Is Turkey’s Military Overstretched?
If Turkey intervenes in Nagorno-Karabakh, it would only be the latest entry in Ankara’s growing list of military adventures.
Most powers, that is, except Turkey. Nearly immediately after clashes began in late September, Ankara came to the aid of its allies in Azerbaijan, supplying arms, propaganda, and allegedly fighters transferred from Syria. Rather than working toward a modicum of stability, Ankara seems intent on backing Baku—enraging its NATO allies.
Turkey’s pursuit of greater influence in the Caucasus, particularly in a region contested by ethnic Armenians and ethnic Turks, is unsurprising. If Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan does indeed decide to deploy his military in Nagorno-Karabakh—which is internationally recognized as sovereign Azerbaijani territory despite being home to a majority Armenian population and being occupied and regarded as an independent state by Armenia since a war in the 1990s—it would only be the latest in a string of Turkish strategic entanglements stretching from the Mediterranean to Central Asia.
Here’s an overview of everywhere Turkey’s military is active right now.
In the Libyan civil war, which began in 2014, Turkey supports the United Nations-backed Government of National Accord (GNA), which is based in Tripoli but maintains nominal control over the country. The GNA is facing off against the Libyan National Army, which is led by Gen. Khalifa Haftar and based in Benghazi. Haftar’s forces are backed by Russia, France, Egypt, and the United Arab Emirates.
Turkey’s involvement in Libya is inextricably linked to its role in the Syrian civil war, as well as its skirmishes with other Mediterranean states such as Greece and Cyprus over the sea’s rich natural gas and petroleum reserves. In addition to supplying the GNA with arms and drone technology, Ankara has sent thousands of Syrian militants to Tripoli fight on its behalf.
Though Turkey ostensibly became involved in the Syrian civil war in 2011 to oppose Syrian President Bashar al-Assad’s forces and in 2015 to fight the Islamic State, its role in the conflict has in many ways become an extension of its domestic war against Kurdish militants.
The Kurds in northern Syria, many of whom are a part of the People’s Protection Units (YPG) have been critical in warding off Islamic State forces. Turkey, however, is intent on countering Kurdish militants within and beyond its borders. Ankara regards the YPG as an extension of the Turkey-based Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK), which Turkey considers a terrorist organization.
Since 1984, the Turkish military has been intent on quashing a PKK insurgency in its southeast, where Kurds have long demanded more cultural and political autonomy for Turkey’s 15 million-strong Kurdish minority population. A tenuous two-year cease-fire between the Turkish government and the PKK collapsed in 2015, and it is estimated that at least 3,589 Kurds and 1,261 Turkish forces have been killed in the conflict since.
Now, Turkey has effectively occupied swaths of Northern Syria and continues to wage offensives against the region’s Kurds while seeking to create a so-called safe zone to stop additional waves of refugees from entering Turkey.
3. Northern Cyprus
Turkey intervened in Northern Cyprus in 1974 and established a de facto state: the Turkish Republic of Northern Cyprus. It is not recognized by the international community, which considers the Republic of Cyprus to be the island’s sole sovereign entity (apart from two military bases belonging to the U.K.). Nicosia, the Cypriot capital, remains divided.
Former U.N. Secretary-General Kofi Annan attempted to resolve the dispute between Turkey and the Republic of Cyprus in a series of peace talks in the early 2000s, but these did not ultimately lead to any meaningful outcome.
4. Eastern Mediterranean
In recent months, the Turkish navy has been active in waters recognized by the international community as belonging to Greece, a move compelled by Turkey’s thirst for natural gas. The moves have angered NATO members, which fear an escalation of tensions between the two historical foes.
Turkey’s moves in the Eastern Mediterranean are driven by the so-called Blue Homeland policy, which disputes several international agreements and claims many Greek islands and waters as Turkey’s own.
The standoff has taken on heightened importance due to the European Union’s attempts to incentivize Turkey to stop unauthorized migrants from crossing the sea from Turkey by boat.
5. Qatar and Iraq
Turkey in 2019 announced the completion of a military base in Qatar, a milestone for a country that otherwise enjoys few allies in the Gulf. (Qatar is the lone Gulf member of the Turkish-backed coalition supporting the GNA in Libya.) Turkey’s base in Qatar joins existing bases in Bashiqa, Iraq—located in Iraqi Kurdistan—and Mogadishu.
Allison Meakem is an editorial fellow at Foreign Policy. Twitter: @allisonmeakem
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