Security challenges raise questions about Turkey’s regional power status

As Turkey flies air strikes against Kurdish rebels in northern Iraq and fails to play an important role in the Syrian crisis, its ambitions to become a regional power need to be questioned. Report highlights links between Islamist insurgents in northern Nigeria and al-Qaeda. In West Africa, piracy is on the rise, while a human rights commission reveals that thousands of unidentified bodies have been buried in mass graves in Kashmir. All this in today's security briefing.
Radu Nikolaus Botez
24 August 2011

Yesterday, Turkey announced it had killed around 100 Kurdish fighters in air strikes in northern Iraq, launched last Wednesday in retaliation to the deadliest single attack by the Kurdistan Workers’ party (PKK) on the Turkish army, the peak of a series that has left 40 soldiers dead since July. After the attack, Turkish prime minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan said that ‘our patience has finally run out. Those who do not distance themselves from terrorism will pay the price’, while president Abdullah Gul stated that ‘whoever thinks that he can bring Turkey into line with terror, violence and weapons is greatly misled.’

The PKK, which demands self-government for the Kurds, making up about 20% of Turkey’s population of 74 million, is considered a terrorist organization by both the US and the European Union.

Iran has also carried out attacks against the Party of Free Life of Kurdistan (PJAK), an off-spring of the PKK based in the Iraq-Iran border region that has engaged in attacks in western Iran. Iranian security forces said they had killed between 40 and 50 people, considering it a right to target terrorist bases beyond their borders.

Turkey does not only face an increasingly difficult situation within its borders; relations with states in its vicinity have also deteriorated over the past months. On Sunday, Turkish foreign minister Ahmed Davutoglu said that relations with Israel, in a crisis since nine Turkish nationals were killed when an Israeli commando intervened to stop an international aid flotilla from reaching Gaza last year, ‘will not remain as they are now, they will deteriorate even more’. Tensions with Syria, where the government’s crackdown on protestors has forced thousands to flee over the border to Turkey, have also risen. Last Monday, Davutoglu called for a stop of government operations, saying that ‘if the operations do not end, there would be nothing more to discuss about steps that would be taken.’

The openSecurity verdict: Recent developments, both at home and in its near-abroad, and the way Ankara has decided to handle them, raise questions about Turkey’s ascent as a regional power.

The launching of air strikes on Kurdish rebels represents a departure from political progress sought on the Kurdish question in the past years. Under what has been called the ‘Kurdish opening’, the government had aimed at easing tensions with the Kurdish minority. Although the success of this policy has been questioned by many commentators, the direction taken seemed to be more appropriate then recourse to military force. Measures included an unofficial amnesty given to PKK members from bases in Iraq and cells in Europe, aimed at bringing them back to Turkey, and the establishment of a Kurdish-language television channel, an important step given the ban of the Kurdish language in Turkey for over 80 years. Not only are Turkish air strikes likely to lead to retaliation by Kurdish separatists, they also make political progress quite impossible. There is, however, a further dimension to this. During the ‘Arab Spring’, Turkey has been repeatedly named as a role-model, but, as Fadi Hakura from Chatham House points out, ‘Turkey cannot itself be a model at the moment when the process of nation-building is far from complete’. In other words, Turkey’s ‘soft-power’ is suffering from the on-going air strikes in northern Iraq.   

Since Ahmed Davutoglu, an academic who also served as chief advisor to Erdogan, took over the job of foreign minister in May 2009, Ankara has been busy with following the former professor’s so-called ‘zero problems with neighbors’ foreign policy, based on the belief that, due to its geopolitical and geostrategic position, Turkey could become an important regional player. For this, however, better relations with its neighbors were needed. An example of this was the improvement of ties with Syria which, albeit initiated earlier, resulted from Davutoglu’s ideas and ultimately led to a strategic partnership agreement between the two countries in 2009.

Yet Turkey has failed to make use of its improved relations to obtain concessions from the Assad regime. It repeatedly called upon Syria to stop its crackdown but did not back its calls with actions. This questions Turkey’s influence in the region as much as its foreign policy doctrine which does not seem to be adequate given the environment Turkey is facing.

Report sees ties between north Nigerian rebels and al-Qaeda

According to a report published last week in the New York Times, an Islamist insurgent movement in north-east Nigeria aiming at overthrowing the government in order to establish an Islamic state, called Boko Haram, is believed to have developed links to al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM). Observers say the group’s growing propaganda campaign as well as improvised explosive devices (IEDs) used in recent attacks bear traces of exchanges with and support from AQIM, initially an armed Islamist resistance movement opposing the Algerian government that extended its geographical scope of operations and merged with al-Qaeda in the early 2000s.

Boko Haram, primarily carrying out attacks in the north-east, but also responsible for the bombing of the police headquarters in Abuja, the capital, in June, has benefitted from the brutal conduct of the military in operations against the insurgents as the number of sympathizers has increased, also among soldiers. On 12 August, Nigerian defence minister Bello Mohammed announced an investigation into the conduct of the army while praising its recent efforts against the insurgents.

Piracy in West Africa on the rise

Piracy attacks in the Gulf of Guinea, and particularly off the coast of Benin, have increased in frequency observers of the region say. Quoted by the Guardian, rear admiral Kenneth North of the US Naval Forces Europe-Africa stated that ‘I believe we are nearly at a crisis here, and if it’s a crisis there has to be action’. While the number of attacks in the area is lower than in East Africa – so far this year, 22 were reported by Nigeria and Benin as opposed to 163 off Somalia – analysts argue that attacks are largely underreported. No incidents had been reported by Benin last year, indicating a worrying trend. Contrary to the situation in the Gulf of Aden, where counter-piracy efforts are carried out under different outfits with the participation of a wide range of states, cooperation between states in West Africa is largely absent.

While their Somali counterparts usually hijack vessels in order to demand ransom, pirates on the other side of the continent seem to be more interested in the cargo carried by ships, especially oil, later sold on the black market, while also carrying out armed robberies that have been characterized by a high level of violence.

Human rights commission reveals mass graves holding unidentified bodies in Kashmir

On Monday, the Jammu and Kashmir State Human Rights Commission (SHRC), based on a three-year long inquiry, revealed that more than 2,000 unidentified bodies had been buried in mass graves across four districts of India-administered Kashmir. The commission, headed by a senior police officer, said in its report, parts of which have leaked to the media, that ‘there is every probability that these unidentified dead bodies buried in various unmarked graves at 38 places of North Kashmir may contain the dead bodies of enforced disappearances.’

The Indian security forces operating in the disputed region have repeatedly been accused of being responsible for the disappearances, killing locals and then describing them as unknown militants. Since its beginning in 1989, tens of thousands have died in the insurgency in Kashmir, a region claimed by both Pakistan and India. The report provides some recommendations, including collection of DNA evidence of the dead in order to identify them, and the identification of every person killed by security forces. Amnesty International has welcomed the report while calling for a widening of the investigation across the region.

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