Ankara continues to rely heavily on the military as a tool in the foreign conflicts it is engaged in, as reflected in its intensive military activity in northern Syria, ongoing air strikes in northern Iraq, and continuing to send Syrian mercenaries to Libya. Turkey’s ongoing reliance on the military in foreign conflicts comes despite the fact that current contexts do not encourage the use of this tool as in the past. These contexts include, mainly, the Turkish economy suffering from an unprecedented crisis, Turkey’s reconciliation with key countries in the region, and heavy casualties of Turkish forces abroad. Turkey’s insistence on using the military as a primary means of achieving Ankara’s regional agenda can be understood through a combination of factors. Foremost among these are Ankara’s desire to counter the Kurds’ existential threat to Turkey and a Turkish move to preserve alleged historical claims. Additionally, Turkey wishes to make economic gains, copy the Iranian model of militias, and promote the specter of it being an irresistible military force.
Perhaps the latest indicator of this is Turkish Minister of Defense Hulusi Akar’s statements on 11 January 2022, in which he threatened his country would step up its attacks beyond its borders in the coming period. In this context, indicators that Turkey will continue to rely heavily on the military as a tool abroad are as follows:
1. Intensive military activity in northern Syria: The pace of Turkish military activities in northern Syria remains high, as evidenced by Turkey intensively targeting the Kurdish People’s Protection Units (YPG), which constitute the largest component of the Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF). On an almost daily basis, the Turkish Ministry of Defense announces Turkish forces’ success in killing Kurdish forces. Turkish attacks in northern Syria also continuously destroy civilian facilities, such as the Tel Tamer power station in Hasakah province, which went out of service due to Turkish bombardment.
Ankara also continues to conduct military activities in Idlib province in the north, as well as northeastern Syria. Most recently, Turkish forces established a new military point in Idlib on 8 January 2022. Additionally, reports revealed on 9 January 2022 that Turkish officers trained Syrian fighters in Idlib on how to use air defense weapons. Turkish escalation means that Ankara’s agreements with Moscow regarding northern Syria have not been activated, and that they are practically terminated. Notably, the two sides reached a truce agreement in northeastern Syria on 22 October 2019, and reached a ceasefire in northwestern Syria on 5 March 2020.
2. Ongoing air strikes in northern Iraq: The Turkish Air Force has continued to carry out strikes in northern Iraq recently, ostensibly to counter Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK) activities. That is evidenced, for example, by the Turkish Anadolu Agency’s announcement on 29 December 2021 that Turkish forces had killed nine members of the PKK as a result of an operation in northern Iraq. It should be noted in this regard that the Turkish Minister of Defense stated on 9 January 2022 that "Turkish forces will work to confront terrorists where they are present in Syria and Iraq, without harming the territorial integrity of the two countries," pointing out that his country "has been able, over the past seven years, to neutralize more than 33,000 terrorists, in addition to 2,795 in 2021 alone."
3. Continuing to send Syrian mercenaries to Libya: Despite recent reports that Turkey had withdrawn Syrian mercenaries it sent to Libya—such as the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights (SOHR) report on 17 November 2021 that Ankara withdrew 140 fighters from Libya and returned them to Syria—other reports have revealed that Turkey sent new fighters. This was confirmed by an SOHR report on 22 November 2021 that Turkey sent 150 mercenaries to Libya from the Sultan Murad Brigade, the Hamza Division, and Ankara-affiliated Syrian National Army (SNA) groups. This means that Turkey is keen to retain its main military tool in Libya, the Syrian mercenaries, and to replace forces there with others that may be more combat-effective.
Turkey’s continued reliance on the military in foreign conflicts comes despite the fact that current contexts do not encourage the use of this tool as in the past. These contexts can be illustrated as follows:
1. Turkey’s economy is suffering from an unprecedented crisis: Some recently expected Ankara to reduce its foreign military engagement in light of its high economic costs, as the Turkish economy is suffering an unprecedented crisis marked by the collapse of the value of the Turkish lira. The Turkish currency had its worst year in history in 2021. Turkey’s foreign exchange reserves fell to their lowest level since 2002, data from the Turkish Statistical Institute (TURKSTAT) showed on 30 December 2021. Confidence in the Turkish economy fell that month by 1.8%.
2. Turkish reconciliation with key countries in the region: Turkey’s reconciliation with a number of key countries in the region—led by Egypt, the United Arab Emirates (UAE), and Saudi Arabia—gave many the impression that the transformations in Turkish politics would lead Ankara to reduce its foreign military engagement and focus on creating shared gains from cooperative opportunities resulting from the reconciliations, given that Turkey’s military interventions in countries such as Syria, Iraq, and Libya are main points of contention between Ankara and Cairo, Abu Dhabi, and Riyadh. This did not happen. It should be noted here that Turkey is also trying to improve its relationship with the Syrian regime, as evidenced by recent reports of meetings between Syrian security officials and their Turkish counterparts in Jordan.
3. Heavy casualties of Turkish forces abroad: While Ankara is keen that Turkish soldiers not play a pivotal role where Turkey is militarily engaged in order to avoid opposition criticisms should Turkish forces suffer large casualties, the recent period has seen heavy human losses for Turkey, as is the case in Syria and Iraq. The latest indication of this was the killing of three Turkish soldiers on the border with Syria on 8 January 2022. Three Turkish soldiers were also killed in a PKK attack in northern Iraq on 9 December 2021. Turkey’s Zlikan base in northern Iraq is also being subjected to continuous attacks, most recently on 15 January 2022.
Turkey’s insistence on using the military as a key means of achieving Ankara’s regional agenda can be understood through a combination of factors, most prominently:
1. Addressing the Kurds’ existential threat to Turkey: Turkey uses the military tool in Syria and Iraq to prevent any possibility for Kurds in the two countries to successfully establish an independent state. This is considered an existential threat to the Turkish state because of the possible separatist ambitions that could emerge among the Kurds of Turkey, threatening the country’s territorial integrity. Alongside this main objective, Ankara’s most important motives for fighting the Kurds in both Syria and Iraq are to complete the Turkish war against the Kurds inside Turkey, and to cement the Kurdish threat in Turkish public opinion. Fighting the Kurds is a persistent strategy resorted to by the ruling regime in Turkey to consolidate its internal rule and prevent any possibility of a geographic link between the Kurds of Syria and Iraq.
2. Moving to preserve alleged historical claims: Turkey has alleged historical claims in some countries it is intervening in militarily. These ostensible claims explain Ankara’s insistence on using the military as a tool in those countries, although Turkish circumstances may not be conducive to using it. For example, Turkey claims to have historical rights in the city of Mosul, which explains the presence of a military base in the Bashiqa area of the city. The same applies to the city of Kirkuk, to which Ankara attaches particular importance. As for Syria, Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan has previously claimed his country’s right to intervene militarily under the Adana Agreement signed with Damascus in 1998. Ankara also wishes to end the controversy associated with its annexation of Liwa Iskenderun. In Libya, Ankara also claims to have historical rights since the time of the Ottoman Empire.
3. Turkey’s desire for economic gains: Although Turkey’s current economic conditions are not consistent with the current pattern of Turkish foreign military intervention, this intervention has brought some economic gains for Ankara. This is evidenced by Turkey’s extensive economic activities in northern Syria, whether directly through Turkish companies and official and unofficial bodies, or indirectly through the economic activities of factions loyal to it. Ankara also seeks to strengthen economic ties with northern Iraq, such as its effort to complete the railway link between Mosul and Turkey, as well as the electric interconnection project. Many view Turkey’s strong engagement in Libya as aimed at economic gains in the Libya of the future, specifically from reconstruction.
4. Copying the Iranian model of militias: Iran is the foremost model in the Middle East of employing proxies in the hotbeds of conflict and crises it is engaged in, as is the case in Iraq, Syria, Yemen, and Lebanon. It does so by relying on militias and its fighting tools, trying to play a role in those conflicts and crises. The Iranian model seems to appeal to Turkey, which has been keen to imitate it in the conflicts it is engaged in by establishing its own militias. In Syria, Turkey has succeeded in this to a large extent. Turkey has been able to recruit Syrian mercenaries and use them for its benefit, not only in Syria, but in the foreign conflicts it is engaged in. This is the case in Libya, and there was previous talk of Ankara using these mercenaries in the conflict over the Nagorno-Karabakh region.
5. Establishing the specter of an irresistible military actor: Turkey is trying, through its extensive military interventions, to establish a specter among decision-makers in the region. The idea is that Turkey is a country nobody can deter from military action, given the large number of its military interventions in the region’s issues and crises. This leads some countries of the region to submit to this bogeyman and remain silent in the face of aggressive Turkish moves. Perhaps the most striking example of this is the almost disappearance of official Iraqi criticism of Turkey’s aggressive operations in northern Iraq.
In conclusion, it is notable that Turkish foreign policy towards the Middle East, and especially towards Syria, Iraq, and Libya, has become focused mainly on military tools. Turkey’s increasing use of the military in the region’s crises and conflicts is part of Turkish ambitions for hegemony and desire to create influence in the current global order. It is clear that in the conflicts and hotspots Turkey intervenes in with its various tools—and mainly the military tool—the chances for political solutions are significantly decreasing.