One can argue that Turkey’s relations overall as such are evolving for the better. However, the historical characteristics of some of the neighbors which Turkey has been severing ties with requires Ankara to be extremely vigilant and to prepare accordingly against the damage that those particular neighbors may inflict upon it.
In line with the Justice and Development (AK Party) government’s “zero problems with neighbors” principle, Ankara has improved in a very short span of time its relations with Damascus, from the brink of waging war to the level of removing visa requirements between the two countries and holding joint ministerial meetings. Similarly, it secured Baghdad’s substantial cooperation in dealing with the outlawed Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK), the terrorist group that has long used Iraqi territory to launch attacks on Turkey. Moreover, Ankara gained Baku’s critical support in fulfilling the Nabucco pipeline project, which many critics used to view as a pipedream named after an opera. In addition, Ankara has become a champion for an immediate and sustainable solution in Nagorno-Karabakh, where Armenia’s continuing occupation has turned 1 million Azerbaijanis into homeless refugees. Finally, Ankara has managed to accomplish the unthinkable and recently signed the protocols that officially started the process for the normalization of its relations with Yerevan.
However, at the same time, Ankara’s relations with Israel have been dramatically worsened over a series of issues, which included, as the American journalist Seymour Hersh revealed, Israel’s clandestine military assistance to the Kurds in northern Iraq; Israel’s apparently intentional delay in delivering the “Heron” unmanned aerial vehicles (UAV) Ankara agreed to buy from it in 2005; Israel’s recent military operation against Gaza where some 1,400 Palestinians, mostly women and children, died; the Davos incident in which Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdoğan walked out of a panel discussion after he had fiery quarrel with the Israeli president, Shimon Peres; and finally the Turkish TV series called “Ayrılık” which depicts the Israeli occupation of Gaza and which Israel is not so comfortable with.
In light of these developments, Turkey’s increasingly active posture in regional affairs brings to the fore an urgent need for Ankara to improve its ability to counter possible threats that such prominence may engender, especially when it challenges the regional status quo. Turkey’s military might and strategic importance for global energy security minimizes the prospects of it facing any threat of conventional warfare waged by its neighbors. However, unconventional warfare by those states which are not so fond of Ankara’s regional policies is always likely to be waged against Turkey. As a matter of fact, Turkey may have already been exposed to such warfare, especially by those states that are so used to manipulating Ankara through their influence over a small number of the ultra-secularist elite, be they businessmen, judges or generals.
Unconventional warfare: Bringing a nation to its knees
The US Department of Defense defines unconventional warfare as “a broad spectrum of military and paramilitary operations, normally of long duration, predominantly conducted through, with, or by indigenous or surrogate forces who are organized, trained, equipped, supported, and directed in varying degrees by an external source. It includes, but is not limited to, guerilla warfare, subversion, sabotage, intelligence activities, and unconventional assisted recovery.” More practically, unlike the conventional warfare where the parties involved aim to maximize the damage inflicted on each other’s military capabilities, unconventional warfare targets the civilian population and political bodies, thereby making the military might of the enemy irrelevant in due process.
The state waging the unconventional warfare tries to propagate the belief within the targeted country that the deteriorating socio-economic, political and security conditions are merely caused by the sitting government and that everything will be better once the government is replaced by another, or agrees to make concessions in certain policy areas. In a way, the perpetrator of the unconventional warfare (UW) manipulates the fears and sensitivities of the society to affect the political dynamics in the targeted country. In order to do that, the UW perpetrator may utilize both military and non-military means. By definition, it may provide military assistance, training and funds to groups within the targeted country which would in turn create military and security problems. Similarly, the UW perpetrator may seek to destabilize the targeted country by playing one or more groups against each other by exploiting the fears and sensitivities of those groups. The most efficient means of doing this is certainly through the exploitation of the mass media, and the best example of this is to mobilize the so-called secular military against the so-called Islamist civilian groups or civilian government.
Turkey at war
From this point of view, a quick look into Turkey’s republican history may suggest that the country has always been a target and victim of a never-ending unconventional warfare waged against it. The country has long suffered from the ultra-secular center versus traditional periphery divide, the military’s dominance over politics, the paradigm of being surrounded by sea on three sides and by enemies on four, the idea that the Turks are not capable of accomplishing anything and that the only way to prosperity is through an unconditional mimicking of the West and finally the fear that Kurdishness or the manifestation of any other ethno-religious identity poses an existential threat to Turkishness. Improvements in areas from the legal system to domestic/foreign policy and to the economy throughout the past seven years indicate that Turkey has learned quite a bit about how to counter these types of unconventional warfare tactics.
However, with the advancement of technology comes new ways and means of unconventional warfare, and therefore it becomes ever more urgent for Turkey to improve itself in order to cope with the evolving threats. Two of the most effective tactics of contemporary unconventional warfare are political assassinations and biological attacks, which can be disguised as accidents and as natural disasters or pandemics, respectively. In the recent past, Turkey has experienced the seemingly “natural deaths” of a number of its political leaders. For instance, former Prime Minister Adnan Menderes, whose coming to office marked Turkey’s transition to multiparty democracy, was sentenced to death and duly executed after a seemingly normal judicial process. Former Prime Minister and President Turgut Özal, whose dream was the unification of the Turkic world, is believed to have passed away because of a heart attack, although there has been speculation that he had been gradually poisoned over a long period of time, which led to the heart attack. Former Governor Recep Yazıcıoğlu, who stood against the foreign corporations that sought to explore for uranium in Denizli province, was seemingly killed in a tragic car accident while on his way to Ankara to investigate the deaths of engineers who had been killed in mysterious car accidents as well. In addition to these political figures, many journalists and academics such as Uğur Mumcu, Ahmet Taner Kışlalı and Hrant Dink have also been killed in such mysterious ways that these deaths eventually fanned the animosities between different segments of society.
Similarly, the deliberate spread of certain infectious diseases and viruses constitutes another dimension of unconventional warfare. One historic example of that is the mass death of the American Indians in the 17th century caused by the Europeans who migrated to the New World and considered the spread of smallpox among the American Indians as an effective way to vacate the land where they intended to settle. Today, although they are not nearly as deadly, the outbreak of such contagious diseases as bird flu, swine flu and many others yet to come poses a grave danger to the countries that are not capable of producing their own vaccines against these diseases, but instead are dependent on the mercy of the other states that are able to produce these vaccines. This exemplifies the current situation that Turkey finds itself in. Although Turkey recently secured the purchase of 500,000 doses of the swine flu vaccine, it does not eliminate the country’s vulnerability to the threat posed by swine flu or other such pandemics that are likely to emerge in the near future. Accordingly, the fate of a government that may seem unable to protect the population against epidemic diseases would also be at stake.
As Prime Minister Erdoğan becomes openly critical of a particular state in the neighborhood, and as such, Ankara defies an almost century-long status quo that its relations are built upon with this unconventional neighbor, the AK Party government is likely to be challenged time and time again in the near future by the ever evolving tactics of unconventional warfare. It is not something to be afraid of in itself, but a critical challenge to be prepared for as Turkey gradually rises to become a regional leader.
*Mehmet Kalyoncu is an international relations analyst and author of the book “A Civilian
Response to Ethno-Religious Conflict: The Gülen Movement in Southeast Turkey.”