Virus may have multiplier effect on Turkey's security challenges
Barçın Yinanç - ISTANBUL
“The good news is that it will have a negative effect on the illegal PKK,” said Nihat Ali Özcan, adding that the terrorist organization will be forced to scale down its activities in Syria and northern Iraq.
How does COVID-19 affect Turkey’s security problems?
The pandemic deepens already existing problems and changes the nature of some of them. At the same time, it is having certain positive effects on some other problems. On the other hand, the pandemic also has the potential to create new problems.
First of all, the pandemic creates economic problems and raises challenges to the health system. If these are not properly managed, the ensuing social turmoil, which will put pressure on public order, could turn into a security challenge in several countries. If the measures against the pandemic lead to extreme economic hardships, these measures could turn into security problems.
Meanwhile, the pandemic is affecting security institutions, diminishing their capacities. Turkish soldiers, for instance, are on deployment in different regions, from Somalia to Afghanistan. They need the necessary protective equipment against the pandemic, and the biggest challenge comes in conflict zones like Syria or Iraq.
In both of these countries, the pandemic has the potential to change the nature of the problem. The emergence of the pandemic in these regions brings in an actor not factored in before. In the long run, we can predict that the pandemic will lead to important results in failed states.
Another dimension pertains to migration. In the course of the past few years, migration to Turkey was on the rise not just from neighboring countries but from countries like Pakistan Afghanistan and Africa. The pandemic will add an additional pressure to the migration problem. This might bring a new wave of migration.
In short the pandemic might have a multiplier effect on certain problems.
You said the pandemic has some positive effects on the already existing problems.
The good news is that the pandemic stands to negatively affect the illegal PKK, which is Turkey’s number-one security problem. First of all, PKK militants in the mountains have difficulty in terms of taking measures against the pandemic, especially due to their physical living conditions.
Second, the imminent expectation of the people is for the state to fulfill its functions and provide health services. The people in regions where the PKK is active cannot be expected to approve the terror organization’s mobilization against the state’s institutions. Despite favorable seasonal conditions, this is forcing a drop in its activities.
But isn’t there the possibility for terrorist organizations to benefit from the extra strain that the pandemic poses on security forces?
Naturally, terrorist organizations might have a short-term vision of turning this into an opportunity. But first of all, the number of PKK members inside Turkey has diminished considerably and they cannot undertake big attacks.
When I am talking about their living conditions, I am referring to northern Iraq and other regions where there is a serious density in the camps or caves in which they live. The pandemic poses a threat to them as well. In addition, they need the support of the people. But the people have other priorities like getting masks and medical help, which cannot be provided by the PKK. That’s why we can expect the organization to slow down its mobilization.
Can you elaborate on your projections on the challenges posed in Syria and Iraq?
In Syria, the most complex issue is the situation in İdlib. Turkey’s role in Idlib has transformed over the year from peace monitoring to peace implementation to protecting Idlib. In addition, this region is at the center of the U.S.- Russian and Iran-Israel rivalry. And now we have the pandemic. There is the urgency to protect Turkish security units in the region. When you think of their relations with the local community and the vulnerability of the local community as far as the pandemic is concerned, all this poses serious risks to Turkey’s border regions. After all, trade and crossings are continuing.
In Iraq, on the other hand, there is an increasingly deteriorating security situation. The economy is slowing down due to the drop in oil prices. The central government is incapable of catering to even the most basic needs. The border with Iran is closed, which has taken its toll on the economy. The problems that may arise due to the pandemic might assume such proportions that we might need to put aside Syria and focus on Iraq.
What will be the lasting effects of the pandemic on the security apparatus?
Armies will have to redesign their personnel policy. Think of 50 sailors on a submarine. Think of their relationship with their families. All this will require some changes.
More attention will be diverted to intelligence, especially medical intelligence.
And the armed forces will have to review their equipment, as well as their health systems. This will involve not just the armed forces but the police, gendarmerie and intelligence units as well.
Should we expect countries with military presence in faraway regions to downscale their activities?
That would depend on the nature of the regime and the public sensitivity. If the problems faced by the soldiers lead to public debates and crises, democratic countries like France and Germany will be more sensitive to these debates. Some countries may think the risk posed by COVID-19 is too big and might opt to withdraw. But other countries, like the United States, which believe their presence is required by their national interests will not give up. The pandemic won’t change its stance in the Middle East or the Pacific.
Could we see the rise of proxy wars?
Indeed, those countries wary of public reaction might opt to hire professional companies that are willing to fight under any circumstances.
But we will also see further use of technology, like drones, robots and artificial intelligence.
How do you think the intelligence world will be affected?
We are already seeing the politization of intelligence. Politicians want their views to be supported by intelligence units or wants to hold them responsible in case of failure. How will intelligence units act? Will their approach be professional or will they act in line with politicians? We will see a further politicization of intelligence in the Western world as we have seen in the U.S. case.
Meanwhile, everyone is now asking this question: How did COVID-19 affect us and our rivals? They will have to start thinking about the future according to the answer.
We will see an increasing capacity on intelligence about threats similar to COVID-19. There will be an organizational restructuring to include doctors, biologists, chemists and experts on public health. I am sure many intelligence organizations are now busy getting input on COVID-19 and similar threats to prepare for the future.
*Who is Nihat Ali Özcan?
Dr. Nihat Ali Özcan is an associate professor at the TOBB University of Economics and Technology in Ankara and a security policy analyst at the Economic Policy Research Foundation of Turkey (TEPAV).
He is a retired major from the Turkish Armed Forces, and received his bachelor’s degree from the Military Academy of Ankara. After graduating from the Army Transportation School, he served in a number of different units of the land forces between 1979 and 1998. He also graduated from Istanbul University’s Faculty of Law.
Dr. Özcan’s master’s degree and PhD were completed at 9 Eylül University in Izmir. He was an Academic Visitor at the Changing Character of War (CCW) program of Oxford University’s History Faculty from October 2010 to May 2011.
He has extensive publications on Turkish military, terrorism and counterinsurgency issues.