The Turkish Armed Forces (TSK) is one of the organizations worst affected by last year's failed July 15 coup attempt perpetrated the Gülenist Terror Group (FETÖ). Even though the TSK had to deal with the dismissals of FETÖ members who systematically infiltrated the organization over decades, in the meantime the armed forces has restructured itself and is now fighting against terrorist organizations such as Daesh and the PKK inside and outside of Turkey's borders. Daily Sabah talked with retired Lt. Gen. İsmail Hakkı Pekin, who served as the head of the TSK's Intelligence Department, to find out how the armed forces was able to pull itself through this incident and asked his opinion on regional issues. Lt. Gen. Pekin believes that still, about 15 percent of the TSK, consists of FETÖ members and hence, dismissals will continue in the Supreme Military Council (YAŞ) meeting in August.
Responding to a question about whether there is a risk of a new coup attempt, Pekin said there are some groups trying to sow the seeds of chaos in Turkey and stressed that if such chaos does break out, the TSK might resort to a coup to quell the chaos. Pekin emphasized that the Republican People's Party's (CHP) used the same discourse with FETÖ and the PKK during their "justice" march, thus their aim might be to spark an Orange Revolution-like chain of events in Turkey.
Regarding regional issues, the lieutenant general said the U.S. is not in a position to exclude Turkey over the issues in the Kurdish region after the planned Kurdish corridor was stopped by Turkey's al-Bab operations. Underlining the necessity of the continuation of military operations against the People's Protection Units (YPG) in Syria, Pekin said the Afrin operation has been not cancelled, while adding that Turkey is planning its steps in Afrin and Kobani and biding its time. Stressing that the YPG needs to disarm and normalize; otherwise, they will be left isolated, Pekin added that the normalization process may take place between Turkey and the YPG if the YPG gives up on its intention to build a Kurdish state in northern Syria.
DAILY SABAH: A year has passed since the July 15 coup attempt. In your opinion, was the TSK able to pull itself through this incident?
İsmail Hakkı Pekin: I don't believe they were able to pull through completely. It's true that the TSK is conducting successful military operations against terrorist organizations like the PKK and Daesh both in Turkey and abroad. Operation Euphrates Shield demonstrated Turkey's military success to the whole world. All of these indicate that the TSK's operational capacity and capability is still top notch, despite the July 15 coup attempt and the dismissals from the army. In my opinion, especially the air force is currently vulnerable; there was an immense decrease in the numbers of pilots. Certain measures have to be taken to address this issue. On the other hand, our naval force is functional.Still, we have to acknowledge that the TSK has issues with morale and motivation that are yet to be addressed. Because of the dismissal of FETÖ members and the following processes, there is a lack of communication between subordinates and superiors along with a notion of mistrust. Moreover, because of the FETÖ military officers who were involved in the coup, we can talk about a similar notion of mistrust between the public and the TSK. These issues have to be resolved as soon as possible.
D.S: Are there any FETÖ members remaining in the military? Should a new wave of dismissals be expected at the Supreme Military Council meeting in August?
İ.H.P: I believe there are Gülenist within the TSK that amount to 15 percent of the personnel. The majority of them are lieutenant colonels or military personnel of lower ranks. Most of the Gülenist commanders were dismissed; yet, we must remain vigilant. Dismissals will surely continue with the Supreme Military Council meeting in August.
I don't expect a major shift in the commandership; it is a matter of trust. Elected officials should trust the military and vice versa. Indubitably, it will be a challenging meeting. There are rumors about certain individuals; they should be and will be dismissed. In my opinion, many issues will be resolved following the said meeting; promotion to officership, the reopening of the war college and education at military academies will all be addressed. Turkey has four or five years to resolve these issues and they should be resolved quickly.
D.S: There are allegations that the political will has increased its influence over the TSK and the military has become dependent on the government, especially after the coup attempt. What is your take on these allegations?
İ.H.P.: If you are asking whether the TSK has become a political party's army, my answer is no. President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan, Prime Minister Binali Yıldırım, the Justice and Development Party (AK Party), Chief of Staff Gen. Akar and all other commanders would definitely object. Such a military would always be vulnerable as it depends on figures. The TSK is an army with strong traditions and it continues to be the army of the nation.
D.S.: A little while ago you said Turkey has four or five years to get prepared. What are you expecting to happen in five years' time?
İ.H.P.: In the following days, Turkey might face various issues in Cyprus, the Eastern Mediterranean and the Aegean Sea along with the Middle East. There might be other threats that aren't apparent at this time. To resolve these possible issues, the TSK has to recover completely and become stronger than it is. The current challenges don't surpass the TSK's capacity and capability; however, we may have to face larger threats.
Turkey is a powerful country in terms of its intellectual structure, army, work force, population and economic volume. Turkey has always been a country that can influence the Balkans, the Middle East and Caucasia. In this respect, it's not a country that neither the U.S., nor the EU or Russia should abandon. Despite all the reactions and criticism, Europe, Russia and the U.S. all want to keep Turkey by their side. They cannot realize much in the region without Turkey's support.
D.S.:Do you believe that a new coup attempt might take place? Is there such a threat?
As you know, there was a march that ended recently: the Republican People's Party's (CHP) "Justice" march. To organize a march is definitely CHP Chairman Kemal Kılıçdaroğlu's legal constitutional right; however, their discourse is on the same page as FETÖ's and the PKK's. They also demanded support for the march from Europe. All of these make me think that some might be trying to spark an Orange Revolution-like chain of events in Turkey. There weren't many provocation or any attempts of it during the march, yet, in the following days, I expect these kind of protests to continue. For this reason, I am thinking about the possibility of unrest. There might be street protests if FETÖ and the PKK attach themselves to the CHP. Suffering heavy losses in Raqqa and Mosul, Daesh may try to attempt terrorist attacks in Turkey.
In my opinion, some might be trying to sow chaos in Turkey, which they have failed to do with the July 15 coup attempt, Dec. 17-25 and the National Intelligence Organization (MİT) truck incidents. If there is such chaos, the TSK might resort to a coup to quell the chaos, however, even this coup wouldn't be a reflection of the nation's will or interest. I believe it would be a pro-U.S. coup attempt.
Is it possible that the Kemalist and/or neo-nationalist officers who might replace the dismissed Gülenist officers attempt a coup?
I don't think it is very probable, as I don't believe there is a distinction as Kemalists and others. This is slander, speculation by FETÖ to weaken the army. Let's look at history for a moment. After abolishing the janissary corps in 1826, Sultan Mahmud II was unable to form a proper army, the main reason being mistrust. The same issue of mistrust exists in Turkey. The civilian government is wondering who to trust. These are completely natural, especially after last year's trauma. A portion of the TSK's personnel was dismissed because of faux trials organized by FETÖ. On the other hand, FETÖ infiltrated the army for almost 40 years. It's their turn to be dismissed and it is an absolute necessity. They need to be replaced by someone; if they are replaced by nationalist Kemalists, a coup would be out of the question. It's a provocation that attempts to abuse mistrust, weaken the TSK and cast a shadow on the government. As I've said, a certain degree of mistrust is only natural; however, Turkey should be careful to not become a pawn in another's scheme. The measures to be taken to cull the possibility of future coups are definite. The TSK is now under control, many of the middling personnel were dismissed and all forces are being supervised by the Ministry of National Defense. Moreover, their jurisdictions are all clear.
In this respect, how do you evaluate the force commands becoming subordinate to the Ministry of National Defense?
I believe it's the right thing to do. Previously, there were separate departments of the force commands within the General Staff, the ministry and their own respective compounds. However, Turkey is a singular theater of operations that is commanded by the General Staff Operation Command Center. Thus, air, naval and land forces should not have a separate operation command center. It's a joint operation. In this sense, I believe the decision is appropriate.
What is your opinion on the ongoing fight against terrorist organizations?
A decisive and successful fight against terrorist organizations is being conducted. The initiatives in 2013 indicated that terrorist organizations won't surrender peacefully. During that era, terrorists announced certain regions as "liberated areas" and increased their own area of influence, preparing for urban warfare. Fighting terrorist organizations with force alone doesn't have much meaning and it won't yield desirable results; economic and social measures should also be taken. Currently, roads and dams are being built in the region and there are new opportunities for employment there. In this respect, the fight against terrorism within the boundaries of Turkey is going well. The fight against the PKK and Salafi terrorist organizations like Daesh are also ongoing. This fight also has an external dimension. We are using military aircraft in operations in Iraq. We have good relations with Masoud Barzani of the Kurdistan Regional Government (KRG) in Iraq - we are cooperating with them against the PKK in both Iraq and Syria.
The planned Kurdish corridor was cut by the Al-Bab operations, however, this operation has to be expanded. Tal Rifaat must be captured and the controlled area to the south has to be expanded as people will be resettling there. There is continuous harassment coming from the other side.
Regarding Idlib, we are negotiating with Russia. There are certain groups in Idlib that Turkey supports. Russia wants these groups to be controlled by Turkey and demilitarize the region. Therefore, they are seeking a political resolution. If this is realized, only Afrin will be left in the middle. As I have said, there are certain efforts to realize Turkey's interests. If there is an agreement on Idlib, Russia may approve Turkey's further operations. I believe the U.S. won't be against these operations as well; the U.S.'s only purpose is to create a Kurdish region northeast of the Euphrates. They are working toward this goal and don't want Turkey to intercept their efforts there.
Considering the recent developments, the U.S. isn't in a position to exclude Turkey in the said issue of the Kurdish region. The U.S. and Turkey will need to compromise sooner or later. They have created a non-conflict zone on the southeast of Damascus by compromising with Russia. Similarly, there might be an agreement to ensure the territory occupied by the YPG remain as a part of Syria, instead of an independent country. There is oil in that region; however, in order to sell the oil and import rations, they need Turkey. Turkey could use this to its own advantage and strike a deal. Therefore, the YPG needs to disarm and normalize, otherwise, they will be left isolated. Most of the logistical support to the region is already going through Turkey.
This is an important point: Are you saying that a normalization process may take place between Turkey and the YPG, similar to the one with the KRG?
It might be the case, it depends on the YPG's disposition. Ultimately, their aim may be to form a united Kurdistan. This is the U.S.'s strategic goal. Turkey needs time to become a deterrent in the region.
Turkey has become the crossroads of pipelines and energy lines. Considering this factor, Turkey is indispensable for the U.S., Europe and Russia. We are selling the KRG's oil and conducting construction business in the region. The same might eventually happen with the YPG. So, we have to calculate how we can prevent them from forming an independent country. As long as they remain a part of Syria and the relations are normalized, we may provide logistical support to them.
However, if they insist on forming an independent country and threatening Turkey, Turkey will employ the necessary force and prevent it. Furthermore, Turkey isn't only a military force; it also has a significant soft power. Turkey may realize this by resettling Arabs and Turkmens to the recaptured regions, for instance in Idlib.
The political dimension is important. You may crush the Democratic Union Party (PYD) and YPG with military force; however, when you do that, you will have to face the U.S. and Europe. You will be isolated. Russia is supporting Turkey to an extent but they also don't want to relinquish the Kurdish card.
The Kurdish card is important in the Middle East. If you want to realize a certain goal, you need to cooperate with either Arabs, Kurds or Salafi groups. Kurds are seen as the most suitable partners. Therefore, the U.S., Europe and Russia don't want to relieve Kurdish groups. Turkey may use this to its advantage by being smart. The U.S. is providing logistical support to the region from afar, Turkey may create a similar effect, especially considering its closeness to the region.
There are theories about the establishment of a Kurdish corridor south of Turkey, which will nullify Turkey's position as a distribution center for oil and natural gas, to directly ship the said energy products by using the Mediterranean Sea. Are these projects real or just conspiracies?
I believe there is a project that was led by the U.S. and this is why Turkey became involved in Syria despite not wanting to do so. If Turkey hadn't commenced the operation in Al-Bab and supported the groups in Idlib, the plan would have been realized. They saw Turkey winning this battle. Currently, they are making a project that will threaten Turkey's southern border with the PYD. Turkey has to prevent it and definitely will. On the other hand, Turkey has already demonstrated that it is the safest partner to transfer energy lines through its territories.
Was the operation to Afrin canceled?
I don't believe it is canceled. The PYD/YPG are basically asking for protection against Turkey in exchange for fighting in Syria. The U.S. or Russia will not promise them anything at this point. Turkey is planning its steps in Afrin and Kobani and biding its time. Turkey should always have a considerable force there and it should act like the sword of Damocles.
Considering recent developments like the establishment of demilitarized zones in Syria, could it be said that the civil war is nearing an end?
I don't think this is the end. As long as the rivalries between the U.S. and Russia along with Israel-Iran continues to exist, the war will rage on. Israel and Saudi Arabia are trying to prevent Iran from accessing the Mediterranean and Lebanon through Iraq and Syria. On the other hand, if Russia and the U.S. reach an agreement, the war might eventually end. Yet, Syria is divided into four or five regions, which is a situation Turkey doesn't desire. A U.S.-protected demilitarized zone on the south that borders Jordan and Israel, a Kurdish region on the northeast parts of the Euphrates that includes Manbij and is controlled by the U.S. Turkey controls the territory that reaches to al-Bab; meanwhile, Russia and Turkey jointly controls the part that is from Afrin to the border of Hatay. The remaining regions are under the joint control of Russia, Iran and Syria. Syria, in this way, is being divided into four or five parts. This might be useful for a cease-fire, but poses an obstruction to the permanent peace.
There are many scenarios about Syria. One of them is the division of Syria; Northern Syria along with the KRG being placed under Turkey's protection and the remaining regions being placed under Russia and Iran's protection. A similar agreement to Dayton in Bosnia might be the case here. The regions in question were divided into cantons and these cantons became unmanageable because of co-chairmanship. This is what they're trying to achieve.
Lastly, how would the KRG's decision to proclaim independence after the upcoming referendum affect the regional balance of power?
The KRG will realize a referendum that includes the contested territories of Kirkuk and Mosul. Even if independence is the result of the referendum, I don't believe they will proclaim it right away; it would create a problem with the Iraqi Central Government and Barzani needs funds. Such a country would need a connection to the sea in order to import goods and their connection relies on Turkey.
According to estimates, the KRG needs to produce 850,000-900,000 barrels of oil daily and sell them for $105 per barrel to survive economically. Currently, their production is around 550,000-650,000 barrels per day and they sell it for $50 per barrel. Moreover, if their proclamation of independence creates tension with Turkey, they might also be deprived of this income. If this is the case, all hell would break loose in the region and the intervention of leading powers could be in question; there are many American, Dutch, French and British companies operating in the KRG. In short, I don't think that the KRG could easily proclaim its independence.