Dangerous Developments On Turkey’s Southern Border – Analysis


By Ihsan Bal

Ending in complete failure, the Arab uprisings that broke out in 2010 throughout the Middle East gave place to a new wave of resistance. With the defeat of the massive movement that sought to bring authoritarian governments of the region to account, harmless street demonstrators initially mobilized in pursuit of justified demands were gradually replaced by wild and unruly organizations expressing themselves with extreme rage and enmity. These violent organizations attracted sympathizers and recruited numerous militants by hijacking the dreams of a segment of the people who previously lost their hopes as a result of their failed attempt at revolution. In the process, dozens of unconventional entities which capitalized on irregular forces and emphasized different ethnic and sectarian identities, among them some “mutated” versions of Al-Qaeda first and foremost, came to prominence in the field. At this stage, we see that these groups have been drawn into a serious power struggle, also among themselves.

As related events continue to haunt the region surrounding Turkey, the risk posed to our country’s security by an increasing number of explosions and massacres taking place right beyond our borders is much greater than that which is actually faced by some of the most concerned Western nations. Frankly, Turkey has suddenly found itself in the line of fire. In this context, the military option has been put on the table over the last couple of weeks as a potential means of countering these groups which exhibit all kinds of operational capabilities along our borders with Syria and Iraq. However, it should be underlined that any misstep at this time can cost a price that is too high to bear. Therefore, we need to find an answer to the question of “is the military option the most viable and accurate one to be resorted to in a setting marked by unconventional warfare in the first place?”

Not to forget the U.S. experience

Combating terrorist organizations which ably employ all sorts of unconventional methods and guerilla tactics is, as everyone would agree, a truly challenging task. Such groups are inherently capable of determining the exact time, place, and target of their attacks, which gives them a tremendous advantage vis-à-vis militaries. These are not easily identifiable entities, as their true capabilities are unknown, their targets are far from clearly defined, and their organizational structures aren’t rigid in the conventional sense. Therefore, any nation that is to confront such a challenge has its operational capacity limited according to the proficiency and quality of its intelligence services and resources. This means that a nation is only able to gather and analyze genuinely actionable intelligence that allows for successful operations against irregular forces if that particular nation can readily identify tangible strategic targets. Yet even here, the ability to capitalize on operational intelligence in and of itself does not mean one has sufficient capacity to effectively combat such groups in the field. One further needs to train special forces which are well-equipped and ready to be mobilized in accordance with the available intelligence. Moreover, it is assumed that one is aiming at only a certain number of targets when accurate intelligence is gathered, and that all the other prerequisites are satisfied. In contrast to this, the terrorist organizations we are currently confronted with have the capacity to carry out activities throughout a vast geographical area spanning all the way from Kuwait to France.

Within such a chaotic environment, the viability of an option founded on a military intervention in Syria is definitely ruled out. That is, any attempt to wrestle with such agile, effective, professional, and violent radical organizations and their various proxies – which are known to carry out surprise attacks throughout such a vast geographical area that includes Turkey itself – by means of conventional forces with boots on the ground is considered to be an option that is doomed to fail. Such a perception is popular at least among the U.S. leadership, which is generally expected to take the initiative in the case of an intervention. At this stage, even a brief flashback can provide us with a striking comparative perspective that can in turn guide us to a fairly reasonable conclusion. The U.S. experience in Iraq and Afghanistan in the post-9/11 years is ridden with extremely heavy losses despite the U.S. military enjoying the most advanced technology currently available to humanity and being entirely comprised of professional soldiers. Considering that, the U.S. interventions in question came at the expense of thousands of troops never making their way home again, and at a huge cost exceeding $5 trillion. These most recent wars probably left a fresh wound in the American psyche similar to that which was inflicted during the war in Vietnam back in the 1960s. On the other hand, we should not forget that the combined number of civilian casualties in Iraq and Afghanistan is expressed in the hundreds of thousands. In that regard, it is not that difficult to understand why the Obama administration has been persistently exercising self-restraint when it comes to Syria.

Diplomatic protection and rearguard support

Those who have been raising their voices in favor of the military option in countering the terrorist threat that is spreading like wildfire throughout Turkey’s immediate neighborhood need to assess the quality of the threat as well as the means and capabilities of the military force which would be expected to tackle the terrorists. They further need to prepare strategic roadmaps based on comprehensive surveys and in-depth field research, relying exclusively on validated data and rational analyses. An important point has to be made here before complicating the matter further: Turkey refrained from a cross-border operation even after a Turkish fighter jet was struck down by the Assad regime, an conventional organization which has rather rigid goals and a regular army. Indeed, even a limited airborne operation was ruled out in this case. Obviously, alternative options gained prominence as the heavy costs that such an operation would possibly entail were widely recognized. Embedded in the current context are acute dangers that virtually overshadow those associated with the case involving the downing of one of our fighter jets by the Assad regime. More specifically, today it would be extremely difficult for any conventional military force to cope with the challenges posed by the complex political scenery that lies to our south, as it is here where making a distinction between civilians and guerillas (or terrorists) is more difficult than ever. In other words, discerning the ‘real target’ from the ‘victim’ is nearly impossible under existing circumstances. Militaries can hardly act in a proactive fashion against organizations that have no moral compass whatsoever and adhere to no ‘warrior ethic’ of any sort. Such groups, which are known to carry out attacks against both people in churches and mosques, as well as at beaches and bazaars, shape their methods of warfare based on an absolutely corrupted mindset that no conventional force can get a firm grasp of.

For this reason, the potential repercussions of a projected military intervention into Syria which can be felt behind the actual frontier, i.e. within Turkey’s borders, should be fully investigated. Organizations like ISIS, which intentionally generate a vicious cycle of violence that is fueled by the systematic exploitation of different ethnic and sectarian identities, has already carried out several attacks in Turkey as well. Indeed, they frequently threaten Turkey. And what makes this grim reality even more disturbing is the perceived lack of clear information concerning the number of ISIS militants hiding within Turkey, a reality that is enough to dash our hopes. It doesn’t seem possible for us to make a healthy assessment of our options pertaining to the Syrian crisis without submitting a realistic answer to the question of to what extent are the police and national intelligence agencies in Turkey willing to take cognizance of the entirety of the activities and organizational structures of terrorist organizations such as ISIS within our own borders.

The Syrian crisis is not a simple issue that can be assessed in isolation from the larger context of which it is a part. We need to understand that viable solutions can be applied to Syria’s problems only by making sure the international community, regional actors, and local entities converge on common ground to the maximum extent that such a convergence is practically possible. As a matter of fact, Westerners, who are nowadays rather focused on the possibility of foreign fighters in Syria and Iraq returning to their home countries, seem reluctant to realize the gravity of the alarming challenge that awaits countries like Turkey which are located just within the immediate line of fire, and even more reluctant to provide solidarity against this threat. However, it is not difficult to realize how narrowly compartmentalized their assessment of the larger crisis is considering the series of terrorist attacks which previously hit them as well and similar incidents which are likely to take place in the future. From the standpoint of these terrorist organizations, national and geographical boundaries are meaningless; and they are targeting people from all ethnic, religious, and sectarian backgrounds. Therefore, the only way out of this quagmire is through international cooperation to its fullest extent and a coalition as broad-based as possible.

To conclude, it should be realized by Turkish decision-makers that a military intervention into Syria, if considered to be a viable option as has widely been articulated over the last couple of weeks, would essentially serve to continue containing the enemy in the background, and hence, it could not be regarded as the ‘vanguard’ of the all-out struggle against irregular forces in the field. On the one hand, our fight against the immense threat that originates from Syria needs to receive international support. On the other hand, our strategic roadmap should be fine-tuned to the dynamics of the ongoing negotiations on an elaborate peace deal between various armed groups in Syria. Another point to be considered, and indeed probably the most important one of all, is the necessity to thoroughly investigate the operational capacity and potential activities of, as well as the means that are available to, terrorist groups like ISIS which will possibly attempt to retaliate with attacks inside Turkey in the case of a direct confrontation in Syria. In sum, the real question is not only how the military will act or whether it is endowed with the sufficient capacity or not, instead, it is what sort of decisions top level decision-makers made or will make within such a chaotic and multifaceted context that harbors various implicit threats; and perhaps most important of all, according to what sort of rational data they will eventually reach a conclusion. Any missteps taken in panic on the verge of this cliff can result in irreparable damage to our national security.


JTW - the Journal of Turkish Weekly - is a respected Turkish news source in English language on international politics. Established in 2004, JTW is published by Ankara-based Turkish think tank International Strategic Research Organization (USAK).

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