The Turkish press quoted unnamed Turkish officials as reporting that the Iraqi Kurds had responded positively to a Turkish request for intelligence sharing but had suggested that, in return, Ankara should finally acknowledge the KRG’s political authority in northern Iraq (Radikal, Milliyet, CNNTurk, October 15). The meetings are expected to be the first in a sustained dialogue between Turkey and the KRG. On October 14 Turkish President Abdullah Gul announced that he expected to meet with KRG officials during a forthcoming visit to Iraq, although he gave no indication of when the visit would take place (Milliyet, Yeni Safak, Radikal, October 15).
The Turkish authorities have also announced that from 2009 counter-insurgency operations will be conducted primarily by fully professional commando units rather than conscripts. The Turkish military has recently been bitterly criticized in the Turkish media for allegedly placing conscripts with only three months of basic military training in the front line of the war against the PKK (Taraf, October 14, Milliyet, October 15).
In addition to the professional officer corps and conscripts performing their military service, the Turkish Armed Forces have always employed a relatively small number of professional NCOs. In 2007 the Turkish Land Forces increased its recruitment of professional NCOs in an attempt to boost its counter-terrorism capabilities by laying the foundations for fully professional commando units (see EDM, May 5). A total of 1,540 professional NCOs were recruited in 2007 and another 3,018 in 2008. According to reports in the Turkish media, the Turkish Land Forces aims to deploy six fully professional commando brigades, each approximately 5,000 strong, by 2009 (Zaman, October 7). The six professional commando brigades will then assume responsibility for offensive operations against the PKK, while conscripts will be primarily assigned to defensive duties.
On October 10 Turkish Interior Minister Besir Atalay announced plans to increase the deployment of the ministry’s own specialized counter-insurgency units normally referred to in Turkish as Ozel Timler or “Special Teams” (CNNTurk, October 11; Vatan, October 12) There are currently believed to be around 5,000 members of Special Teams deployed throughout Turkey. During the early 1990s, the Special Teams, which then numbered around 7,000, played a leading role in counter-insurgency operations in the war against the PKK and quickly became notorious for widespread human rights abuses, including torture and numerous extrajudicial executions. Eventually, even the Turkish Land Forces refused to conduct joint operations with the Special Teams, which they frequently described as a liability (Jamestown interviews, southeast Turkey, 1995-1997). The Special Teams were withdrawn from the predominantly Kurdish southeast of Turkey in 1997 at the request of the Turkish General Staff.
Although there are still examples of torture and other human rights abuses by members of the Turkish security forces, there is little doubt that overall the situation has improved considerably compared with the 1990s. Nevertheless, an increase in the deployment of the Special Teams to southeast Turkey will undoubtedly be regarded with trepidation by many of the local population. Indeed, amid the flurry of changes in Turkey’s counter-insurgency policies on both the military and the diplomatic fronts, the one element that remains strikingly absent is a strategy to try to win the hearts and minds of the country’s Kurds.