The Turkish government's threat perception has always reflected a military mindset because of weak and inefficient political actors resulting from the once-frequent military coups and memorandums issued against elected governments beginning with the 1960 coup. It was only a few years ago that the Justice and Development Party (AKP) government imposed its vision, to a certain extent, on the definition of external threats while limiting internal threats to extreme leftist, rightist and radical Islamic groups. In doing so, the AKP removed practicing Muslims from the military-drafted list of threats to the country’s still militant secular character.
Threat perceptions defined in the highly secret National Security Policy Papers (MGSB) are now believed to be influenced by the elected government. Regardless, Turkey continues to retain security-centric policies. In the future, however, they may come to be based on democratic principles if the Kurdish peace process initiated by the AKP government to end the three-decades-old terrorism problem is a success.
The Kurdistan Workers Party (PKK), outlawed by Turkey and on the terrorism lists of the European Union and the United States, has been waging an armed campaign for almost 29 years in support of Kurdish rights, such as recognition of Kurdish language education as well as equal citizenship status. Abandoning its initial goal of gaining independence from Turkey, the PKK is now seeking autonomy.
Although the PKK currently remains the number one internal threat to Turkish security according to the MGSB, this status may be about to change, should there be a successful outcome to peace talks. Only with that could Turkey’s controversial defense and security policies, as well as defense expenditures, become more accountable and transparent.
Progress in the peace process might also prompt the still politically meddlesome military to rethink its position. Why? Because the Turkish Armed Forces (TSK) have been the ones conducting the fight against the PKK, primarily in the Kurdish-dominated southeastern part of the country, in a battle not fully supervised by elected governments.
For decades, the long, drawn out fight against terrorism gave the TSK an excuse to delay much-needed military reforms so the armed forces could adjust to confront 21st-century threats. Such steps include reducing force size and phasing out conscription while becoming more mobile and efficient in arms.
The Syrian crisis on Turkey’s doorstep has, meanwhile, been a test for the TSK, measuring its ability to defend Turkey's border against external threats after being engaged for some 29 years in an internal struggle with the PKK.
According to local and Western military sources who spoke with Al-Monitor, the TSK maintains most of its military hardware on the Aegean despite there being no expectation of a Greek-Turkish war. Although Greece and Turkey continue to have deep-rooted territorial disputes in the Aegean, and the Cyprus question remains a point of contention, neither of these NATO allies is in the mood for conflict. “Most of this hardware should be moved to the south, along the 900-kilometer-long Syrian border,” one source argued.
Now that there is a possibility that Turkey might reconcile with its Kurds as a result of the peace process, the big question is how that will influence Turkish security and defense policies as well as defense expenditures, all of which have been a drain on the country's finances. According to the Ministry of Finance, the defense, security and intelligence budgets for 2013 saw a 16.3 percent increase over 2012 figures.
The combined defense, security and intelligence budgets total TL45.3 billion ($25.1 billion) for 2013, up from TL39 billion in 2012. The Defense Ministry's 2013 budget rose to TL20.3 billion from TL18.2 billion in 2012, an 11.8 percent increase. The budget of the National Intelligence Organization increased from TL750.9 million in 2012 to TL995.5 million in 2013 after its responsibilities were expanded. Some 50 percent of the expenses of Turkish land forces goes to the fight the PKK, a retired Turkish officer told Al-Monitor.
It should be kept in mind that the figures disclosed for defense and security do not include extra-budgetary resources earmarked for these sectors. The majority of these are unaccountable, as there is a lack of parliamentary oversight of the defense and security budgets. As noted, the fight against the PKK has consistently been a major factors cited for the high ratio of Turkish defense and security allocations. The security threat posed by the ongoing civil war in neighboring Syria as well as the unresolved status of Cyprus are additional factors.
Still, if the Kurdish peace process succeeds, Turkey will get a chance to make its defense spending more rational and to redefine threats. Once this has been accomplished, Turkey could also identify the necessary capabilities of the arms to be acquired to counter identified threats.
At the end of the day, if the fight against the PKK stops, the TSK should make adjustments to effectively deter external threats, such as crises at its doorstep in the Middle East and 21st-century threats, including cyberterrorism.
Lale Kemal (Sariibrahimoglu) is a columnist for the English-language daily Today's Zaman. She has also been the Turkey correspondent for the UK-based Jane's Defence Weekly since 1991.