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Food for Thought


Syrian-Iraqi-Iranian Triangle to Leave Turkey on Slippery Slope - Sönmez Köksal

GRF Board Member Mr. Sönmez Köksal, (Former Undersecretary of State in charge of Turkish National Intelligence Organization (MIT), retired Ambassador) shared his assessments on Turkeyʼs PKK problem and Kurdish issue in an interview with Hurriyet Daily News.

Q: Looking at both the regional conjuncture, as well as the government’s attitude, some have voiced concern about a return to the 1990s in terms of the Kurdish issue. Do you share this concern?

A: One could perhaps advance such a claim as far as external conditions are concerned. But in the 1990s, Turkey was not experiencing the democratization process that it is currently, and there was more emphasis on military methods. It was seen as a security problem. Today, by contrast, there is a dual approach. While the legal infrastructure is being fortified, terror is being fought through military means. Today, in addition to the security dimension, we talk about measures on what we call the Kurdish problem. On the one hand, peaceful ways are being sought for a solution, and on the other, the necessary fight against an armed group is being continued.

Q: There is an impression that the security dimension is gaining the upper hand.

A: But official statements are giving us clues about the intentions of the political will. When the cost of the terror organization multiplies, the state’s reflex of self-protection is activated. It is impossible to fight acts of terror only through legal means. I believe there will be an opening. There is work on a new constitution. Measures to remove the obstacles before issues such as language or strengthening local administrations aim at limiting terrorism’s room to maneuver. Other countries have done it like that as well, taking democracy forward, creating the possibility for all citizens to use all their rights and at the same time fight terrorism.

Q: What is the picture as far as the security dimension of the problem is concerned?

A: We have to talk about external conditions. There is a chain of burning events in our nearby region. An analysis should be done in light of the possible crisis that could erupt in the Syria-Iraq-Iran triangle.

Q: Do you mean that Syria and Iran will play the Kurdish card as relations with Turkey have turned sour?

A: I don’t want to automatically reach that conclusion. We are on very slippery ground. It is more slippery that the 1990s. We are facing a region where we don’t know where the events will take us. It is not possible to say how events in Syria will unfold. Syria has always been implicated in the Kurdish issue due to its own Kurdish population as well as its policy of using this issue as a diplomatic tool against Turkey. Iraq will be reshaped after the withdrawal of U.S. forces. How far will the cooperation of the Kurdish Regional administration with the Sunni forces go? Will Iraq be dismantled? There is Iran, with its own policies on Iraq and Syria. In this equation with so many unknowns, the Kurdish issue is actually a small factor. The real big event and the real developments that will affect Turkey and the region’s future will unfold in the Syria-Iraq-Iran triangle.

Q: What are the possible scenarios?

A: It is not possible to predict one or two scenarios. Several dynamics have begun moving. There are so many unknowns about events in Syria, Iraq and Iran. But these will inevitably affect Turkey. And in this framework, the Kurdish issue stands as a factor that could be used against Turkey. Therefore, it is wrong to approach the Kurdish issue as simply an upheaval or an issue of human rights. This has been a tool that was used and is being used against Turkey. And I see the current situation as much more dangerous than it was in the 1990s. We have neighbors that are very capable of using proxy methods. 

Q: But Turkey is much stronger than it was in the 1990s. Syria might avoid using the Kurdish card and antagonizing Turkey as it is dealing with so many problems internally.

A: There are two factors: there is no clue how the Kurds in Syria will act. They are silent. Then, we saw what happened in other countries. It is not possible to predict what tools the ruling cadres who are in a life-or-death situation will resort to. Of course, what is their power? Can it be effective? We should not just look at Syria; we need to look at other powers that will lose their strategic influence when they lose Syria.

Q: Meaning Iran.

A: It’s not just Iran; there could be other countries as well. And obviously this is against the backdrop of Turkey’s rising influence as a rising power.

Q: Could you elaborate on your expectations?

A: These regimes are very strong. Of course we are in 2012, and there is the factor of social media, meaning that the masses can move faster. I would not want to give a timeframe, but I don’t expect the Syrian regime will fall that quickly. Also, the Syrian regime is a geopolitical asset for some regional and global actors that they will not let go of easily.

Q: Internally, there seems to be a tendency to replace the weight of the army in fighting terror with civil security forces. Is that the right approach?

A: It certainly is. First of all, the relations between institutions are at a different point. Cooperation; planning joint actions; implementing joint actions and policies that are being shaped through common sense, rather than through one dictating to the other: These are things that we missed. 

Q: In the past, it was just left at the responsibility of the army, but you are saying that this has changed now.

A: It’s been said in the past: Leave it to the army; whatever they need, we’ll give them, and they’ll fix it. But it is now evident that you cannot get a result only through military means, not even in fighting terrorism. The fact that there will no longer be discrimination on intelligence issues between the Turkish Armed Forces (TSK), the gendarmerie or the police special forces and that intelligence will be shared in common are policies that will strengthen Turkey.

Q: But what happened in Uludere, in which 35 people died after being mistaken for terrorists, shows that there are still problems with intelligence.

A: I don’t think so. Obviously mistakes are unavoidable, especially if you base your intelligence only on technology, on unmanned aerial vehicles. This is also true of electronic eavesdropping intelligence because there are ways to deceive you and intentionally mislead you. This type of intelligence needs to be supplemented by human intelligence. But this is not always easy.

Q: But in the case of Uludere, it seems that human intelligence was also involved.

A: It seems that work has been done on both technological and human intelligence. But despite that, there was a mistake. Sometimes institutions can be misled by their sources. What has been ideal has been done, the right method has been used but the result is there. At the end of the day, 35 people might have passed the border and attacked an army post.

Q: At the time you were appointed to head the National Intelligence Agency (MİT), it was likely dominated by the military. Are we now talking about the civilianization of the intelligence services?

A: Not exactly. Information comes from different sources, but institutions keep them for themselves. The problem with the unwillingness to share information happens everywhere in the world. With whom will the intelligence be shared? Institutions can be very jealous.

Q: In general, where does Turkey stand in the world on this issue?

A: We are in the world average. This is a situation that you can’t really avoid. But recently it appears that there is a common effort – we are at a point where there is more intelligence sharing.

Q: How do you think this was accomplished?

A: Reciprocal understanding has evolved and of course this happened by political authorities asking it, imposing it and saying, “I want it that way.” The fact that political government put forward a very clear stance on what it wants shapes the activities of the institutions. There could be some rivalry, but the political authority will see that and force the institutions to reach a solution. For that you need political authority, you need to have a prime minister that gives importance to the issue.

Q: So should we understand that the position of the army in intelligence is changing?

A: The Armed Forces, as well as the gendarmerie, have sources. What really matters is to bring them together into one grouping with MİT. Legally, it is MİT which is responsible for intelligence state wide. All intelligence should be gathered by MİT. In the past, there have been some de facto developments in time. But now, we are getting back to the essence of the law. The transfer of GES the military’s Joint Staff Electronic Systems Command to MİT is one example. We are getting back to the conditions that are foreseen by Law no. 2937 which regulates MİT’s operations.

Q: In the past, there used to a civil-military rivalry; now it looks like there is a rivalry between MİT and the Interior Ministry.

A: I don’t know about that. But at the end of the day, what matters is how the prime minister and the interior minister will act. Institutions can act independently only up to a certain point. Afterwards, they are tied to the government.