Turkey’s war machine is active in four different conflicts simultaneously, while another one is lurking
There was a time when Recep Tayyip Erdogan supported the idea of “zero problems with neighbors“. It was a core concept of Turkish foreign policy during the early years of the Justice and Development Party’s (AKP) reign. The world has changed dramatically since then, and so does Turkey.
Turkey’s neighborhood underwent enormous transformations in the past years: The Arab Uprisings, the burgeoning of terrorism, refugee and migrant flows, as well as newly emerged geopolitical realities. Traditional powers, international bodies and regional alliances could not restore stability. Simultaneously, the 2016 failed coup in Turkey enhanced Erdogan’s rule at home. From this time onward, Turkish troops and militias are actively participating in regional conflicts. In a four-year interval, Turkey has brought itself into a vortex of -almost- five conflicts.
Since 2011, the civil war in Syria gradually evolved into a massive proxy conflict. The territorial rise and fall of ISIS stood in the epicenter while Iran and Russia joined forces with the official government of Bashar al-Assad against western-backed insurgents. Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF) also rose prominent consisting mostly of Kurdish fighters.
Kurdish forces played a vital role in the defeat of ISIS. As long as autonomist tensions erupted among them, Turkey, a country with more than 15 million Kurds, was alarmed. Turkey was unhesitant to intervene in the conflict as long as SDF gained considerable power on the battlefield. At the same time, Islamist factions grew and reigned within Syrian rebels. There, Turkey found support and backed the insurgents to promote its goals.
In August 2016, one month after the failed coup, Turkey launched Operation Euphrates Shield against Kurdish forces in northern Syria. In October 2017, Turkey set foot in Idlib, while in January 2018 Turkish forces and Islamist rebels attacked once again the Kurds in Afrin. Surprisingly, USA, a longstanding SDF ally, allowed Turkey to operate in north-eastern Syria in October 2019. The latest Turkish confrontation in the conflict was against pro-government forces in February 2020.
Iraq is viewed as a standard fertile ground of destabilization in the Middle East. Since the US-led invasion of 2003, the country is in disarray and multilevel crises are emerging. In the northern part of Iraq, in what is known as Iraqi Kurdistan, a Kurdish majority enjoys an -enhanced- autonomous status, especially after the constantly rising insecure environment.
For many decades, Kurdish autonomists were public enemy number one for Turkey both on the inside and the outside. The most notable among them is the Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK) which is in conflict with Turkey since 1984. Iraqi Kurdistan has been for a long time a haven for branches of the militant group. And of course, peculiar regional circumstances have made it easier for Turkey to intervene in northern Iraq against PKK targets.
The first signs of Turkish intervention were recorded in April 2017 with airstrikes in Mount Sinjar in particular. But a cross-border operation, named Operation Claw, was launched in May 2019 targeting PKK and other Kurdish militias adding another armed involvement in the “conflict list” of Turkey.
In 2011, western powers decided to remove Muammar Gaddafi from power with force. Since then, the power vacuum in Libya has created chaos within the country as civil war rages wild. The latest phase of the conflict includes a military confrontation between the UN-backed government of Tripoli (GNA) and Libyan National Army (LNA) of field marshal Khalifa Haftar.
Once again, Islamist elements within the GNA connect Turkey with the UN-backed government. While Russia, France, Egypt and UAE stood by LNA, the forces of Khalifa Haftar launched a military campaign in April 2019 that almost toppled the interim government of Tripoli. After signing a maritime deal with the GNA that inflamed the Eastern Mediterranean, Turkey sought to support its interests in the conflict with military means.
In January 2020, Turkey sent tactical troops and Syrian Islamist fighters to join the battle against Khalifa Haftar. The involvement of Turkey in Libya changed the course of the conflict as the GNA launched a successful counter-offensive. For the time being, the conflicting sides have been fall into a stalemate in Sirte. The military support of Turkey remains unchanged.
Armenia and Azerbaijan are fighting over the disputed region of Nagorno-Karabakh in South Caucasus for more than 30 years. The dissolution of the Soviet Union brought into the foreground a full-scale war in 1992 that was never met with a peace treaty. In September 2020, the conflict was revived.
In a tense period of geopolitical competition, clashes between Armenia and Azerbaijan erupted as early as July 2020. Azerbaijanis, as a Turkic ethnic group, enjoy the bilateral support of Turkey in numerous fields, including defense and security. For Turkey, the principle of “two states, one nation” guide its foreign policy towards the former Soviet republic. Days before the recent escalation reports stated that Turkey sent Syrian mercenaries to support Azerbaijan.
The Nagorno-Karabakh conflict is the latest addition to Turkey’s war machine. Although Ankara and Baku deny any direct Turkish involvement, Turkish F-16 fighters spotted by satellites. After all, it is quite visible that Turkey fomented the offensive that Azerbaijan launched against Armenians in Nagorno-Karabakh.
After the 2020 Greece-Egypt maritime deal that disrupted the 2019 Turkey-Libya maritime deal, there are ongoing tensions in the Eastern Mediterranean among Greece and Turkey. In August 2020, Turkey sent a survey vessel, accompanied by warships, into what Greece considers its own Exclusive Economic Zone (EEZ) according to international law, a claim that the Turkish side rejects. Greek and Turkish warships even collided, as German reports claimed that the two NATO sides came close to an armed conflict.
At the present moment, after failed diplomatic efforts, the same Turkish survey vessel sails once again with warships into the same region, coming close to Greek territorial waters. The constant militarization of the Eastern Mediterranean creates a fragile situation for peace and security that could potentially get out of hand. Nevertheless, Turkey drags itself to yet another possible conflict that would be devastating.