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INSIGHT, Incek Debates: "How to improve international cooperation in the fight against terrorism?"

21. Yüzyıl Türkiye Enstitüsü tarafından yazıldı.

The Incek Debates, on 11 May 2016, discussed the question of ‘Why international cooperation in the fight against terrorism is failing’ with participation, as speakers, by the former Minister of Foreign Affairs, Amb. Yasar Yakis[1], journalist Ms. Tulin Daloglu and Dr. Oktay Bingol[2] of Baskent University. The debate addressed the root causes of this failure and explored ways, mechanisms and modalities to improve international cooperation. The session was chaired by Dr. Haldun Solmazturk, Director of the 21st Century Turkey Institute, and was participated by a select group of experts as well as an international representation from the diplomatic corps resident in Ankara. Below is a Rapporteur’s Summary of the outcome of the debate, not necessarily reflecting particular viewpoints expressed by any one of the panelists, nor those of any one or all of the participants in consensus. It is not a comprehensive paper on the subject, but only a summary of proceedings. The debate was off-the-record.

Executive Summary

International cooperation in the fight against terrorism remains too elusive and too politically charged. Turkey (or the Turkish government) and the EU—and the Western, if not international—community, as far as international cooperation in the fight against terrorism is concerned, are far from looking eye-to-eye.

Failure of the international community to achieve a consensus on a common definition of terrorism is not a real obstacle to international cooperation, but it hampers international efforts and provides a convenient political excuse—rather than an impediment—to governments who choose to refrain from taking part or contributing to certain initiatives in this context. A certain degree of overlap between ‘terrorism’ and ‘insurgency’ makes the subject even more complicated and difficult to resolve.

Conditions favourable for the spread of terrorism are also detrimental to fight against terrorism: poverty, illiteracy, overpopulation, political and economic exploitation, suppression, perceived social inequality, manipulation of cultural differences to political and ideological ends, effects of globalisation etc. In this respect, by remaining silent too long, international community has failed its responsibilities.

Turkey has lost ground and credibility in the fight against terrorism and has largely isolated itself from political decisions and military operations in the region.

Terrorism,as it grows stronger and spreads, is part of a grand change in the global order. There is a paradigm shift in the world. The definition—and conceptualisation—of terrorism is as important as avoiding to stigmatise each and every individual, particularly journalists and analysts, questioning if something is wrong with the current order.

There is very little interest unless terrorism transcends borders and very little, if any, lessons learned. De-radicalization of global and domestic politics is a long process and will take long years to take root. It is essential that the fight against terrorism is based on a genuine national and international consensus. The UN Global Counter-Terrorism Strategy can provide a sound basis to build on.

Removal of PM Davutoglu from office offers a golden opportunity for a complete reassessment of the Turkish foreign policy to include policies for international cooperation to fight terrorism, taking into consideration the lessons learned and drastically transformed landscape in the Near East. Governments need to focus on the bigger picture in the mid-to-long term.

Fighting against terrorism requires a comprehensive approach and a culture of how to fight terrorism while maintaining respect for human rights.

Academia and the media all have important roles. But civil society, particularly civil society think-tanks have a critical role to play to inform the debate in the media, public at large and in domestic and international politics.

‘International Cooperation’ as the ever-fashionable buzzword in the fight (or defense) against terrorism has always been around. Yet, almost everybody, particularly politicians keep complaining about its absence and it is one of the favorite subjects for renowned pundits in security and international affairs think-tanks who are always delighted to explain and elucidate how this situation plays into the hands of terrorists. The rapid rise of the Islamic State in Iraq and the Levant (ISIL), its widely publicised tactics and methods of terrorizing the international community and high-profile terrorist attacks from Ankara, Mogadishu to Paris and Nairobi (involving not only ISIL, but also others such as PKK, Boko Haram, al-Qaida) gave this long-standing debate a new vigour.

Russian intervention in Syria, Turkey’s constant complaints about the perceived indifference of the West in the fight against PKK (nowadays PYD/YPG as well) and the West’s complaints about foreign terrorist fighters allegedly enjoying Turkey’s tolerance, if not support, all added new dimensions to this already contentious debate. However, like the blind men trying to learn an elephant and eventually reach a complete disagreement, international cooperation in the fight against terrorism remains too elusive and too politically charged a concept to implement.

Turkey and international cooperation in context

The United Nations General Assembly adopted unanimously the Global Counter-Terrorism Strategy[3] (UNGCTS) in 2006. The Strategy is reviewed every two years[4]. It includes practical steps—to be taken individually or collectively by the member states—based on four pillars and a wide array of measures: 1. Addressing the conditions conducive to the spread of terrorism, 2. Measures to prevent and combat terrorism, 3. Measures to build states’ capacity to prevent and combat terrorism and to strengthen the role of the United Nations system in that regard, 4. Measures to ensure respect for human rights for all and the rule of law as the fundamental basis for the fight against terrorism. This Strategy serves as a blueprint and regular reviews help assessing the effectiveness of the measures taken and allow readjusting in line with the evolving terrorism landscape.   

The European Parliament in its Resolution[5]—on the European Commission’s Turkey 2015 Progress Report—while acknowledging “Turkey’s legitimate right to fight against terrorism” and condemning “the return to violence by the PKK, which is on the EU’s list of terrorist organisations”, nevertheless urged the Turkish government “to take its responsibility to resume negotiations (with the PKK) with a view to achieving a comprehensive and sustainable solution to the Kurdish issue” (emphasis added). EP condemned “the terrorist attacks attributed to ISIL/Daesh in Diyarbakir, Suruc, Ankara and Istanbul” and indicated that “stronger cooperation between Europol and Turkish law enforcement agencies is key to effectively combating terrorism”. More importantly, EP urged Turkey “to continue to increase its efforts to prevent foreign fighters, money and equipment from reaching ISIL/Daesh and other extremist groups via its territory”, because EP was concerned that:

Turkish authorities might not have taken all possible measures to stop and prevent ISIL/Daesh activities, in particular to combat illegal oil trafficking across its borders; (asked the EU) to enhance its capacity to exchange information and cooperate closely with the Turkish authorities in this matter in order to give further support to combating smuggling networks; …shortcomings in the arrest of foreign fighters and in controlling borders with Iraq and Syria.

EP also welcomed “Turkey’s participation in the Global Coalition to counter ISIL and the opening of its bases to the United States and coalition forces” but nevertheless did not shy away urging Turkey “to act with the necessary restraint and in full cooperation with its Western allies”.  What is more, EP condemned “Turkey’s military actions against Kurdish forces in Northern Syria, which undermines the fight against ISIL/Daesh and jeopardises peace and security efforts”.

The hardly hidden criticism and harsh wording of the EP—and Commission—reports clearly demonstrates that Turkey (or the Turkish government) and the EU—and the Western, if not international—community, as far as international cooperation in the fight against terrorism is concerned, are far from looking eye-to-eye. This observation was confirmed by the words of President Erdogan who argued that “They left us alone in fighting against this organization that hurts us with both suicide bombers and attacks at Kilis. …None of those who said they are fighting against the Daesh terrorist organization in Syria have either made them suffer the losses or pay the price as Turkey has done”.[6] Nonetheless, in yet another Report[7], the EU invited the Turkish authorities to urgently undertake some measures (which can be viewed in the light of 2006 UN Global Counter-Terrorism Strategy):

- adopting the measures to prevent corruption (UNGCTS-2006, Pillar I)

- aligning the legislation on personal data protection with EU standards (UNGCTS-2006, Pillar I)

- concluding an operational cooperation agreement with Europol (UNGCTS-2006, Pillar III)

- offering effective judicial cooperation in criminal matters to all EU Member States (UNGCTS-2006, Pillar III)

- revising the legislation and practices on terrorism in line with European standards, notably by better aligning the definition of terrorism in order to narrow the scope of definition and by introducing a criterion of proportionality (UNGCTS-2006, Pillar IV).

President Erdogan responded by defiance: “Pardon me, but we are going our way and you can go yours”.[8]

The conundrum of ‘definition’

There is no internationally agreed definition of terrorism. Several attempts to arrive at an agreement on a common definition have failed mainly due to two reasons which are interconnected: the term ‘terrorism’ is both politically and psychologically charged, and many nations oppose the definition including “the exercise of the legitimate right of peoples to resist foreign occupation”[9] or “the legitimate struggle of peoples under colonial or alien domination and foreign occupation, for self-determination and national liberation”[10].

However, there is a common ‘understanding’ if not a definition:

...criminal acts intended or calculated to provoke a state of terror in the general public, a group of persons or particular persons for political purposes are in any circumstances unjustifiable, whatever the considerations of a political, philosophical, ideological, racial, ethnic, religious or other nature that may be invoked to justify them..[11]

Failure of the international community to achieve a consensus on a common definition of terrorism is not a real obstacle to international cooperation to fight it. But it hampers international efforts and provides a convenient political excuse—rather than an impediment—to governments who choose to refrain from taking part or contributing to certain initiatives in this context. The actual disagreement is not about what acts constitute ‘terrorism’ but about the political and ideological ends such acts are directed to. In this respect, the problem is not only about ‘definition’ per se but also conceptualisation of the phenomenon largely or loosely called ‘terrorism’, suited to the purpose or circumstances.

A certain degree of overlap between ‘terrorism’ and ‘insurgency’ makes the subject even more complicated and difficult to resolve.

In the case of Turkey, similarly, the problem is two-folded—and even more complicated. The degree of violence, even the existence of ‘violence’ in the circumstances involved, as described in the Turkish Criminal Code and the Anti-Terror Law, is ambigious and this indeed has proven extremely problematic.[12] But the real disagreement or discordance between Turkey and the European Union for example, is rooted in the perception of acts and the organisations committing such acts as ‘legitimate’. Inclusion of PKK in their ‘list of terrorist organisations’[13] for many years notwithstanding, majority of the EU countries have given de-facto protection if not support to PKK and its affiliates. Some members of another entity in the same list, DHKP/C, convicted for ideologically-motivated murder of three persons in 1996 (in Turkey), have freely lived in Europe since then, despite the fact that they were arrested more than once, but eventually released by the authorities of EU member states.[14]

On the other hand, the international community (particularly the United States as well as the Russian Federation) has never adopted a stance against PKK similar to Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (ISIL). Moreover, the sharp contrast between Turkey and Russia, in characterising the ‘opposition’ groups fighting the regime in Syria is a typical case in point.[15]

Nor successive Turkish governments have been faultless and free from political/ideological considerations in this respect: Turkey has clearly and openly ignored the so-called ‘common position’ in the EU List, and both hosted individuals and lended support to particular persons, groups and entities included in this list as ‘terrorist’. Perhaps the biggest mistake committed by the Turkish government has been to enter into a series of political negotiations with the PKK, moderated by a third party, granting them, by implication, some de-facto legitimacy.

So nobody is completely innocent and the problem of ‘definition’ is used to disguise the dichotomy of ‘your freedom fighter is my terrorist’ (or vice versa). However, the existence of a contradiction even hypocrisy, does not make this fundamental problem go away and it has to be addressed. Since the nations (and their politicians) continue to act individually, versus in cooperation, based on their vested (petty?) interests (as they perceive them) which clash with those of others, the question is by whom and how.     

Conditions conducive to the spread of terrorism

“Missiles may kill terrorists. But I am convinced that good governance is what will kill terrorism.”[16]

Conditions favourable for the spread of terrorism are also detrimental to fight against terrorism.

The existence and survival of longstanding terror campaigns—and terrorist groups—are evidence of the failure of the international community to address the conditions that breed them: poverty, illiteracy, overpopulation, political and economic exploitation, suppression, perceived social inequality, manipulation of cultural differences to political and ideological ends, effects of globalisation etc. By remaining silent too long, international community has failed its responsibilities, in Palestine, Afghanistan, Iraq, Syria, Libya, Sri Lanka, Sudan, Myanmar and elsewhere.

The international community also failed by supporting or by simply turning a blind eye to suppressive regimes, unjust/corrupt rulers and poor governance. Democratic deficit, a deep sense of injustice and insecurity prevail all over the world. Peoples look for certainty, meaning and security.

As racism, xenophobia and religious radicalism spread, populist politicians create a vicious circle by manipulating already existing fears, which in turn feed radicalism and terrorism. That’s why, peoples—in the East and West alike—seek security and want to become close to ‘power’, hence the alarming rise of the ‘Right’ politicies and politicians.

Media has become part of the problem by making its services available—either willingly or involuntarily—to politics. Romanticizing certain acts and figures as implied or more directly hinted by ‘policy’ to paint a favourable picture is becoming common in certain international circles and in a particular context. On the other hand, this attitude is not necessarily limited to the media and journalists.[17] In the meantime truthful and uncontaminated reporting is becoming more and more difficult due to restrictions on media access.

Bottom line

Turkey has lost ground and credibility in the fight against terrorism and despite being a nominal member of the Counter-ISIL Coalition, has largely isolated itself from political decisions and military operations in the region.[18]

The world order is changing. Terrorism, as it grows stronger and spreads, is part of this underlying grand change. This change has to be comprehended correctly, in good faith and addressed accordingly.

There is a paradigm shift in the world. (For some, this ‘shift’ is being created and is needed.) The evolving concept of Responsibility to Protect (R2P) is a major deviation from the so-called Westphalia System which dominated international relations (Law of States) for a very long time. Its deficiencies, shortfalls and global risks associated with this ever-developing concept—first sadly exemplified by the Libyan case—do not make it irrelevant.

The definition—and conceptualisation—of terrorism is as important as avoiding to stigmatise each and every individual, particularly journalists and analysts, questioning if something (and what) is wrong with the current approach (in Turkey).

Like public prosecutors, bound with a common national legal code, who take action and investigate certain cases as they choose and pick (and ignore/defer others), one cannot expect sovereign nations behave the same way, voluntarily. Interests take priority over moral and legal considerations, no matter everybody pays lip-service to the latter. Escalating—and potentially hazardous—disagreement between Turkey and the US over PYD/YPG in northern Syria is a typical example.[19]

Consistency, reliability and compromise are more important than playing into domestic politics in the international environment where there is no universal authority to impose certain policies. Mutual finger-pointing has not solved anything, governments and leaders should avoid blaming and zero-sum policies.

The situation is not too bleak because there are certain international agreements, for example on air safety, for the safety of nuclear material or proliferation of weapons of mass destruction, which are implemented successfully. Such success stories can be utilised as catalysts for improving cooperation in fight against terrorism.

There is very little interest unless terrorism transcends borders and very little, if any, lessons learned, with few publications and non-govermental expert institutions. Terrorism is largely considered on the sidelines of the mainstream politics.

The terrorism ‘reality’ is largely missing from the daily political picture and intellectual debate. Besides, there is an ever-stronger attempt world-wide—chronic in Turkey—to overclassify and oversecuritise almost everything.

There is no international body with real powers to tackle with the subject globally and objectively. The UN Global Counter-Terrorism Strategy can provide a sound basis to build on.

De-radicalization of global and domestic politics is a long process and will take long years to take root. The sooner it is started, the better.

It is essential that the fight against terrorism is based on a national and international consensus. No matter how difficult even hopeless an expectation it may sound, it has to be achieved.

What can be done, by whom?

(Turkey) The recent removal of Prime Minister Davutoglu from office and the new government (albeit essentially with the same cadre), whatever the real reasons and circumstances behind this unusual removal are, offers a golden opportunity for a complete reassessment of the Turkish foreign policy to include policies for international cooperation to fight terrorism. Such a reassessment has to take into consideration not only the lessons learned (i.e. mistakes made) but also drastically transformed landscape in the Near East.

The differences of opinion should not stay on the way to block international cooperation. Determining their own national interests is a sovereign right of each nation and this should be taken as a given. Governments need to focus on the bigger picture and avoid unfruitful even counterproductive arguments over trivial issues; everything in the international arena is relative. Focusing on short-term ‘gains’ as they are perceived, may risk losing them altogether in the mid-to-long term.

As global arrangements and initiatives—for international cooperation—have largely failed so far, one way out of this impasse can be focusing on regional/sub-regional arrangements, to include cooperation with global (outside) powers as practical and constructive.

Fighting against terrorism requires a comprehensive approach—based on the four pillars of UNGCTS—but above all good governance to include fighting corruption and smuggling and ensuring rule of law and human rights. Cooperation in the difficult, up-hill battle against terrorism can only be based on perceived common interests but also on mutual trust in professionalism of the forces and institutions involved, a culture of how to fight terrorism while maintaining a genuine respect for human rights. All national and inter-governmental institutions have responsibility to train, educate and control their subordinates, individuals and organisations (and hold them responsible if they breach their mandates) so that hard-won successes are not wasted by disastrous examples.[20]

Role of the academia is important. Peace and Conflict Studies (a sub-field of International Relations) has great potential for addressing root causes of ‘terrorism’, for identifying hurdles to effective international cooperation and formulating means, methods and schemes for overcoming them.  

Media should adopt a moral—and professional—stance to report facts and avoid becoming an instrument of the propaganda.[21] Transperancy has its risks, but it is a must. The opportunities for the media to correctly understand the context and report accordingly—and responsibly—have to be provided. There is no constructive alternative to the freedom of the media.

As parliaments are generally under the de-facto control of governments, civil society, particularly civil society think-tanks have a critical role to play to inform the debate in the media, public at large and in domestic and international politics.



[1] Amb. Yakis was a Member of Parliament from Duzce, elected on the Justice and Development Party (AKP) ticket in 2002 and 2007.

[2] Dr. Bingol retired from the Turkish Army at the rank of Brigadier General in 2011.

[3] The Counter-Terrorism Strategy was prepared by the Counter-Terrorism Implementation Task Force, to enhance national, regional and international efforts to counter terrorism. https://www.un.org/counterterrorism/ctitf/en/un-global-counter-terrorism-strategy

[6] ‘Turkey left alone to fight Daesh, Erdogan says’. Anatolian (News) Agency (AA). 8 May 2016.

http://aa.com.tr/en/turkey/turkey-left-alone-to-fight-daesh-erdogan-says/568786

[8] ‘Cumhurbaskani Erdogan’dan AB’ye rest: Biz yolumuza siz yolunuza…’. Hurriyet, 6 May 2016. http://www.hurriyet.com.tr/abye-rest-biz-yolumuza-siz-yolunuza-40100363 However on 9 May, three days later, he made a prepared remark to the contrary: “EU membership is Turkey’s strategic goal”. As this report is finalised mid-May, the issue of ‘revising the legislation and practices on terrorism in line with European standards’—in addition to others, preventing corruption being one—represents a gridlock and blocks the Visa Liberalisation process.

[9] Statement by Saudi Arabia on behalf of the Organization of Islamic Cooperation (OIC) Member States. 12 Oct 2015.  http://www.humanrightsvoices.org/assets/attachments/documents/10.12.2015.saudi.arabia.terrorism.pdf

[10] Statement by Islamic Republic of Iran on behalf of the Non-Aligned Movement. 12 Oct 2015.

[11] A/RES/70/120. ‘Measures to eliminate international terrorism’. 14 Dec 2015. Art 4. http://www.humanrightsvoices.org/assets/attachments/documents/12.18.2015.ga.res.terrorism.pdf

[12] Some participants gave examples of civil society activists, journalists, academics and high-ranking military officers in Turkey who were convicted on charges of terrorism, in the early 2010s in dubious circumstances, thanks to such over-inclusive and vague definitions of ‘terrorism’ in the Turkish legal system. 

[14] A Belgian court only recently (20 years later) decided that Fehriye Erdal, one of the suspected accomplices of 1996 assassination will be tried in Belgium over crimes she committed in Turkey (If she can ever be found. Rapporteur). http://www.hurriyetdailynews.com/turkish-dhkp-c-member-to-be-tried-in-belgium.aspx?pageID=238&nID=99639&NewsCatID=509

[16] Ban Ki-Moon, UN Secretary General.

[17] Some participants gave the example of the commonly used theme of Kurdish female fighter pictured in glowing language in the Western media. President Erdogan’s oft-repeated calls for a reform of the UN Security Council, reflecting a sense of world order based on ‘injustice’ and ‘discrimination’, probably have similar, perhaps unintended effects on some of the emotionally vulnerable groups: “There is no Muslim country among the five—all of them Christian, non-Muslim. ... Is it fair? It’s not! We are looking for a fair world. We are fighting for a fair world”. ‘Erdogan calls for UN Security Council Reform’, 9 April 2016, AA. http://aa.com.tr/en/turkey/erdogan-calls-for-un-security-council-reform/552229

[19] No nation (other than Turkey) considers PYD as a terrorist entity, although its organic links to PKK are undeniable. Turkey, in October 2014, did allow peshmerga forces of KRG to cross over Turkish territory to help besieged YPG forces in Kobani, northern Syria. It is also now known that during the military operation to relocate Suleyman Shah tomb nearer Turkish border, in February 2015, Turkish forces cooperated with PYD and PYD leader Muslim, at the time of this operation, was in Istanbul.

[20] On this point, the example of the Canadian Airborn Regiment (CAR) case was offered. Canadian Government decided to disband this elite unit following an investigation (albeit cut short by the same government) into a series of human rights crimes, abuse of power and murders of the local Somalis, during the US-led multinational Operation Restore Hope in Somalia in 1993. The case was exemplary not only for decisive action by responsible political and military leaders, but also for risks involved in deployment of troops unfit for such difficult missions. http://publications.gc.ca/site/eng/9.646634/publication.html

[21] Some participants referred to the recent report by the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights on the situation in SE Turkey, as an example of self-sensorship of a potentially important development. ‘Need for transperancy, investigations, in light of alarming reports of major violations in south-east Turkey-Zeid’. 10 May 2016. http://www.ohchr.org/EN/NewsEvents/Pages/DisplayNews.aspx?NewsID=19937&LangID=E

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