Terrorism Monitor (Jamestown Foundation) – The Uludere Air Raid and Systemic Gaps in Turkey’s Intelligence Infrastructure

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The original version of this analysis can be found on Terrorism Monitor, Volume X, Issue 2

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 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 Kalkinma 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 politician 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 about 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.

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Eurasia Daily Monitor (Jamestown Foundation) – Turkey’s Law on Military Service Exemption

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The original version of this analysis can be found on the Jamestown Foundation website

On November 30, the Turkish Grand National Assembly passed a law that will allow citizens born before 1983 to avoid military service upon the payment of an exemption. Starting by January 1, 2012, those who comply with the requirements will have a six month-period to pay the equivalent of $16,000 in order to be fully exempted from enlistment (Today’s Zaman, November 30).

On the week preceding the Parliament’s vote, the bill, brought forward by the ruling Development and Justice Party (AKP), attracted criticism from all main opposition parties. The secularist Republican People’s Party (CHP), despite being in favor of an exemption, stressed how the high price set by the government is likely to constitute a problem for all families but the wealthiest ones, asking to submit the bill to a referendum, in order to let voters express themselves on the issue. Similarly, Nationalist Action Party (MHP) leader Devlet Bahceli stated he found the law discriminatory for poor families. He also asked for a revision of the length of military service and called for a new and different political approach toward the management of military personnel. The pro-Kurdish Peace and Democracy Party (BDP) criticized both the age limit and the high price, but it also used the opportunity to reinteroduce, unsuccessfully, the issue of conscientious objection, still unrecognized by Turkish law (SES Turkiye, December 02).

But criticism by opposition parties was overshadowed by military opposition to the bill. Already in May, during the electoral campaign for the 2011 general elections, CHP proposed to shorten the length of compulsory military service and to allow paid exemption from military service as an option (more or less the bill AKP implemented), meeting the military top echelons’ strong criticism (Today’s Zaman, May 23). Now, despite having been quite reserved since his recent promotion to Chief of General Staff, Gen. Necdet Ozel showed growing opposition to AKP’s bill proposal. He first voiced his concern in early November, highlighting how decisions regarding an exemption from military service should have been taken according to people’s sensitivities. Then, on November 21, the day before Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan announced the details of AKP’s bill, the Turkish General Staff made the cryptic move of divulging, for the first time in the country’s history, its armed forces’ personnel numbers (Hurriyet Daily News, November 21).

The meaningfulness of this move seems to lie within the social significance of military service in Turkey. Article 72 of the Turkish Constitution states that national service is a right and a duty for every Turk, and it must be performed according to the relevant law, which specifies that every male citizen is obliged to undergo military service. Serving in the military is generally considered a moral duty (in line with the traditional principle according to which ‘every Turk is born a soldier’), and a fundamental rite toward adulthood for the Turkish youth. Those who are unfit for military service are often referred to as ‘curuk,’ or rotten. Biases toward those who have not been enlisted are so deeply rooted in Turkish culture that during the last electoral campaign, Prime Minister Erdogan sarcastically questioned whether his main competitor for premiership, CHP’s leader Kemal Kilicdaroglu, had actually fulfilled his duties with the military service, while Kilicdaroglu hit back stigmatizing the fact that Erdogan’s son avoided enlistment by taking advantage of a previous law for paid exemption (Hurriyet Daily News, March 15). The significance of personnel numbers’ disclosure seems then to move along this line: by showing that Turkish armed forces count on more than 460,000 conscripts, making up for almost 65 percent of military personnel, the Turkish General Staff wanted to reassert the principle of military service as a sacred duty, showing how common Turks are still the backbone of the country’s armed forces, while, once again, condemning the idea of a paid exemption. Military opposition notwithstanding, the Parliament passed the bill. According to governmental estimates, the exemption will bring in revenue of roughly $1.3 billion, which should be reinvested in social services for veterans, terrorism victims and possibly for helping the earthquake stricken population of Van (SES Turkiye, December 02).

The debate on this minor and temporary change to the conscription system reflects how reluctant the Turkish military is to reforming efforts. In functional terms, the exemption will have no effect whatsoever on the Turkish armed forces’ effectiveness, so criticism from the military seemed quite inappropriate. Moreover, the Turkish military system is still lagging behind in some reforms whose implementation is a mere question of timeliness and political resolution, rather than opportunity, such as the provision of legal recognition of the status of conscientious objector, or initiating the transition toward an all-volunteer force. The staunch opposition showed by the military on a marginal issue such as the law on military exemption, not to mention its outspoken opposition to conscientious objection (Today’s Zaman, May 23), should give decision-makers a hint of what they should expect from the generals when discussing military-related reforms in the future.

WPR Briefing – Turkey’s Procurement Diplomacy Bears Fruit

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The full version of this briefing can be found on the WPR website and on Amazon.com

Over the past few years, the Turkish defense industry has focused its research and development efforts on a range of new weapons systems, driven by the goal of an overall technological modernization of Turkey’s armed forces. In the process, defense exports have doubled, demonstrating that Turkish defense firms also have the potential to impose themselves on the global market.

Turkish defense companies, backed by Turkish diplomats, have signed a number of high-profile export deals in 2011. Earlier this year, Turkish President Abdullah Gul’s official visit to Indonesia — which, with a majority Muslim population of 246 million, is likely to become one of Turkey’s strategic allies in Southeast Asia — brought contracts worth $400 million. Meanwhile, Malaysia, one of the world’s largest arms importers, inked a $600 million deal to set up a Turkish-Malaysian partnership that will produce more than 200 armored vehicles. More recently, BMC, one of Turkey’s leading producers of armored vehicles, announced it will soon start exporting one of its models to Iraq and Afghanistan. Moreover, several African countries have shown a growing interest in Turkish defense equipment: A Turkish delegation including representatives from the government and leading defense firms recently paid visits to Ghana, Nigeria and Kenya, and new deals seem to be in the offing. (…)