Adam McConnel - Istanbul
Turkey is now heading towards the April 16 constitutional referendum which, if passed, will effectively change the Turkish political system from a parliamentary democracy to a presidential democracy.
Because of the Turkish state’s institutional weaknesses and periods of unstable coalition governments, past elections have often been marked by socio-political tension and violence.
Consequently, there is little doubt that the extremists targeting Turkish society will attempt to use violence in the coming weeks.
Three months ago, in November, I provided an analysis for AA of the ongoing effort to extirpate Fetullah Gulen’s cult from Turkish state institutions.
In that article, I suggested that the Turkish security situation in the previous year may have been compromised by Gulen’s adherents in Turkish state security institutions.
I also noted that, despite the analyses appearing in the international press, the inability of the various violent extremist groups to attack Ankara and Istanbul in the months following the coup appeared to indicate that Turkish security forces had not been weakened in the aftermath of the failed July 2016 coup attempt.
Furthermore, at the same time that Turkish security forces were engaged in thwarting various domestic threats to Turkish society, last August the Turkish military initiated Operation Euphrates Shield against ISIL in northern Syria. That operation quickly established control over Jarabulus, pushed south past Dabiq, and then approached Al-Bab.
Tragically, however, in December and early January once again Turkey experienced a wave of violence involving all of the groups that I had mentioned in that original article, the PKK/TAK, ISIL, and the DHKP-C, plus a shooting carried out by a young man apparently connected to Gulen’s cult.
The attacks included major PKK truck bombings in Istanbul and Kayseri, the assassination of the Russian ambassador to Turkey, a New Year’s Eve ISIL assault which took the lives of nearly 40 people, and an attempted PKK attack on the Izmir courthouse that claimed two more lives.
The final incident involved RPG attacks on police facilities and a local ruling Justice and Development (AK) Party office in Istanbul at the end of January, a method that the DHKP-C had used many times previously. The incidents all occurred between Dec. 10 and Jan. 20.
Since then there thankfully have been no further serious incidents in Istanbul or Ankara, though the PKK detonated another vehicle bomb in Sanliurfa, killing two, including a boy who had gone outside to feed a kitten.
It is clear that the PKK especially continues to exert great efforts to carry out violence against Turkish society. As the referendum approaches, the apparent coordination among those trying to harm Turkish society and create instability has caused widespread anger, but also intensified citizens’ determination to resist the aims of such barbarous acts of violence.
Across the border in northern Syria, Operation Euphrates Shield appeared to stall after reaching the northern outskirts of Al-Bab.
From time to time, ISIL suicide bombers inflicted serious casualties on not only the Free Syrian Army (FSA) but also on the Turkish forces aiding them. Critics began to disparage the operation, claiming that Turkey had gotten itself stuck in a swamp.
But now the FSA and the Turkish military have taken control of Al-Bab from ISIL despite the extremist group’s use of thousands of local citizens as human shields.
For those approaching the issue objectively, the reason for the FSA’s slowdown on Al-Bab’s fringes was always obvious. The FSA and Turkish forces had to advance cautiously, taking great care to protect the lives of citizens caught up in the conflict.
ISIL is a novel phenomenon in modern warfare: the organization observes absolutely no rules or ethical standards for warfare.
Al-Bab’s defenses were predicated on the fact that thousands of civilians were still in the city, and that intense bombing would kill scores and cause an international outcry. And ISIL feels no compunctions about gunning down civilians -- even in large numbers -- trying to escape from their grasp.
To delay the FSA, ISIL also created a complex system of primitive defenses such as trenches, plus thousands of IEDs and mines placed everywhere in and around the city. Underpinning that was an intricate network of tunnels excavated under the city to provide attack and escape points that were difficult to identify even with drones from the air.
In order to attack ISIL’s defenses with a minimum of casualties to their own forces and to civilians, Operation Euphrates Shield paused north of Al-Bab and began to analyze its defenses.
At the same time, hundreds of ISIL targets were destroyed by careful, pinpointed bombing, and ISIL’s ability to assist the city’s defenders was slowly constricted through the bombing and cutting off of supply routes.
Several dozen Turkish soldiers have been martyred during this operation, but the direct threat that ISIL armaments presented to Turkish citizens in border regions has been eliminated.
Not only have Turkish security forces now successfully wrested Al-Bab from ISIL after a period of preparation and softening, and then intense urban warfare.
At the same time, they have carried out extensive winter campaigns in eastern and southeastern Anatolia to prevent the PKK from implementing its cold-weather re-supplying and munitions transportation efforts.
These campaigns are occurring both near urban regions and in the countryside, and even in the mountains under extreme weather conditions. The extent and duration of these operations are unprecedented.
In other words, there is no sign that the Turkish military’s ability to tackle multiple security challenges simultaneously, and to bring those challenges to a successful conclusion, has been affected by the failed July putsch. If anything, the Turkish military’s efficiency seems to be increasing, its tactics and weaponry are improving, and its conflict experience is deepening.
Indications from the Turkish government are that Manbij, northern Syria, still infiltrated by PYD/PKK elements despite official U.S. denials, is the next target after mopping-up operations in Al-Bab are concluded.
This will consolidate geographically the territory taken under the protection of Operation Euphrates Shield to the west bank of the river. In Al-Bab, as in Jarabulus previously, citizens can now return to the city and begin rebuilding their lives with Turkish assistance.
Even though the violence that Turkey has suffered in the past 18 months makes such an evaluation seem counterintuitive, Turkish security forces have improved their performance greatly in the past 10 years.
Until 2007-2008, Turkish security institutions were weak and professional standards were generally low, despite improvements achieved in the police forces in the previous five to six years.
After the Turkish military’s influence in the political sphere weakened, Fetullah Gulen’s adherents began to assert their influence over the security forces much more strongly, which hindered government efforts to carry out reform in those institutions.
Over the last decade, Turkish security forces had to simultaneously reform and carry out difficult security operations on multiple fronts and against multiple organizations trying to attack them.
In retrospect, it may be that the challenges which the Turkish security forces faced in the 2007-2016 period prepared members who were not connected to Gulen’s cult to face diverse and multidimensional threats after the failed July 15, 2016 coup.
So as Turkey approaches the April 16 referendum, citizens understand that their security forces still face numerous threats posed by violent extremists.
But whether it is cutting off PKK supply routes in snow-bound mountain passes or meticulously eradicating ISIL militants in urban warfare, the past seven months provided ample proof that Turkish security forces remain highly effective and have developed new capabilities.
In the coming months and years, reestablished confidence in the security forces’ ability to protect Turkish society from such threats will be an important element in the continued stabilization and normalization of Turkish society.
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