By Gorkem Dirik & Selcuk Aydin
Turkey views itself increasingly compelled to generate new strategies in foreign and security policy by combining both soft and hard power instruments because of the changing dynamics during the post-Arab Spring period. While Turkey was seen as a role model during the Arab Spring for neighboring countries that were in transition from autocratic to democratic forms of governance, this model lost its appeal due to violent toppling of democratically elected regimes as well as the escalation of conflicts in the wider Middle East. For instance, Turkey lost its political and economic ties in Egypt after the coup d’état in 2013. The Syrian civil war bears economic, social and security implications for Turkey. Hence, in order to preserve its political and economic power in the region in the wake of hostile developments around the country, Turkey began to search for other mechanisms to wield its influence. As a result, Turkey has found itself launching military bases in Qatar and Somalia and military intervention in Syria.
Military Journey of Turkey
Turkey was established by Kemalist military cadres who conducted top-down modernist reforms and threatened the civilian governments by coup d’états that encountered strong opposition from the social and political movements throughout Turkish political history.
Several events played a significant role in decreasing the power of the Turkish Armed Forces (TAF) in domestic politics during the Justice and Development Party era since 2002. Such factors include the EU negotiation process during the first decade of 2000, the Ergenekon and the Sledgehammer cases respectively in 2008 and 2010 as well as the failed coup attempt on 15th July 2016 committed by the FETO (Gülenists). The consolidation of civilian politics against the TAF establishment during the Justice and Development Party era enabled the civilian government to use hard power as a diplomatic instrument. Consequently, there TAF were once identified as the determinant of Turkish Foreign Policy, however they have undergone a drastic transformation and they have now turned into the instrument of Turkey’s Foreign policy.
As Turkey entered a new era of foreign policy implementation, this reflected upon the country’s efforts to diversify its options in this matter. For instance, Turkey established new embassies in twelve countries across the African continent to bolster economic relations. Most significantly, this change in foreign policy has positively resulted in a spill-over effect from economic to political and then security fields of relations and impacts.
Historical experiences have also played a key role in empowering the defence industry in guaranteeing the security of the country. In 1974, for instance, when Turkey conducted military operations in Cyprus, the country faced an arms embargo by the US. Ankara was also prohibited from purchasing some specific arms from its NATO allies in its fight against the PKK in the 1990s.
Along with these historical experiences, the conflict in Syria and Iraq accelerated the urgency of empowering the defence industry. Having realized this, Turkey chose to nationalise its defence industry and proceeded with the diversification of its security alliance. As part of this process, Ankara has become cautious on its relations with NATO, whilst signing the S-400 missile agreement with Russia. Turkey also took a leading role in the Syrian peace process alongside Russia and Iran. These advancements in its defence industry allowed the country to undergo a transition from an absolute weapon-importer state to a weapon-exporter state. One illustration is this shift comes with an arms sell to Pakistan selling arms to Pakistan.
Turkey’s Military Expansion
By investing in its defence industry and expanding its network of military bases, Turkey aims to become a more active player in the Middle East, Africa, and Caucasus.
This is evident when looking at the Turkish incursion in Syria, which became a showcase for Ankara to evaluate its military capacity. President Tayyip Erdogan understood the necessity of using military power as a foreign policy instrument in the Syrian war, with the statement “We are not war-lovers, but we are not far from war either” in 2012. In this regard, the Turkish military deterrence has visibly altered the security dynamics in Syria against the ISIS and PKK affiliated groups since the beginning of Euphrates Shield Operation in 2016. As the efforts via soft power means to form a safe-zone in Northern Syria had proven fruitless, Turkey felt obligated to take the necessary steps to create a zone of influence. In addition to this, the recent Turkish-Russian-Iranian tripartite cooperation has indeed aimed to decrease conflict in Syria with agreeing on the four de-escalation zones. Thus, this underlined the prominence of Turkey’s military deterrence capabilities and its growth as a regional power.
As part of Turkey’s new strategy, Turkey has established military bases in Qatar, Somalia, northern Cyprus, and Iraq, and it is expected that the number of Turkish soldiers serving in the oversea military bases will surpass 60,000 by 2022. Moreover, Turkish military activities are not only limited to military bases. Additionally, the TAF train and equip the armies of allied countries such as Azerbaijan and Kazakhstan.
In Somalia, Turkey has opened dockyards, built international airports and numerous hospitals, and established a military base on 30 September 2017. With more than 10,000 soldiers serving, Turkey`s main role is to train and equip the Somali forces in their fight against terrorist groups such as Al-Shaabab. Furthermore, the Turkish military presence has been improving Somalia`s ability to secure its coastline, particularly against pirates that threaten the maritime trade route.
The sharing of common interests, especially in the foreign policy arena, has brought Qatar and Turkey together. This led Ankara to establish another military base in Qatar at the request of the Qatari government in October 2015. With 3,000 troops deployed in the Tariq bin-Ziyad military base, Turkey has further strengthened its position in the Gulf and altered the regional status quo. For instance, during the Gulf crisis, Turkey has played a key role in dissuading the GCC’s (Gulf Cooperation Council) decision to isolate and castigate Qatar for its rapprochement with Turkey, thereby underlining how the latter has increasingly shifted regional power dynamics in its favor.
Furthermore, Turkey`s security cooperation with Azerbaijan has allowed both countries holding periodic joint military exercises to evaluate the Azerbaijani Army’s potential. Turkey also assists in the modernization of Azerbaijani military education by trying to bring it in line with NATO standards. As a result, Azerbaijani military officers participate with Turkey`s peacekeeping missions abroad, for instance, in Kosovo and Afghanistan. Ultimately, Turkish military capability has been further solidified via an unofficial agreement between Turkish and Azerbaijani officials on `Casus Foederis`, which signifies that an attack against one country is an attack against both.
In conclusion, Turkey has accelerated its military activity in the Middle East in an attempt to alter the regional balance of power in its favor. Apart from Qatar and Somalia, Turkish military bases as well as its deterrence capabilities can be observed in Northern Cyprus and Iraqi Kurdistan. Additionally, Ankara provides military training as well as equipping to the military of key Central Asian countries, which also enables increased Turkish influence in this region. Moreover, Turkey`s recent incursion into northern Syria has also illustrated technological advances in its defense industry. Taking all of these developments into consideration, it can be said that Turkey has transformed itself into a crucial player whose influence impacts not only the Middle East but also farther afield, stretching from the Caucasus to Sub-Saharan Africa.
Gorkem is an Assistant Researcher at TRT World Research Centre. He previously worked at Turkish Embassies in Malta and Barcelona, Spain which enabled him to observe the inner dealings of diplomacy. Before he moved back to Turkey he carried out his studies in languages and diplomacy in Kaliningrad (Russia), Malta, Belgrade (Serbia), Barcelona (Spain), Buenos Aires (Argentina), London (United Kingdom), and Almaty (Kazakhstan). He holds a Master of Science in Conflict Studies and Nationalism from the London School of Economics and Political Science (LSE). Besides Turkish, he is fluent in English, Russian, Serbian, Croatian, Spanish and Portuguese for which he holds certificates from reputable universities that he can speak them all on a diplomatic level. His book on Turkish foreign policy, titled Turkish Foreign Policy in the 21st century – A Comparative Study: Turkey between East and West was published in 2012 by the University of Malta. Moreover, his dissertation on the Ukrainian Crisis, “The Role of Nationalism in the De-Facto Dissolution of Ukraine” has been awarded as the best dissertation of the year by the LSE. His research and specialisation area is Russian and Turkish foreign policies and their implications on the Balkans and the Central Asia.
Selcuk is a Researcher at the TRT World Research Centre, and a PhD Candidate, Defence Studies, School of Security Studies, King’s College London. He has conducted projects and published articles, book chapters and opinions on Turkey’s history, Turkish diaspora in the UK, Kurdish Studies and Middle East. His research interests are colonialism, Middle Eastern politics and history, Islamic and Kurdish movements, diaspora, institutional, and security studies. Selçuk holds a Bachelor’s Degree in International Relations from the Faculty of Political Science at Ankara University, a Master’s Degree in Political Economy of the Middle East from King’s College London. His PhD thesis’ title is “Post-Ottoman States and Kurdish Movements: A Comparatively Analysis of Single Party Regime in Turkey (1923-1945), British Mandate Regime in Iraq (1920-1932) and French Mandate Regime in Syria (1923-1946).”