Erdogan’s gamble: How long can Turkey flex military muscle abroad?

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Erdogan’s gamble
Erdogan’s gamble

Despite domestic financial woes and souring relations with Western allies, Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan somehow still finds time to pursue ambitious military engagements in some of the world’s fiercest conflict zones.

Turkey’s military is now present in at least 12 countries, maintaining bases in Somalia and Qatar and directly engaging in live conflicts in Syria and Libya.

Ankara is imminently to deploy a peacekeeping force to the disputed Nagorno-Karabakh region in the southern Caucasus.

Elsewhere, Turkey’s navy has been policing the country’s controversial oil and gas exploration in the eastern Mediterranean, despite loud protests from the European Union and a risk of clashes with Greek, Cypriot and French forces in the region.

All this in the wake of an abortive 2016 putsch which saw thousands of experienced soldiers purged from the army.

So why is Erdogan so keen right now on military adventures? Part of the answer lies in resurgent Turkish nationalism, a trump card analysts say Erdogan has in his 17 years in power learned to use to his domestic political advantage.

“Erdogan did not create the wars he is currently involved in, but he is aligning his survival instinct with Turkey’s broader national security concerns,” says Soner Cagaptay, director of the Turkish Research Program at the Washington Institute for Near East Policy.

“Many Turks are now fascinated by this new foreign policy which is muscular and allows Ankara to reach beyond its borders,” he adds.

Yet for all his pugnacious foreign posturing, Erdogan’s strength balances on a domestic support base currently suffering from job losses, ebbing purchasing power and high inflation.

This reliance on economic stability, analysts say, is Erdogan’s Achilles’ heel, not least in a year dominated by a devastating global pandemic and the ensuing economic fallout. The Turkish lira has lost more than 30 per cent of its value against the US dollar since the start of 2020.

Turkey might not be facing a complete economic meltdown just yet, says economist Seyfettin Gursel, but it will likely suffer from low growth and high unemployment for some time to come.

Beyond economic fragility, another chief threat to Erdogan’s military adventurism is Turkey’s dependence on weapons made by its traditional western allies, the US and Germany.

One defence source tells dpa that Turkey’s entire air force combat squadron is either US-made or flies with American supply parts. Meanwhile, more than half the tank force and half of the navy’s combat fleet is US-made, with the rest originating in Germany, the source says.

Erdogan has often urged local firms to help Turkey boost defence investments, though efforts are often undermined by foreign components in domestic arms manufacturers, says Can Kasapoglu, director of the defence and security program at the Istanbul-based think-tank EDAM.

Knowing this, and with relations with the West still strained due to Turkey’s intervention in multiple realms of conflict, the country is focusing on developing its own defence equipment, most prominently state-of-the-art TB2 drones.

“Dronization of the Turkish military is an essential enabler of the cross-border activism. These systems are cost-effective, casualty-minimizing, and affordable. Besides, they make good export assets,” Kasapoglu says.

Turkish Bayraktar TB2 drones drew global attention this year for successful campaigns in Syria, Libya and Nagorno-Karabakh, defence expert Hakan Kilic says.

Kilic estimates the cost of a TB2 drone, with an estimated flight time of 27 hours, at around 7 million dollars. That’s more than 10 times cheaper than a modern F-16 fighter jet, which can stay in the air for an average of three hours.

Although relatively soft, worse still for Erdogan’s military ambitions is the recent US sanctions under the 2017 CAATSA act in retaliation for the purchase of Russian S-400 air defence systems.

CAATSA sanctions could hit Turkey’s purchasing power in the defence realm, says Kasapoglu.

The US has already dealt a blow to the country’s future air combat capability, suspending Ankara from a joint production programme for F-35 stealth fighters, a move Kilic says will cost 10 Turkish contractors around 12 billion dollars.

But a glimmer of hope is on the horizon for Erdogan’s military adventures, chiefly in the form of US president-elect Joe Biden, who is likely to support Turkey in Syria and Libya while encouraging peace efforts in the southern Caucasus.

“I think the US military likes the fact that Turkey has blocked these countries from falling under Russian control for the most part,” says US-based analyst Cagaptay.

Likewise, Erdogan’s “sustainable relationship” with Russian President Vladimir Putin, offers him room to manoeuvre in major conflict zones, he adds, though cautions that reliance on Russia could prove a liability in the medium term.

What’s more, Turkey has been careful not to commit to any strategic-level forward-deployments overseas, Kasapoglu says, preferring to stick to a supporting role.

This canny foresight, coupled with a shift in global US leadership, could mean Erdogan is in a position to continue his military adventures for some time to come. – dpa/GNA

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