Mapping the Turkish Military’s Expanding Footprint: QuickTake
(Bloomberg) -- Not since the days of the Ottoman Empire has the Turkish military had such an extensive regional footprint. Under its ambitious president, Recep Tayyip Erdogan, Turkey sent troops to Libya to turn the tide of the war there, and it keeps up a military presence in Syria, Iraq, Qatar, Somalia, Azerbaijan and Afghanistan as well as maintaining peacekeeping troops in the Balkans. At the same time, the Turkish navy patrols the Mediterranean and Aegean seas where Ankara has laid claim to energy and territorial interests amid escalating tensions with European Union members Greece and Cyprus. The effort comes at a cost. Military expenditure as a percentage of gross domestic product has risen almost 50% to 2.7% in 2019 from 1.8% in 2015, at a time when Turkey’s economy has weakened. Erdogan isn’t stepping back. He vowed to strengthen the defense industry further after the U.S. imposed sanctions over Turkey’s acquisition of a Russian missile-defense system. Here’s a look at where Turkey is flexing its muscle, and why.
Erdogan sent naval and land forces, as well as armed drones, to Libya to back the United Nations-recognized government, deepening a conflict that became a proxy war. Turkey supports the Tripoli-based government of Prime Minister Fayez al-Sarraj against forces to the east aligned with strongman Khalifa Haftar, which are backed by Russian mercenaries, Egypt and the United Arab Emirates. The two sides have agreed to a truce as the United Nations attempts to build a path toward elections. Turkey aims to salvage business contracts worth billions of dollars that have been thrown into limbo by Libya’s protracted conflict. And in return for agreeing to defend Sarraj’s government, it won Libyan backing for a contentious maritime deal reinforcing Turkey’s claim to rights in the eastern Mediterranean, where it has territorial disputes with Greece.
Turkey’s military intervention in Syria is one of its largest foreign operations since the collapse of the Ottoman Empire after World War I. Erdogan sent troops to Syria in 2016 to fight both Islamic State jihadists and U.S.-backed Kurdish forces, which are linked to militants of the Kurdistan Workers’ Party, or PKK, who have battled for an autonomous Kurdish region inside Turkey. Turkish troops also captured towns in northern Syria in an effort to establish a buffer zone to encourage some of more than 3.6 million Syrians who fled to Turkey to return home, and to avert a new wave of refugees. Turkey hit the brake on its Syria foray after it reached separate agreements with the U.S. and Russia in 2019 to keep Kurdish fighters in Syria away from its border.
Turkey frequently sends warplanes and troops across the border into northern Iraq to target PKK hideouts. It also maintains military bases originally set up for a peacekeeping mission in the 1990s, designed to enforce a cease-fire between rival Kurdish parties in the area mediated by U.S. and U.K. diplomats. Turkey says its continued presence is a deterrent against the PKK and a check on the independence aspirations of Iraq’s Kurds. In December, it sought to overcome Iraq’s opposition to Turkish incursions, offering support against the PKK which targeted Iraqi Kurdish forces.
Turkey has steadily built up a base in Qatar since siding in 2017 with the gas-rich Gulf state in its spat with a regional alliance led by Saudi Arabia. Turkey and Qatar are wedded by their support for the Muslim Brotherhood, a political movement that has troubled the Saudis and most other Gulf monarchies who see it as a threat to their absolute rule, especially since the Arab Spring revolts at the start of the 2010s.
Erdogan was guest of honor at Azerbaijan’s Dec. 10 military parade to mark its victory with Turkey’s help over Moscow ally Armenia. He watched about 200 of his troops join Azerbaijani forces in the center of the capital, Baku, who paraded Turkish-made drones that were decisive in defeating Armenia during the 44-day war that began Sept. 27 over the disputed region of Nagorno-Karabakh. Turkish troops were deployed in Nagorno-Karabakh to monitor a cease-fire between Armenia and Azerbaijan along with Russia. The Turkish troops’ mission included clearing land mines in the area. Turkey’s military also has a presence at an army base in Azerbaijan and access to an air force base there. Turkey has been supplying Azerbaijan new defense systems, including drones, missiles and electronic warfare devices.
In 2017, Turkey opened its largest overseas base in Mogadishu, where hundreds of Turkish troops are training Somali soldiers under a broader Turkish plan to help rebuild a country devastated by decades of clan warfare and an insurgency by the Islamist group al-Shabaab. Turkey has been increasing its foothold in the Horn of Africa nation since Erdogan visited in 2011, helping to revive such services as education and health as well as security. In 2015 Erdogan pledged to build 10,000 new homes in the country, while defense and industrial agreements were also signed. And in 2020 Erdogan said Turkey had an offer from Somalia to participate in oil exploration off its coast.
Turkish naval ships escorted the country’s exploration and drilling vessels in the eastern Mediterranean in August as it asserted its claim over disputed energy rights. Turkey and Cyprus are at loggerheads over offshore gas reserves around the island, which has been divided since Turkish forces captured the northern third in 1974, following a coup attempt in which a military junta in Athens sought to unite Cyprus with Greece. Tensions have been inflamed by both Turkey and the breakaway Turkish Cypriot government issuing exploration licenses in waters claimed by the internationally recognized government in Nicosia. The Republic of Cyprus, which is not recognized by Turkey, is an EU member and officially has sovereignty over the entire island, while the Turkish minority’s self-proclaimed state in the north, recognized only by Ankara, also claims rights to any energy resources off its coast.
Turkey is also in dispute with Greece over maritime borders in the Aegean and Mediterranean, with both countries claiming that waters south of Turkey form part of their exclusive economic zones, in which they have a sovereign right to exploit natural resources. Greece says that islands must be taken into account in delineating a country’s continental shelf, in line with the UN Law of the Sea, which Turkey has not signed. Ankara argues that a country’s continental shelf should be measured from its mainland, and that the area south of the Greek island of Kastellorizo -- just a few kilometers off Turkey’s southern coast — therefore falls within its exclusive zone. Greece signed a maritime border agreement with Egypt on Aug. 6, defining the limits of their respective zones and challenging the 2019 Turkish-Libyan accord. The European Union pledged to expand a list of Turks targeted with travel bans and asset freezes over controversial energy exploration in the eastern Mediterranean.
Turkish troops are in Afghanistan as part of a NATO-led coalition of more than 50 countries supporting the Afghan security forces against the Taliban, the Islamic fundamentalists who once ruled there. Within the North Atlantic Treaty Organization, Turkey with 436,000-strong force has the second-largest military in terms of personnel. It also has a long history in Afghanistan. The country’s founder, Mustafa Kemal Ataturk, offered troops to Afghanistan’s King Amanullah in 1928 to put down an uprising by radical Islamists over the monarch’s decision to send Afghan girls to secular Turkey for schooling.
The military has participated in NATO-led peacekeeping missions in Kosovo and Bosnia-Herzegovina since the war in the 1990s. It has a particular interest in helping to protect ethnic Turkish communities there. More controversially, Turkey agreed to establish military training centers in Sudan during the rule of ex-president Omar al-Bashir, who is on the International Criminal Court’s wanted list for war crimes in the Darfur region in western Sudan. Erdogan also signed deals with the north African country to increase Turkish investment and trade. Bashir’s government agreed to lease Turkey Suakin Island for 99 years, a move that would allow Ankara to build a base on the island, once ruled by the Ottoman Empire, and expand its military reach to the Red Sea.
The Reference Shelf
- An article in Defense-Aerospace examines Turkey’s expansion of its military footprint overseas.
- Related QuickTakes on Turkey’s power struggles, Mediterranean tensions, Turkey’s economic travails, U.S.-backed Kurdish forces and the Syrian war.
- A Congressional Research Report on Turkey contains a section on Turkish foreign policy.
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