Turkey at the head of KFOR for the first time, is there a reason for Serbia to be concerned?

Turski vojnici Kfora
Source: Kosovo Online

Turkish General-Major Ozkan Ulutas will assume command of KFOR for a one-year term on October 10th, marking the first time a representative from Turkey has led this NATO mission. Despite Turkey's recent efforts to arm and train the Kosovo Security Forces (KSF), interlocutors of Kosovo Online believe that Ulutas should strive to objectively fulfill KFOR's mandate.

Over the past 24 years, 27 commanders have held the position of KFOR commander, none of whom were from Turkey, including the outgoing commander, Italian General Angelo Michele Ristuccia. Ulutas will take office at a time when the Turkish contingent within KFOR is the second-largest in terms of troop numbers. According to KFOR's website, there are currently 4,511 soldiers on the mission, with the largest contingents coming from Italy (852), followed by Turkey (780), and the United States (679).

During the summer, drones Bayraktars were delivered to Kosovo from Turkey, and Kosovo's Defense Minister, Ejup Maqedonci, stated about twenty days ago that Turkey continued to support the development of the Kosovo Security Forces in all aspects, including training, education, and, most notably, the supply of weaponry and equipment.

Former Ambassador of the Federal Republic of Yugoslavia to Turkey and Islamologist Darko Tanaskovic says for Kosovo Online that considering Turkey supplies Kosovo with weapons and military equipment and trains their officers, Serbia may not particularly favor the appointment of a new KFOR Commander from Turkey. However, he emphasizes that the KFOR Commander does not receive orders from Ankara and will not receive them even when the Commander of this NATO mission is a Turk.

Our interlocutor adds that the addition of a contingent of Turkish forces in Kosovo during recent tense situations and the appointment of a Turkish general as the KFOR Commander is seen by Turkey, both politically and domestically, as significant achievements that they aim to capitalize on.

"In Turkish newspapers, there are big headlines that 'Turkish soldiers are back in Kosovo', and historically, we know what that means and what connotations it carries. From a practical perspective, it is a fact that Turkey has long been one of the privileged suppliers, not only of arms and military equipment but also a country that trains officers from various Balkan states, including Kosovo. In that sense, Serbia may not particularly favor the fact that the KFOR Commander is from Turkey. However, on the other hand, I don't think we should overemphasize the significance of this fact because, firstly, the KFOR commander does not receive orders from Turkey, and he will not receive them from Turkey even when he is a Turk. Of course, the Turks always try to incorporate their interests into NATO policy, but it is not decisive. It is known where the KFOR Commander receives his orders, certainly not from the Security Council, let alone from Turkey. So, from that perspective, we cannot expect significant changes," Tanaskovic says.

As he notes, on a human level, it is possible to talk about the Turkish General having certain sympathies toward Muslim Albanians in comparison to the Orthodox Serbs, but he also believes that it is not crucial.

"Turks are very disciplined officers, and he will strive to behave as objectively as possible. In fact, I believe that he will try to act more objectively than what would be expected from, say, an Italian, precisely to avoid creating suspicions of bias. All in all, and as we have seen in the tragic events in Banjska, we cannot speak of KFOR's objectivity, but we can say that they will somewhat respect certain boundaries in their engagement, which will not go beyond what would be a complete failure of their mission both morally and militarily. I do not expect this to be a significant change, but of course, a Serb cannot rejoice when a Turk is back in Kosovo. They were in the 'Sultan Murad' barracks, and symbolically speaking, we cannot overcome those resentments. From a realpolitik perspective, I believe there won't be much of a difference compared to the already evident bias of KFOR," Tanaskovic concludes.

Speaking generally about Ankara's policy, our interlocutor states that Turkey is regionally very interested in the Kosovo and Metohija issue since the Balkans are one of the priorities of their "neo-Ottomanist foreign policy, even broader national doctrine".

"They are interested in everything happening in the Balkans, especially concerning Muslim communities, and we know that Albanians in Kosovo are 90 percent or more Muslims. Turkey consistently supports Kosovo, although, so to speak, it strives to maintain good relations with Serbia in parallel and develop them because it understands that without Serbia, it cannot realize even those neo-Ottomanist plans as effectively as it would in cooperation with Serbia," Tanaskovic says.

Regarding the upcoming assumption of duties by Major General Ozkan Ulutas, State Secretary of the Ministry of Defense of Serbia, Nemanja Starovic, says for Kosovo Online that Serbia wants to believe that he is a professional who, as has been the case so far, will carry out the basic mandate of the KFOR mission, which is to ensure a stable and secure environment for all citizens in Kosovo and Metohija, especially for the Serbs who are currently the most endangered.

Starovic also adds that the cooperation between the Serbian Army and KFOR has been good and substantial over the last 24 years.

"We want to believe that this will continue during the next year under the command of General Ulutaş," Starovic said.

He points out that in the Balkan context, Turkey undoubtedly represents a great power, or rather, a regional superpower.

"We are aware of this, and Serbia maintains very good, substantive, and constructive relations with Turkey, whether in their political or economic dimensions. This, of course, does not mean that we have not raised our voice against everything we disagree with, especially concerning the accelerated supply of the so-called Kosovo Security Forces from Turkey. We consider this not only contrary to UN Security Council Resolution 1244 but also a move that contributes to the militarization of the problem, and we believe that is the last thing we need when it comes to Kosovo and Metohija. Of course, the Serbian Army has prepared adequate responses to such actions, but we simply do not believe that it is the right path to take. Considering that we expect the visit of the Turkish Minister of Defense to Belgrade in a little over two weeks, we believe that this will be an opportunity to clarify all these issues with the Turkish side in an open and honest dialogue," Starovic says.

Kosovo has acquired drones of the Bayraktar type from Turkey, as well as the anti-tank system OMTAS with a range of up to 4,500 meters, 105mm Boran howitzers, infantry fighting vehicles Vuran, and 120mm ALKAR mortars, RTS recently reported. Most of these acquisitions are considered donations, but Turkey claims to have sold some systems to the Kosovo Security Forces.

Regarding the KFOR mandate, it is derived from Annex 2 of UN Security Council Resolution 1244, which stipulates that "international security presence, with substantial NATO participation, must be deployed under a unified command and control and authorized to establish a secure environment for all people in Kosovo, as well as to facilitate the safe return of all displaced persons and refugees to their homes".

NATO established the KFOR mission in June 1999, following the conclusion of the bombing of the Federal Republic of Yugoslavia.