27 July 2020

Turkey –enemies close, friends far apart

Laurenţiu Sfinteş

The last few weeks were revealing for the determination Turkey has in implementing an autonomous path in the political, military, regional and international relations, even inside the alliances that is part of, NATO uppermost. The uniqueness of this path is the twofold nature of the promoted speech. It wants to become the most authorized and trustable voice in the Islamic world, but it still has tense relations with two of the most representative countries in the region, Egypt and Saudi Arabia. It is promoting the professionalism of the Turkish army, the second NATO army as a fighting potential, but disagrees with Alliance’s approach on the Back Sea and the Middle East situations. It is confronting the Russian forces in Syria, the Wagner mercenaries in Libya, but it would do anything in terms of the acquisition program of the S-400 air defense system, even risking huge economic loses. It keeps the European integration direction going (yet, president Erdogan stated here: “a short period of time. Let’s see that happens”), but it is increasing the relations it has with the two main post-Brexit states – France and Germany. It continues to pretend the secularism imposed by Kemal Ataturk, but reopens the oriental Christianity wound by allowing the muezzin to go again in the minarets of Hagia Sophia Grand Mosque for the five daily Islamic prayers.

Image source: AP

A happy and a sad one…

… this could be the journalistic definition of two events that took place recently, both being connected to the Turkish national defence industry.

As for the first event, in a press conference held recently by Ismail Demir, the president of Turkey’s Defence Industries/ Savunma Sanayii Başkanlığı/ SBB has announced the new indigenous manufactured acquisitions of the national army for 2020.

Among them, there is the low-altitude air defense system Hisar-A, whose tests started in 2018 and which is ready for production. The Turkish authorities’ trust in this system is even bigger as it was announced a few month earlier that it will be dislocated abroad, in the military operations the Turkish forces are developing in Syria and Libya. They are talking about this model, but also its more advanced options, Hisar-O and Hisar-U.

Another huge acquisition is the amphibious assault ship TCG Anadolu, TCG being the acronym for Türkiye Cumhuriyeti Gemisi/ The Ship of the Republic of Turkey. It has only been four years since the moment it entered the site, in 2016, until entering the endowment, which can be a performance if we think that this ship, similar in terms of the model with the Spanish project SPS Juan Carlos, but with full indigenous weapon systems, was called by the Turkish Lloyd as a light aircraft carrier, able to transport and operation, according to its initial project, 12 fight F-35B STOVL aircrafts and 12 fight helicopters/8 if we are talking about heavy helicopters CH-47F Chinook.

Also in 2020, the Turkish forces will receive the high-altitude drone (up to 15.000 meters) Bayaraktar Akinci, an advanced product manufactured by Baykar Makina, which made also the Bayraktar TB2, the drone which did an excellent job in North of Iraq, in Syria and, recently, in Libya. We must also mention that the chief architect of this drone program is the president Erdogan’s son-in-law, the engineer who studied at MIT (Massachusetts Institute of Technology). It is ironical how after studying at an American school, the young engineer could not promote its products due to the embargo the Americans imposed. But buyers are everywhere, from Qatar to Ukraine (the Ukrainian defence industry contributed to equipping the drone), and a collateral Libya.

Among the acquisitions, there were also reminded, for 2020, but also for the following period, 13 Altay tanks, 27 armored amphibious carriers Zaha, possibly 21 ATAK FAZ-2 helicopters, the improved version of the ATAK T129 model, produced under AgustaWestland license and the low-altitude air defense systems Korkut.  Also this year, they will start the tests for an indigenous portable air defense system and will continue the intelligent ammunition and missiles acquisition.

The second event is actually a Pentagon press release, presented also by the Defence and Security Monitor, where it is mentioned that the US will buy the eight F-35 aircrafts already produced and ready to be delivered to Turkey, as well as other six, which are planned to be modified following the US Army standards. In other words, the cold shower the Americans practice for those who do not follow the White House Administration’s embargos for armament sales and acquisitions is, in the end, applied to their NATO ally, Turkey.

These two events are symbolically contouring the status Turkey currently has in terms of the security framework: a state that tries to keep a high decisional autonomy but also to equip its armed forces, even by risking to produce some breaches in the relations its has with its NATO military allies, a state that wants to create, most likely following the model of its North-East Black Sea partner, a security buffer zone outside its borders, sometimes even far from the national territory. This last approach puts Turkey at conflict with other states and entities, where Ankara’s influence transfers its own security assurance mechanisms, often through troops and military operations.

It is already a Polchinelle secrete that Turkey has bad relations with some states, some traditional ones, like the ones with Greece, Israel or Armenia, tense relations with others, here we can mention Iraq, but also Egypt, controversial ones, like the relations with Russia, or relations based on reticent pragmatism, with Iran, for example. Indeed, there is also a second plan, where the economic relations work unhindered, sometimes mistiming the political statements, but the problem is that relations might anytime be affected by the last-minute political decisions and may seriously affect the economy.

When friends must mind their own business

I have presented the two defence industry events because these are representing how Turkey is now under Erdogan’s control. In Istanbul and Ankara, these are attempts to reform the country, to modernize it and to assume an Islamic and Ottoman past, but from the outside it looks like a regime that’s trying to monopolize the state, using populism, the religious factor and the nationalism to extend its influence and build an authoritarian leadership, on a background that has few representative democracy elements.

There are also some collateral losses in this process. Some of them are assumed, others are, most likely, the consequences of an unpredictable path, for many of Ankara’s partners, the effects of the new Turkish actions.

And the especially lately developments are relevant to that end.

Two NATO members recently had different positions in the East Mediterranean, and we are not talking about the traditional Greece-Turkey conflict. After the incident between the French frigate Courbet and a Tanzanian-flagged cargo ship, escorted by Turkish military ships, the foreign affairs minister, Mevlut Cavusoglu, felt obliged to send France – yes, is France we are talking about – some complaints about its colonial past in Africa and the 2011 intervention against the Muammar Gaddafi regime. These were not very diplomatic, and Turkey’s actions continued including within NATO, where a report of the events has frustrated Paris.

If Turkey’s military help for the Tripoli National Agreement Government is public and assumed since November 2019, France continues to state that it supports a neutral political option. For Turkey, this means supporting the unrecognized Libyan authorities from Tobruk and Benghazi, as well as Marshal Khalifa Haftar.

Turkey blames France for a "profitable" approach to the protection of Libyan oil fields, although the agreement to delimit the maritime space between Turkey and Libya (Tripoli) also aims to make Turkey better positioned over oil reserves in the eastern Mediterranean. And as for the colonial past, not very far away, "the firsts" among the powers that ruled Libya are Turkey (Ottoman Empire) and Italy, France having a tangential presence, especially in the Tuareg area. But history can be read also from right to left.

In another disputed register are also the relations between Turkey and Egypt. They had much better times, but these changed radically after 2013, when General Sisi took over the power by removing the regime of the "Muslim Brotherhood" of President Mohammad Morsi. President Erdogan, long assuming the protector role of "political Islam" in the Middle East and North Africa, condemned the regime change, and developments continued following these lines. It was not just ideology in this dispute, as competition for oil reserves in the eastern Mediterranean also played an important role. If so far the confrontation has been remote, by standing in different positions, for example in Syria, the conflict in Libya seems to "offer" a chance to directly and immediately test the power between the military forces of the two states. Only if the forces of the Government of the National Agreement (Tripoli) will cross the "red line" established by Egypt, the attack of Sirta, the oil hub of Libya, currently under the control of the National Liberation Army (Benghazi / Haftar).

Some think of using force. Let me say that they will advance neither east nor west by the force of weapons. The line that we have now, let us all respect it and hold talks to end the crisis…If some think they can go beyond this line, Sirte and Juffra, this is a redline for us”. The Egyptian president did not say these words from the press box, but from the middle of the Egyptian troops he was checking in West of the country.

So the Turkish-Libyan offensive got stuck (although in the conditions of the Libyan Desert, the term is perhaps not the most appropriate) at the gates of Sirta, as a year ago, Marshal Haftar failed to overcome the suburbs of capital Tripoli.

But the icing on the cake of the problems with (still) its partners and allies is the recent developments in bilateral relations between Turkey and the United States. Their negative trend has had some consistency in recent years, despite a personal relationship seen as constructive (of course, John Bolton may be of a different opinion) between Presidents Trump and Erdogan.

However, US policy depends a lot on what is decided on the Capitol Hill, where US lawmakers have criticized Turkey.

The list probably begins with relations between Ankara and Russia, where the Kremlin breach inside NATO is hard to tolerate. Turkey's acquisition of the Russian anti-aircraft system S-400 is, some say, going against the logic of an alliance wherefore the main enemy is the manufacturer of this system. And the political, military, security, even economic implications are huge.

A second aspect is Turkey's regional relations, not infrequently at odds with United States’ ones. Tensions between Ankara and Jerusalem (the Turkish embassy continues to operate in Tel Aviv) are increasing, which is certainly not good news for the strong Israeli lobby in the US, Turkey has its own philosophy on the war on terror, and in Syria it is in an anti-nature alliance with Russia and Iran.

The list could go on with the visa and economic sanctions war sparked by the Ankara government's attempt to see the cleric Fethullah Gülen extradited from the United States, probably President Erdogan's most important opponent of the regime. The 2016 coup exacerbated things, and there was no restraint between the two NATO allies in arresting the citizens of the partner state, even when they enjoyed diplomatic status.

Consequently, the exclusion of Turkey from the F-35 program came naturally, although the losses are on both sides, the Turkish defense industry being heavily involved in the production of important aircraft components, whose transfer to production lines in other NATO countries will take at least until 2022.

Between two worlds, without exclusively depending on either

Probably, the situation in the title is the one that fits the best the current approach that Ankara sees in country’s international relations. It is an approach that responds to country’s geographical positioning, but also to the historical past, additionally to present’s challenges. Such a position can frustrate many people and cause irritation on many meridians and in many chancelleries. But the current power in Ankara considers it worth the effort. And when it engages in risky operations, such as the military in northern Syria, or the intervention in Libya, it does so leaving room, not much, for negotiation. According to estimates by Stratfor, the well-known American geostrategic analysis platform, Turkey:

● is looking for an independent position as important regional power, wjerefore alliances such as NATO are only complementary, not decisive, for national security. A reflection of this attitude is the creation of the national defense industry (some of whose products were mentioned at the beginning of this text). Its compatibility with the West is functional when it comes to the economy and infrastructure, but there are differences, some major ones, in the way Ankara relates to the Middle East, the Caucasus and the Black Sea;

● puts the threats to national and regional security in a different register than most European and US states, so Ankara's responses to the Kurdish issue, the refugee crisis, the situation in the Eastern Mediterranean, relations with Israel are met only partially, sometimes even at odds with those of NATO, the EU and the US. Therefore, on separate issues, Turkey may be an enemy of a US ally (Kurds), a partner of a NATO opponent (Russia), an opponent of an EU member (Cyprus), examples of this continuing with Israel, Saudi Arabia, Iran;

● also promotes an ideological side of this approach, by resuming Islamic values, in a modernized, yet restorative form. This has put Ankara in a cross-border partnership with states that have led administrations or are under the influence of the Muslim Brotherhood (Qatar, Libya / Tripoli) and in adversity with those that fight this ideology (Egypt, Saudi Arabia, Syria). This led, after decades of secularism, to the revaluation of Ottoman symbols (former Prime Minister and Foreign Minister Ahmet Davutoğlu, being the architect of this ideology), which, very recently, materialized by the return of Hagia Sophia to a mosque status. Through this approach, President Erdogan also provokes Saudi Arabia, with the subtle (or perhaps not) reminder that Istanbul was, for 400 years, the center of the Islamic world by the fact that the sultan was at the same time caliph, protector of Islamic holy places.

Will Libya be the twist point?

For the time being, when the rhetoric of the statements is dominated by the conflict in Libya, with its epicenter around the Sirta city, the question is probably, if the relations between Turkey and its partners /allies opponents got to a limit. Although Turkey has recently shown interest in establishing military bridgeheads, which means deploying its own bases abroad, even further than Libya, in Qatar and Somalia - those in northwestern Syria are already on the job list - the military deployment and the conflict in North Africa are different. Too many partners and quite a few opponents are on the same platform, blocking Turkey's military and economic efforts in the Eastern Mediterranean and Libya.

Most likely, identifying a political solution to this conflict would help to de-escalate a situation that tends to get worse. The seriousness of the developments is represented by the statements of French President Emmanuel Macron, also taken over by the Monitor of Defense and Security: "we cannot allow foreign powers, whatever they may be, to violate the arms embargo”. Now, a peaceful solution also depends on the place and time where/when the red line is (east of the city of Sirta, after its takeover - the Turkish version or west of this locality, without forcing the conquest of the locality - the Egyptian version).

Internally, in Turkey, things seem to be solved and undisputable for some time. Even the political opposition in Ankara supports a series of regional initiatives promoted by president Erdogan, as well as many of his approached for an autonomous, even independent path of the Turkish security issues. Externally, however, things became more complicated, especially when they intend to extend the influence area and the promotion of the Turkish interests outside the national borders. A Turkish saying says: „Bir tahta iki padişah sığışmaz”/ „There is no place on the throne for two sultans”.  If they try to move it outside the safety area, for example, in the sands of North Africa, this saying may become relevant. Even for a new “caliph” in Istanbul.

Translated by Andreea Soare