This attitude stems partly from the comfort zone created by the Cold War assumptions and partly from the lack of accurate knowledge about the system and the functioning of think tanks at the other end of the ocean. Think tanks are not immune from this perception, especially because they are a new phenomenon in Turkey and continue to keep their “mystery.”
Following the bombing by the terrorist Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK) in the border city of Gaziantep on Aug. 20, one of the most important newspapers in Turkey, Hürriyet, announced in a headline that “that bomb was simulated in the US,” referring to a joint study of three think tanks in Washington, D.C. Although the meeting, named “Unraveling the Syria Mess: A Crisis Simulation of the Spillover from the Syrian Civil War” and organized by the Brookings Institution, the American Enterprise Institute (AEI) and the Institute of Study of War, was held at the end of June, it became news in Turkey because it arguably projected a “bombing” in the southeastern cities of Turkey bordering Syria. The news argues that Gaziantep and Kahramanmaraş were named as possible targets in Turkey among participants, without naming the sources. However, when you read the report available on the Brookings Institution website, it does not give any hint of a bombing.
What does the Brookings simulation say?
According to the website, the US, Turkish and Saudi teams discussed the possible scenarios that could lead to a military intervention in Syria and its spillover effects on these three actors. The teams included Kenneth Pollack of the Saban Center for Middle East Policy, Fred Kagan from the AEI, and Kim Kagan and Marisa Sullivan from the Institute of the Study of War. Reportedly, no one from the Turkish Embassy was invited to the meeting.
In a nutshell, the simulation report highlights the insufficiency of the humanitarian crisis to lead to an intervention, Turkish and American unwillingness towards an intervention, their concern for the aftermath of the Assad regime and, probably most important, the indispensible role of Turkey in a possible intervention in Syria. At the end of the game, Syria collapsed and Turkey intervened, but the civil war worsened while the rest of the region was dragged into increasing instability. Despite the overall inclination in the report for a desired Turkish military engagement, there is no mention of a bombing. Indeed, the closest expression that might lead to a possible scenario of chaos in Turkey is the following: “The fact that Turkey shares a border with Syria and was suffering military and paramilitary attacks on its territory as part of the spillover reinforced the perspective that the Syria problem is better viewed through the NATO prism.” Any observer of the course of the events could have expected increasing instability in the Turkish border given the power vacuum that Assad almost deliberately created in the northern part of Syria.
Center for Strategic Communication (STRATIM) Director and former Turkish-American Friendship Group in Parliament (TGNA) Chairman Suat Kınıklıoğlu confirms the overall ignorance on how think tanks work in Turkey due to the lack of such a culture in Turkey, while saying that “as the name suggests, their work is to think and provide decision makers long-term insights.” He adds that it is only part of standard procedure for a think tank in a superpower to invent scenarios in different regions of the world.
If the simulation in Washington is overrated, why then make a big deal out of it? Thanks to the power of the conspiracy theories in Turkey that the US is responsible for whatever evil happens in Turkey, this simulation has refreshed the short-term memory of people monitoring Turkish politics.
In 2007 -- a year marked by a strong tension around the election of a new president, which resulted in the e-memorandum of April 27 -- a similar meeting at the Hudson Institute in Washington discussing a chaos scenario received a strong reaction from liberals in Turkey.
The Hudson simulation on June 13, 2007, included scenarios such as the assassination of the former head of the Constitutional Court, Tülay Tuğcu, and a terrorist attack by the PKK in the heart of İstanbul that takes the lives of 50 people. The host of the meeting, Zeyno Baran, had been frowned upon by the democrats in Turkey for her Newsweek article titled “Turkey’s Coming Coup in December 2006,” in which she claimed that the chance of a military intervention in Turkey is 50 percent.
In addition to such a reputation of the host of the meeting, the participants rightfully received attention because they included Turkey’s military attaché at the time, Brig. Gen. Bertan Nogaylaroğlu, and the then-director of the Center for Strategic Research and Studies of the Turkish General Staff (SAREM) -- which was shut down last November, Brig. Gen. Suha Tanyeri. The Washington representative of the Kurdish Regional Government of northern Iraq, Qubat Talabani, also participated in the Hudson meeting.
Fehmi Koru, a columnist for the Turkish Star daily, wrote on Aug. 26 that the Brookings meeting did not receive as much attention, while the Hudson meeting stirred Turkey because “in contrast to the former, which is a generic scenario, the meeting at Hudson was a contribution to the formation of necessary conditions for a military intervention in Turkey.” Koru, expectedly, includes such games in the regular job definition of the think tanks in the US as he wishes Turkish counterparts to have a similar function.
The lobby factor
Professor Ümit Özdağ, president of the 21st Century Institute, an Ankara-based think tank, tends not to take the simulation very seriously as he says that these are normal activities for think tanks, while adding that this particular meeting at the Brookings Institution seemed more like a brainstorm. Unlike the overall attitude in Turkey, Özdağ says that “even if the meeting in Washington would have projected a bombing in Gaziantep, I would not have said that it happened because they said so.”
It would not be accurate to draw parallels between the Hudson and Brookings meetings and jump to easy conclusions not only because of the participants but also because of the nature of the think tanks. Undoubtedly, in the US, where lobbies play an enormous role in the decision-making process, not all think tanks pursue pure scientific goals and publish their findings without any agenda. An experienced member of the think tank community in Washington, Dr. Bülent Alirıza, the director of the Turkey Project at the Center for Strategic Research and International Studies (CSIS), says, “Simulations are very much part of the operation for think tanks, especially at times of crisis,” while adding that “think tanks reflect and expand already existing atmospheres in D.C.”
How do think tanks work?
Many think tanks have to finance themselves through sponsors, and especially small ones might have to act in accordance with the agendas of their contributors. This is not a shame or a crime. Yet, it is always useful to go beyond the surface when analyzing a report or a policy recommendation of a think tank. While we tend to evaluate the work of think tanks from an international perspective, domestic concerns are also always influential. More often than not, the members of the think tank communities try to influence the current and prospective US administrations to make themselves seen for possible vacancies. As a result, participants may have their own agenda in such simulations.
Clearly, Brookings is one of the most credible and prestigious think tanks in Washington, known for its liberal leaning. As a result, it would be stretching it too far to include Brookings into pursuing an agenda of chaos, as some news reports imply. However, the participants, especially from the AEI who displayed hawkish neocon attitudes during the occupation of Iraq, rightfully raise questions of the impact of a lobby group that is in favor of an intervention in Syria. Given the strong emphasis on the “central importance of Turkey” and even arguing that “the US and Saudi Arabia can’t succeed without Turkey” in the simulation, it is reasonable to assume an impact of the interventionist lobby in Washington. Dr. Alirıza says, “The participation of, for example, the Kagan couple [Fred and Kim Kagan] in the simulation reflects an expectation of Turkey’s intervention in Syria even if the US does not do so.”
Sunday’s Zaman contacted Ken Pollack and Fred Kagan for their reaction to the repercussions in Turkey of the simulation. However, at the time of writing, neither of them had responded.
It is only normal for think tanks to provide the policymakers and general public with an expanded point of view that they might overlook. This is what analysts and experts are paid for. They are supposed to produce ideas and policies. Yet, in an environment that is not immune to interests and lobby groups, any report should be taken with a grain of salt, let alone a sensational piece of journalism.