Written by Colonel O. Tanin, Colonel E. Sivovok, Colonel T. Kasymov; Originally appeared at Foreign Military Review 2019 #7, translated by Monalita exclusively for SouthFront
Turkey’s modern foreign policy aspirations are largely based on the concept of “Strategic Depth”, formulated by the former Prime Minister of the republic Ahmet Davutoglu (formerly Minister of Foreign Affairs) in 2001, when he was a professor at Istanbul University.
Davutoglu’s idea is to position the republic as a “central power” located in the “strategic depth” of Eurasia on the historically established lines of communication between Europe and Asia, with access to the four seas ( opposing NATO’s views on Turkey as a “wing country”). This approach, essentially geopolitical in nature, made it possible to define the role and place of the country in the system of international relations as “key” for ensuring stability in the Middle East, the Black Sea and Mediterranean regions. This unusual demand directed toward subcontinental leadership, voiced through the national scientific community, was soon picked up by official Ankara, which laid the foundation for its long term military-political course. At the same time, the Turkish leadership uses “historical justification” based on forming allegorical “parallels” between the Turkish Republic and the former Ottoman Empire to legitimize the claims. Simultaneously, state propaganda “plays on” the nostalgic moods inherent in modern Turkish society that are associated with reflections “about the imperial nation, illegally deprived of its conquests, dissatisfied with its position and role in the world.”
The ideological rationale for “new Ottomanism”, “neo-Ottomanism” is in contrast to Turkey’s former might as the leading power of the continent for more than 300 years and its “second plan” role in the modern world allotted to the US and its European allies.
The renewed Turkish nationalism and the theory proposed by A. Davutoglu brought forth the demand to correct this situation and was favored by the masses. Former Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan managed to use this “passionate impulse” to promote his political ideas based on the “neo-Ottomanism” standing. He eventually won the fight for the presidency.
During his reign and with the help of the state propaganda machine, R. Erdogan was able to deeply penetrate into the public consciousness the concepts of “neo-Ottomanism”, which, in turn, led to a change in the ideological and behavioral attitudes of citizens and the formation of their readiness to support radical measures of country’s current authorities, which the president needed. The population’s assimilation to the “spirit of neo-Ottomanism” is so great that, according to both national and foreign experts, in the event that opposition may possibly come to power , they will have to keep the existing foreign policy unchanged for quite a long time.
Currently , the main goal of “neo-Ottomanism” is to restore Turkey’s “former greatness and influence” as they relate to the affairs of Europe and Asia, and in the future – the country’s reaching lead role on a global scale. As a means of achieving such ambitious goals, the Turkish leadership is contemplating trade and cultural expansion to neighboring countries and beyond, utilizing Turkey’s unique location at the junction of two continents.
Actively participating in the conditioning of a multipolar world order, the Turks believe it is possible to gradually bring Ankara to play the role as one of its leading players in international politics, and by gaining independence from the West determining foreign policy, become “the most important political entity of the new world.” That being said, the country’s leadership does not exclude the use of military force to eliminate “obstacles to development”. As an intermediate goal on the path of a “nation’s revival”, Turkish politicians identified “the formation of a connection between the Balkans and the Caucasus through the Black Sea” along with the anchoring of Turkey’s status as the “central state” of the region, as a sort of transport, cultural and energy “hub” between Europe and Asia.
At the same time, there is a plan to correct the foreign policy vectors in the interests of growing Ankara’s influence in the region with a gradual expansion beyond its borders. With that, the most important areas of the republic’s leadership’s activities are:
preventing the creation of an independent Kurdish entity near its borders; strengthening trade and economic ties with countries rich in hydrocarbon resources and ensuring stable supplies of oil and gas to Europe; attracting investments into the national economy; expanding interaction with the Turkic states, as well as settling of the Cyprus problem. One of the side effects of the “post-coup” period (after July 2016) was the cooling of relations with the European Union.
The referendum held in Turkey (April 2017), during which the majority of citizens (over 51%) supported the initiative to amend the constitution of the republic, became a decisive stage in President Erdogan’s dynamic and willful policy to reorganize the public administration system. This allowed Ankara to intensify efforts to strengthen its positions in the Middle East, Africa, the republics of the Caucasus and Central Asia.
At the same time, the issue of reforming relations with the European Union is considered of the utmost importance, including determining the practicality of Turkey’s renewed attempts to join the Union.
In that sense, the Syrian direction is of great importance . Turkey, being one of the “Astana” format guarantor countries (along with Russia and Iran) for resolving the Syrian Arab Republic (SAR) crisis, is making significant efforts to stabilize the situation in the neighboring state. In particular, the Turkish leadership is equally concerned about the possibility of a quasi-state formation of Syrian Kurds near the country’s borders.
In the interest of preventing such a development of events, in August 2016 – March 2017, the Turkish Armed Forces carried out Operation “Shield of Euphrates” in northern Syria, the purpose of which was to prevent the merging of western and eastern Kurdish enclaves. Turkish intervention resulted in the emergence of a “buffer zone” on SAR territory controlled by the Turks and the their controlled units of the “moderate” opposition.
In addition, in November 2017, Ankara introduced the so-called de-escalation control forces to the Syrian province of Idlib (in accordance with the “Astana” agreement, a total of 12 observation posts were deployed along the perimeter of the Idlib de-escalation zone). The expansion of this zone took during Operation Olive Branch (January-March 2018) to capture the Kurdish canton of Africa.
In Iraq, Ankara seeks to prevent further formation of the Kurdish state in the north of this country and its subsequent disintegration into ethno-confessional units. The Turkish leadership fears that the possible separation of the Kurdish Autonomous Region (KAR) from Iraq will lead to an increase in separatism on the territory of the country itself. In this regard, the Turks continue to build up their military presence in the KAR.
The national economic low growth rates, high unemployment, an increase in terrorist threats and, in general, the poorly assessed development of the situation in the region are forcing Turkey to develop trade and economic ties with countries rich in hydrocarbon resources to ensure stable oil and gas supplies to Europe. For this reason, cooperation with Azerbaijan, Turkmenistan, Kazakhstan, Iran, Iraq and Qatar has been intensified.
As is appropriate with the “neo-Ottomanism” position, Turkey’s standing in the Islamic and Turkic world is being consistently strengthened. Cooperation with the Turkic-speaking states, which evoke interest as a promising market for products and a source of uninterrupted energy supplies is growing. At the same time, the Turks are actively utilizing the Cooperation Council of Turkic States (Turkic Council).
Ankara is showing high potential for the development of economic relations between participating countries, primarily taking into account the vast reserves of their natural resources. As part of the Turkic council’s practice, the Turkish government seeks to expand relations in areas such as culture, education, energy, construction, transport, communications and tourism.
Turkey took lead in the Turkic states in the cultural and educational sphere. The main role in this process is performed by the International Organization for the Joint Development of Turkic Culture and Art (“Turksoy”, established in 1993). In all countries of Central Asia, except for Uzbekistan, a network of Turkish lyceums and university branches has been created, Turkish language courses and computer literacy centers have been opened.
According to the “neo-Ottomanism” ideologues, after the Turkish Republic has achieved regional mid level leadership, the question of expanding national geopolitical aspirations to neighboring countries, whose territories were previously part of the Ottoman Empire, will inevitably arise. At the same time, presenting territorial claims against them in one form or another is not ruled out, the implementation of which may become the most important task of the national armed forces.
At the same time, there is a basic understanding in the ruling Turkish circles that the expected growth of the republic’s influence in international affairs will inevitably give rise to opposition from Washington, who will not be the first to wave the palm branch neither at the regional level, nor, even more so, on a global scale.
Currently, the Americans are interested in maintaining alliances with Ankara and using the Incirlik airbase and a number of its other facilities by the US armed forces.
Differences in approaches to resolving the situation in Syria have a negative impact on the development of Turkish-American relations, cooperation with the Syrian Kurds, assessment of media rights and freedoms observance and the independence of the Turkish judicial system, as well as the White House’s refusal to extradite the Islamic preacher F. Gulen, accused by the Turkish leadership of preparing the averted putsch.
Another destructive factor in this area is the US position on the issue of Russian-Turkish military-technical cooperation (purchase of S-400 air defense systems). In an effort to force Ankara to terminate the deal, Washington not only expresses its intention to refuse to supply Turkey with multifunctional F-35 fighters, but also does not stop at threats to reconsider the way the republic participates in NATO.
Regardless of United States and the North Atlantic Alliance position , the Turkish authorities are considering developing national armed forces as a tool to guarantee implementation of the foreign policy pursued within the framework of “neo-Ottomanism”. The development of Turkey’s armed forces is carried out in accordance with a long-term program for the period up to 2033 (adopted in 2013). Its goal is to create highly mobile troops (forces) equipped with the latest models of weapons and military equipment, intended primarily for the conduct of military conflicts by combat personnel in peacetime.
Based on the predicted nature of possible military operations that are expeditionary in nature and are against a technically inferior enemy, the command of the Turkish Armed Forces pays special attention to increasing the amphibious landing capabilities of the Navy while reducing the number of formations (military units) of the ground forces, and is primarily interested in acquiring “force projection” capabilities of temporarily created tactical (operational-tactical) groups (groupings).
In particular, Ankara has allocated an important role to the Navy, which is considered the first to be deployed in the event of military pressure on Cyprus, in disputes with Greece on the issue of determining the boundaries in the Aegean Sea, as well as for conducting coalition operations in the waters of the Black Sea. Every year, one or two tank landing ships are introduced into the fleet, and this year it is expected to launch the first helicopter landing ship dock in Turkish history (in Turkish terminology, the universal landing ship – UDC). Every year, one or two tank landing ships are introduced into the fleet, and this year it is expected to launch the first helicopter landing ship dock in Turkish history (in Turkish terminology, the universal landing ship – UDC). The universal amphibious assault ship “Anadolu” (standard displacement of 27,500 tons), which is being built according to the project of the Spanish UDC Juan Carlos I, has a universal amphibious landing platform, capable of delivering and ensuring the functioning of the command and control body of the operational-tactical level and its significant part of combat and support forces and is a means (including army aviation) into a low-intensity conflict zone.
The capabilities of the UDC will be organically supplemented by the potential of the Dimdeg, a universal logistics vessel (displacement of 22 thousand tons), capable of accommodating a command post and a medical unit. Both units are slated for delivery to the fleet in 2021.
Within the ground forces, the number of special units is increasing due to the reorganization of a number of motorized infantry formations into commando brigades. According to the views of the Turkish command, special forces units are the most effective for countering Kurdish separatism inside the country, as well as for solving a wide range of tasks outside its borders, primarily in Iraq and Syria.
How the ground troops are to be supplied with weapons and military equipment is decided with consideration for experience of military operations in Syria. In the operations “Shield of the Euphrates” and “Olive branch” heavy losses were suffered by armored vehicles. In this regard, the Turks deem it important to renew the tank fleet, most of which are obsolete American (M48, M60) and German (“Leopard-1”) vehicles. To fix this situation, measures are being taken to equip the existing samples with active protective systems. At the same time, work on the adoption of the nationally developed Altai tank has been accelerated.
To increase the mobility and security of motorized infantry, armored combat vehicles Cobra-2 and Kale have been developed.
The Air Force will play a supporting role in the Turkish Armed Forces, solving mainly transport and ground tasks and providing immediate fire support to small tactical groups in low-intensity combat operations. The main efforts of the Republic’s Ministry of National Defense are focused on the development of military transport aviation: the modernization of the C-130 aircraft, the purchase of the А.400M, as well as increasing the air defense capabilities. At the same time, it is expected that with the receipt of the S-400 Triumph anti-aircraft missile systems from the Russian Federation, the Turkish Air Force will also be able to carry out non-strategic missile defense. At the same time, Ankara is anticipating to overcome its differences with Washington caused by the purchase of Russian weapons and implement plans to equip tactical aviation with American F-35 fighters.
The development of the Turkish Armed Forces is complicated by financial constraints (the military budget for 2019 is $ 8.3 billion against $ 11.1 billion in 2018) caused by the economic crisis as a result of “cooling” relations with the United States. The negative impact of the consequences of the attempted military coup (July 2016) also remains. As a result of the investigation carried out in 2018, about 6.2 thousand officers, including senior command personnel, were dismissed from the ranks of the armed forces.
In general, the direction in which the Turkish Armed Forces are developing testifies to Ankara’s desire to increase their readiness to accomplish tasks within the framework of the “neo-Ottomanism” policy pursued by President Erdogan in the interests of securing the role of a regional and, in the future, a subcontinental leader for Turkey.
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