Turkey Pulse

Cyberization means it's not your daddy's war anymore

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Article Summary
New technology is infiltrating the old conflict between Turkey and outlawed Kurdish militants, and soldiers may have to sacrifice their smartphones for safety.

It seems counterintuitive, but apparently some soldiers like to spend their free time ... playing soldier.

Turkey's army recently issued a directive warning that Kurdish militants have been trying to obtain logistical information about Turkish positions via an online war game app.

The directive was primarily for the Turkish Armed Forces (TSK) and Gendarmerie Command units tasked with combating terror in the field. It said the Kurdistan Workers Party (PKK) in Turkey and the PKK-affiliated People’s Protection Units (YPG) in northern Syria have been communicating via the game Playerunknown’s Battlegrounds (PUBG). The app, from China gaming titan Tencent, is very popular in Turkey and widely used in mobile gaming to evade electronic detection of players' phones and wireless communications.

The Turkish notice pointed out that in PUBG’s locations/region section, players' positions are identified. PKK militants, by entering chat rooms, establish contact with Turkish soldiers — first to play and chat, and later on to collect intelligence data such as their locations, their units, personal information and their possible operational plans.

The directive also instructs units to ban these games as a counterintelligence measure.

To prevent intelligence leaks, TSK conscripts are not allowed to use smartphones. They are only allowed to use simple phones in their barracks, at specified times. These simple phones can hold only seven military cell numbers, keeping conscript communications under control.

There are no restrictions on smartphone use for contract sergeants, noncommissioned officers and officers while on duty. It's prohibited to use smartphones in critical posts and during operations, yet this rule is not strictly applied.

So, obviously, Turkish soldiers serving at critical bases in Turkey or northern Syria spend their free time playing with their smartphones when there is internet access.

In PUBG, a single player survives after killing all other players. The game begins with 100 players (many of which are thought to be automated bots, initially) flying over available terrain maps and parachuting in wherever they want. All players start out under equal conditions, jumping to a location without anything in their possession. The players then recover weapons, equipment and supplies from several locations on the regional map and begin racing to be the last player remaining. Users can play solo or in teams of two or four.

The game can be downloaded to mobile phones for 90 Turkish liras (about $16). Players can organize tournaments in which they can establish voice contacts. This is the point where PKK/YPG militants jump into the equation. They frequently participate in these PUBG tournaments organized by Turkish soldiers. Often, they deviate from the game's objective and start clashing with each other, mostly by establishing voice contacts.

On YouTube, there are many videos where PUBG content is turned into clips. Some of those clips are prepared by Turkish nationalists, whereas others are prepared by PKK sympathizers.

PUBG is so popular among Turkish troops, YouTube even has entertainment clips of soldiers playing the game.

It appears that we have to get used to the cyberization of armed conflict between Turkey and the PKK. As Turkish security units and the PKK compete to collect intelligence, their clashes have moved from the field to cybertournaments and chat rooms.

Are the characteristics of the conflict changing? We will have to wait and whether the four-decade-long bloody conflict evolves under the influence of this new dynamic.

We know that in October, the Russian army introduced restrictions on smartphone use and banned soldiers from sharing content on the internet — including selfies.

Senior sources told Al-Monitor the Turkish army is also considering a smartphone ban for active-duty soldiers. Sources said the army is trying to find a way to balance information security, counterintelligence measures and ways of boosting combat troops' morale. In today’s combat conditions, when soldiers’ contacts with their families and loved ones are broken as a counterintelligence measure, morale and motivation can rapidly decline.

In the era of cyberization of armed conflicts, the TSK, like all other armies, has to work hard to strike this sensitive equilibrium in its fight against terror.

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Metin Gurcan is a columnist for Al-Monitor's Turkey Pulse. He served in Afghanistan, Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan and Iraq as a Turkish military adviser from 2002 to 2008. After resigning from the military, he became an Istanbul-based independent security analyst. Gurcan obtained his PhD in 2016 with a dissertation on changes in the Turkish military over the preceding decade. He has published extensively in Turkish and foreign academic journals, and his book “What Went Wrong in Afghanistan: Understanding Counterinsurgency in Tribalized, Rural, Muslim Environments” was published in August 2016. On Twitter: @Metin4020

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