ISTANBUL - The Turkish army is engaged in a two-front war, fighting both in Turkey and Syria against PKK Kurdish rebels. With a third front possibly looming, questions are being raised about how sustainable such operations are, given the military is still reeling from massive purges within its ranks following July’s failed coup in Turkey.
Since the collapse of last year’s cease-fire with the PKK, the military has launched unparalleled numbers of counterinsurgency operations across Turkey’s predominantly Kurdish southeast. The operations have turned many towns and cities into rubble in vicious street warfare with the rebels. Further demands on the army came with an ongoing military incursion into Syria, targeting both Islamic State, and Syrian Kurdish forces of the YPG that Ankara accuses of being the affiliate of the PKK. Turkey considers the PKK a terrorist organization.
Now Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan has dispatched soldiers and armor to the Iraqi border to deter what he says are threats to Iraq’s Sunni minority. The prospect of an unprecedented third front is a front too many. “No army including the American army can deal with so many conflicts or fronts at the same time,” warns Retired Brigadier Haldun Solmazturk, head of the Ankara-based research group 21st Century Institute.
“There will be two outcomes - one, the slowing of the operational tempo and the other is the increase in the causality rates. And in Syria, both are happening and I don't see any reason that an intervention in Iraq would end up any different. And the situation is less than favorable for the army because army has been suffering from various blows, I mean purges, for the last 10 to 15 years.” Solmazturk has firsthand experience fighting the PKK throughout much of the 1990s and involved in cross-border operations into Iraq.
The Turkish military has admitted its operations in Syria have slowed, but blames a recent ban by Damascus on Turkish airstrikes on its territory, a ban that Ankara says has at least in part, now been lifted.
Since July’s failed coup, the military has been hit by a succession of major purges within its ranks. Nearly half its senior commanders have been arrested or dismissed, while its army special forces and air force have been hit especially hard. Over 300 of its 600 combat pilots have been arrested or dismissed.
Specter of growing demands
Demands on the beleaguered military could increase further. Current Syrian operations have been confined to non-Kurdish regions of Syria. That could change, “If there would be a terror attack from the Syrian Kurdish region, on Turkey. Then that would be a justified reason to intervene,” warns Muhammad Akar, head of the ruling AK Party in Diyarbakir, the main city in the predominantly Kurdish southeast of Turkey. “In that case, everyone in Turkey would consider this intervention as a legitimate act of self-defense, but, as yet, there is no such planning of Turkey at the moment.”
Ankara has made little secret of the fact that it views the Syrian Kurdish region on its border as a threat to its national security. It accuses the ruling PYD as being linked to the PKK.
For now, analysts say the army appears to be coping with the growing demands; but, with the ongoing operations showing little signs of ending, rotation could prove an increasing problem, “As the Turkish army is deploying troops, armor from the central region, Ankara, it means that they don't have much left behind,” observes General Solmazturk. “So the replacement would be a problem, and very difficult to solve and eventually this would have a detrimental effect on the operational tempo.”
The Turkish army is set to face a new demand. Interior Minister Suleyman Soylu has warned that there will be no let up in anti-PKK operations during winter, traditionally a quiet time due to severe weather conditions. There have been no reports of dissent within the military or at the growing numbers of funerals. Media coverage remains strictly controlled.
Maintaining morale could be the next challenge facing the country’s commanders and political leaders, in the face of the ongoing purges both within the army and wider society. General Solmazturk, warns of an approaching perfect storm.
“The recent government decisions to close military schools, to close army academies, to close army hospitals, and the general political situation in the country. Army people are individuals; they are in uniform, but they are Turkish citizens, they are human beings. They are happening as I am, with the media situation in turkey, with the suppression of rights, with the suppression of freedoms, coming together are having a detrimental effect on morale and operational capability of the Turkish army.”
Ankara dismisses such warnings, pointing to recent opinion polls showing strong support for the military crackdown on the PKK both in Turkey and Syria. Those polls, analysts say, will likely color deliberations by President Erdogan and his government with a referendum expected early next year to extend his presidential powers.