Turkish Generals Deliver Critical Counterterrorism Messages

Publication: Terrorism Focus Volume: 5 Issue: 33

The last week of August has a special meaning for the Turkish Republic and its military. Since the inception of the Republic, August 30 has been the day for commemorating the Turkish army’s victory against the occupation forces in Anatolia in 1922. This tradition has been kept alive by making the last week of August the time for making changes in the top echelons of the Turkish Armed Forces (Turk Silahli Kuwetleri – TSK). This year the last week of August had a special significance as the TSK Chief of Staff, General Yasar Buyukanit, was replaced by the former commander of the Turkish Land Forces, General Ilker Basbug. General Basbug was in turn replaced as Land Forces commander by the former commander of the Turkish Gendarmerie, General Isik Kosaner. The succession was carefully observed for its implications for Turkey’s ongoing struggle against terrorism.

During their inauguration ceremonies, the Turkish generals put forward critical messages with respect to domestic and international threats to Turkish security and unanimously reiterated the Turkish military’s commitment and ability to guard the Turkish Republic’s unitary and secular nature (Hurriyet, August 27; Milliyet, August 28). Although their overarching message was rooted in the strong tradition of the Turkish military as the guardian of the Turkish Republic, it is important to analyze the specifics of their messages to have an idea about their priorities with respect to Turkish counterterrorism efforts in the near future.

During the ceremony accompanying his takeover of the Turkish Land Forces, General Kosaner voiced his concerns over legal reforms made in the process of harmonizing Turkish laws with those of the European Union (EU), a precondition for EU membership. Kosaner claimed that some changes in Turkish laws made the job of the security forces more difficult in terms of their counterterrorism efforts, noting “It is a fact that the laws that are formulated as if there is no terrorism in our country are hampering the ability of security forces’ timely and effective counterterrorism efforts.” The General pointed to the importance of having the legal amendments needed to facilitate the security forces’ counterterrorism duties. Security forces need “to expect and feel that the laws are on their side while they are performing their duties” (Aksam Gazatesi, August 27). For example, he stated that as a result of EU harmonization policies, legal amendments pertinent to the Gendarmerie’s area of duty [responsibility for security in rural Turkey] would actually ease the ability of terrorists to maneuver. As a consequence of these changes, General Kosaner stated that “the separatist terrorist organization [a euphemism for the PKK] and its legal branches were taking advantage of these legal amendments” (Aksam Gazatesi, August 27).

As a solution to these legal loopholes, General Kosaner underlined the need for new legal amendments, taking into consideration Turkey’s security realities, such as the recent rise in terrorist activity; “If terrorism is threatening human rights, there is a need to reconsider the balance between rights and freedoms, and the precautions needed to be taken” (Aksam Gazatesi, August 27). General Kosaner, as the new Commander of the Turkish Land Forces (the second largest army in NATO), is likely to become a more important voice in Turkish counterterrorism efforts. The Turkish military’s concerns are likely to be taken into account by the Turkish government in light of public pressure on the government to do more to combat terrorism and constant critiques from opposition parties putting the blame for an increasing number of terrorist attacks flatly on the Justice and Development Party (Adalet ve Kalkınma Partisi – AKP) government. In addition to his concerns over the legal loopholes that hamper security forces’ counterterrorism efforts on the domestic front, General Kosaner underlined the need for Turkey “to undertake and conclude this struggle [counterterrorism] on its own, along with the initiatives to take precautions in northern Iraq” (Hurriyet, August 27). However, this statement should not be interpreted as advocating a unilateralist counterterrorism strategy. Instead, General Kosaner emphasizes the Turkish military’s ability to act alone, if necessary, and by using the word “initiatives” he keeps the door open for international cooperation. This balanced approach is likely to be at the core of Turkish counterterrorism strategy in the near future.

For General Kosaner, “counterterrorism is undertaken by the state in a comprehensive and coordinated fashion, including security, economic, educational, health, and psychological operations… The reason why terrorism has not been completely eliminated so far is the fact that these measures have not been undertaken in concert” (Hurriyet, August 27). Yet, General Kosaner also makes it clear that abandoning counterterrorist operations by Turkey’s security forces in favor of other approaches is exactly what the terrorists want (Hurriyet, August 27). Therefore, while General Kosaner recognizes that eliminating terror is not possible by military means alone, it is important to note that he underlines the critical nature of military operations as well.

Turkey’s new Chief of Staff, General Ilker Basbug, kept his messages broad. This can be attributed to his cautious and diplomatic character, as well as the need for him to act with the weight of his new position as Chief Commander of the Turkish Military in mind. First of all, General Basbug emphasized that the Turkish Military is dedicated “to protecting the Turkish Republic” (Milliyet, August 28). In this respect, General Basbug highlighted the unitary and secular characteristics of the Republic in particular, adding “the fact that intellectual debates can be conducted within the state does not mean that the elements that are keeping the Turkish state intact can be open to discussion” (Milliyet, August 28). For instance, he made it clear that “the nation-state is not a structure that can be opened for debate” (Milliyet, August 28). General Basbug added that “the situation in northern Iraq ought not to endanger Iraqi territorial integrity” (Milliyet, August 28). These messages can be taken as warnings voicing the military’s concerns with the recent attempts of the Erdogan government to prepare a new constitution, which for many, is likely to weaken the nation-state and secular characteristics of Turkish Republic.

With respect to counterterrorism cooperation with Iraq, General Basbug justifies his concerns over the conduct of Iraqi military operations by noting: “Many circles are advising us to work on arrangements with the Iraqi central government. However, the fact that Iraqi security forces of the central government do not have the authority to cross into [Kurdish] northern Iraq, while the security forces of the north have the authority to cross all over the country is the underlying reason for instability” (Hurriyet, August 27).

All in all, the messages from the newly appointed generals at the top echelons of the TSK complement each other not only in terms of content, but also in terms of approach. The messages indicate Turkey is considering the concerns of its allies and neighbors and recognizes the multifaceted nature of counterterrorism, but the nation may not be as patient as it used to be if its measured approach is not reciprocated by its allies and neighbors.