Border Conflict: A Syrian rebel fighter checks a launcher near the village of Kasab and the border crossing with Turkey. Conflict in Syria and Iraq near Turkish borders has renewed Ankara's interest in equipment to engage in asymmetrical warfare. (AMR RADWAN AL-HOMSI/AFP/Getty Images)
ANKARA — A fragile ceasefire with Kurdish insurgents a couple of years ago following decades of conflict led Turkish procurement officials to emphasize equipment geared for conventional combat.
But the recent advance of radical Islamists from eastern Syria to western and central Iraq, both Turkey’s neighbors, and an attack on a Turkish consulate have forcefully reminded Ankara that it must maintain readiness for asymmetrical war at all times.
Along Turkey’s southern and southeastern borders Ankara faces a dangerous belt of irregular armies ranging from various factions of al-Qaeda-style jihadists to Kurdish paramilitaries.
Since the Sunni militant group Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (ISIL) took control of the northern Iraqi city of Mosul and seized 49 personnel at the Turkish consulate there, Ankara has engaged in silent diplomacy for the release of the captives, including its consul general, in Iraq’s second biggest city.
“In such delicate matters it may not be appropriate to make too many statements or get into details. There is a critical and dynamic process ahead of us,” Turkish Foreign Minister Ahmet Davutoglu said in televised comments here.
Analysts said the rapid advance of Islamist militants across Iraq and Syria early in June highlights Turkey’s exposure to new asymmetrical threats.
“No matter how the hostage crisis ends it will have awakened Turkey to a bitter reality that, with or without peace with its Kurds, it now faces new [asymmetrical] threats from various Islamist groups, not just ISIL,” said one London-based Turkey specialist. “A year ago Turkey was bordering a failed state [Syria]. Now it borders two.”
“From whichever angle one looks, the Syrian crisis is a nightmare come true for Turkey. By quickly deciding to side with the rebels and insisting on [Syrian President Bashar al-] Assad’s overthrow, Ankara transformed itself into an unwavering belligerent in this conflict,” Henri Barkey, a professor of international relations at Lehigh University, said.
“As negative as the consequences of the stalemate have been so far, they could have been a great deal worse. Paradoxically, the Turkish government that has had unending troubles at home with its varied oppositions has managed the negative fallout from Syria rather well. The question is, how long can it continue to do so?” Barkey said.
After initial support for Islamist groups fighting Assad and under pressure from Washington, Turkey only this month designated al-Nusra, another al-Qaeda offspring, as a terrorist organization. Just when the Turks eventually agreed to cooperate with the United States and European Union to track and apprehend the jihadists, the mightiest of Islamist groups took 49 diplomats and their family members hostage.
“The Syrian and Iraqi theaters of civil conflict have now finally meshed into a single one,” Barkey said.
An Ankara-based defense analyst said the merger of the Syrian and Iraqi theaters and the sudden emergence of a challenging threat in both will force Ankara to revise its procurement strategy to favor equipment designed to counter asymmetrical threats, rather than prioritizing conventional weaponry.
“This is a wake-up call for Ankara. I am not sure how rapidly the Turks will adapt to the new situation, but in time they will realize that they better do that sooner than later,” the analyst said.
If Turkey wants its Army better equipped to tackle asymmetrical warfare, another analyst said, it must prioritize improving intelligence and its ability to conduct cross-border surgical operations.
Turkey’s procurement officials may have taken notice. One official said June 17 that Turkey could consider acquiring a balloon and ground stations for border security.
“Satellites may often provide belated input due to the nature of satellite imagery,” he said. “But input from a surveillance balloon will often come close to real time,” he said.
Turkey in the past negotiated with Lockheed Martin for the purchase of a surveillance balloon to boost its fight against Kurdish insurgents but no deal was ever reached.
An Army official said that one imminent strategy could be to deploy, with appropriate gear, mobile rapid reaction troops along Turkey’s 560-mile border with Syria. ■