We hear a lot these days about the need to take Turkey’s (or Turkiye’s as the official name now reads, with proper dots over the u) legitimate security concerns seriously – to the extent that they are indeed legitimate. It was repeated by Jens Stoltenberg, the Nato chief for one more year, as he was seen rowing the boat at Harpsund with Magdalena Andersson, and before that in the context of a similar lightning visit to Finland. And it was reflected in the recent, renewed Swedish foreign policy declaration: we must convince Recep Tayyip Erdogan’s Turkey that we, we Sweden and Finland and we Nato as a whole, do take their “legitimate” security concerns seriously. Or else face the real risk that Turkey’s surprise decision to block the two countries’ Nato entrance – as a reaction to Russia’s aggression in Ukraine – will prevail for a long time still, empowered by the veto power rendered to all full alliance members.
A strange situation. But, one might ask, what are these legitimate security concerns? And to what extent are they legitimate, from a Nato (and Western) perspective? And what is implied by the word “concern”? In order to be hard security oriented, and therefore Nato- relevant, the meaning of “concern” should be understood to be equal to threat, security threat. It seems rather clear from the current discourse that what we, we Sweden/Finland and we Nato, US et alia, are asked (or demanded) by Ankara to take seriously, or respectfully, is not primarily broader security policy threat assessments but more specifically terror threats. We are asked to show understanding and respect for Turkey’s own, broad, definition of terrorism and Turkey’s resulting actions domestically and abroad in combatting this threat, and to stop or reduce criticisms of these actions in terms of human rights violations and foreign policy aggression.
So how can one today assess the “real” terror threats facing today’s Turkey? The word “real” would seek to distinguish between concrete, credible terror threats, on the one hand, and on the other hand the much, much broader category of political dissent that the regime in Turkey tends to lump together under the heading of terrorists – a difficult and controversial but necessary distinction.
The PKK threat
But sticking to that distinction and then looking more closely into the Turkish regime’s standard argumentation, there is first and foremost the PKK threat. The radical Kurdish insurgency movement PKK, founded in 1984 as a reaction to the then military regime’s harsh repression and later branded as a terror organization by the US, the EU and others (but not Russia!), clearly represents a legitimate case of terror threat. However, in responding to the regime’s call for respect and understanding, one has to remember that the terror stamp on PKK has not in a long time been a bone of contention between “the West” and Turkey; very little if any criticism has referred to Turkey’s recurring military campaigns against the PKK, whether in Turkey itself or in Northern Iraq’s Qandil mountains and the PKK bases there. And besides, as a result of the intense and intensified army operations against the PKK since the “resolution” process broke down in 2015, the big question now is whether the PKK at all represents as military/security threat to Turkey, in Turkey. This weakens the regime’s case as it asks “us” to show understanding for the regime’s demand for the extradition of activists and sympathizers in exile. And other repressive measures.
The YPG threat
Then there is the issue of the PYD/YPG in northern Syria, an indispensable ally of the US and the UD-led anti-IS coalition in the struggle against “Daesh” but terror-branded by Turkey because of the historical and ideological affiliation with the PKK in Turkey. Taking Turkey’s security concern seriously in this case is understood to mean for “us” to join Turkey in branding both military (YPG) and civilian (PYD) arms as terror organizations and to cease any political, military or humanitarian support for them. And to acknowledge the legitimacy of Turkish armed cross-border intervention against them, as is currently, again, Ankara’s declared intention. Clearly, secular Kurds in Northern Syria represent a political challenge to any political regime in Turkey – as a component part of Turkey’s longstanding struggle with both the “Kurdish question” and the “Pan-Kurdish question” and recurring separatist trends over time, but what about concrete and credible terror threats from PYD against Turkey? Very little, if any, according to international expertise. At least so far, due to a combination of caution out of self-interest on the part of YPG and US pressure, both wanting to avoid providing pretexts for Turkish aggression. For “us” to convincingly take this, i e Turkish concerns, seriously will in any case be a challenge, certainly as long as an ISIS return as a real threat cannot be disregarded.
The “FETÖ” threat
And then there is the Gulen movement, the rival Sunny Islamic movement that was declared a terror movement early in the turbulent year of 2016 and then, as from 3 months later, was accused as main actor in the attempted coup in mid July 2016 – and has been hunted ever since, in Turkey and abroad, and imprisoned in internationally unique numbers. To what extent does taking Turkey’s security concerns seriously mean accepting and supporting Ankara’s claim that “FETÖ” genuinely does represent a credible terror threat in the context of today? What does it mean for “us” to seek to convince Turkey that we take this particular security concern, a significant component of the Turkish regime’s claims to legitimacy, seriously? While the US has kept resisting Turkish demands to have the movement’s leader, Fethullah Gulen, extradited from his residence in Pennsylvania since 1999.
The “Daesh” threat, and that of e.g. HKPD-C
And then there is, still, ISIS, “Daesh” and its particularly complex and controversial role in Turkish sunni dominated society, in US-Turkey relations and in Turkey’s Syria policy, while remaining a lingering, concrete terror threat in and against Turkey. But there can be no doubt in Ankara that “we” unequivocally acknowledge ISIS as a classical case of terror organization. No quarrel there, not on this. Sweden, Finland, the US and all others, not only in the west, do take seriously the ISIS threat, to any extent that it still exists in its former area of operations. In the case, finally, of the leftist extreme leftist from the cold war era, the DHKP-C, very little, if anything, is heard from the Turkish side as regards seeking Western sympathy or support for their authorities’ longstanding combat against this marginal terror phenomenon. In this case, Turkey apparently can do without “us”, no particular understanding requested.
Clearly, this list of terror related phenomena in the politically, religiously and demographically complex fabric of the Turkish polity and society is not and cannot be complete. But these would seem to be the most relevant cases in a discussion of what it means – for “us” – to take Turkey’s legitimate security concerns seriously. A deeper look into this reveals that the overall picture is a rather mixed bag, with some concerns not being easily translatable into credible threats, and some concerns, or threats, being more internationally legitimate than others. And then, in terms of balancing understanding of threat perceptions and acceptance of means applied to combat (or forestall) those threats, there is the critical balance of ends and means.
Lots to discuss
So there is a lot to discuss, a considerable space for mutual clarification, as the pre-Madrid dialog between Helsinki. Stockholm, Ankara, Brussels and Washington gains momentum. Deepened understanding, mutual understanding, based on facts on the ground, is better than sterile mutual rejection and/or abuse of the veto power owned by the full member. Taking Turkey’s legitimate security concerns seriously – whatever it means in more detail (see above) – is a seriously challenging undertaking. A learning process for newcomers to Nato, one year (or less) ahead of the vitally crucial elections in Turkey, and a little more than a year ahead of the celebration of the 100 years anniversary of Ataturk´s modern state.
Taking Turkey’s (“legitimate”) security concerns seriously cannot possibly avoid taking something else seriously, perhaps equally seriously in a Nato context, namely the security concerns of other actors that are or fell seriously affected by Turkey’s security concerns, or interests.