- Charlie Taskiran
Turkey's Power Plays
Ever wondered how Turkey, Despite being virtually surrounded by instability and war, has managed to carve out a position of regional hard power for itself? Perhaps not. Well amid a decade of political volatility in the middle east, following events such as the Arab Spring as well as the growth of militant groups both within and around its borders, Turkey has come to terms with the limitations of its soft power, being its ability to act as a conflict mediator as well as its example of political reforms which stand out in the Middle East. As what Turkey perceived as threats to its national interests approached its border, the Turkish government led by Recep Tayyip Erdogan starting in 2014 created a new era of military and political assertiveness to achieve its strategic goals in the region. Turkey has made a reputation in the arms industry for itself, with the production of its landmark KCR series of infantry rifles, O/UMTAŞ Infrared missiles, Altay Tanks, advanced personnel carriers and armored fighting vehicles, T129 ATAK helicopters and of course, the infamous Bayraktar drones, famed for their effectiveness during the Nagorno-Karabakh war of 2020 as well as the ongoing war in Ukraine.
What does this mean for Turkey’s neighbours though? Is the future bright? Recent events suggest otherwise. As of the 28th of November, following a cabinet meeting, Turkey has announced that its troops will be ready “In just a few days” for a ground assault in Syria. This has sparked fears of an all-out war between the two nations, which has complex consequences for other key players such as the US-backed Syrian Democratic Forces/YPG, which turkey recognises as a Terrorist organisation, as well as Iranian proxy groups who aid the Syrian government forces. It is clear that Turkey has increased in its military aggression, from its intervention and unwavering support for the nation of Azerbaijan in its war against Armenia, to its continued air campaigns against Kurdish militant groups like that of the recent Airstrikes on Kurdish populated regions of northern Syria and Iraq.
The Syrian Democratic Forces/YPG are viewed by the Turkish government as the sister organisation of the PKK (Kurdistan Workers Party) which operates mainly in South-Eastern Turkey. The group has essentially declared war on the state of Turkey and is recognised as a terrorist organisation by NATO and the EU. After the recent bombing on Istiklal street in Istanbul, killing 6 and injuring 81, Turkey was swift to hand PKK the blame. This verdict was reached after the perpetrator of the bombing reportedly admitted to being trained by the terrorist organisation among further findings of contact between the two parties.
This attack is widely believed to be the justification for Turkey’s offensive on Kurdish militant bases, code-named Operation Claw Sword. The official Twitter page of the Turkish Defence Ministry tweeted on the 19th of November “The hour of reckoning has come” alongside a photo of an F16 fighter jet taking off during the night. The operation targeted PKK and YPG training camps and bases. The Ministry of Defence further added in a statement that the campaign “was successfully carried out, within the scope of our strategy to eradicate terrorism”. So what exactly was the aftermath of such a devastating air campaign? Ankara reported that all 89 of the intended targets had been neutralized. These include Tunnels, Ammunition stores, HQ’s, training camps and more. Many YPG and PKK operatives have reported to have been killed alongside their leaders. The operation had also resulted in the deaths of 13 civilians and civilian infrastructure was also targeted according to an early day motion in the British parliament.
These bombings against Kurdish populated areas in northern Iraq and Syria are in breach of international law. This may strain the relationship between Turkey and the USA, as many of the targets have been identified as US funded and trained. But then again, who has the US not funded and trained?
This sets the stage for a Turkish invasion of Syria which, if the US or Russia doesn’t intervene, may very well occur within the next few days. The manifestation of Turkey’s aggressive foreign policy puts the region in once again, a very volatile and unstable position.
Turkey’s journey from a nation once trying to gain EU membership, to a more authoritarian, interventionist hard power has been observed through its increasing involvement militarily in the region. Erdogan may be using these events to push his own election bid, and if he wins, Turkey could face a more autocratic future. The future is quite unpredictable, but following this trajectory, the Turkish arms industry will continue its exponential growth as it seeks to further carve out its position as the regional superpower, following immense displays of military hard power. For the rest of the region on the other hand, instability is the new norm.