Mapping the Turkish Military’s Expanding Footprint

Turkish soldiers hold their position on a tank as they watch the town of Kobani from near the Mursitpinar border crossing, on the Turkish-Syrian border in the southeastern town of Suruc in Sanliurfa province October 13, 2014. The strategic border town of Kobani has been beseiged by Islamic State militants since mid-September forcing more than 200,000 people to flee into Turkey.

Not since the days of the Ottoman Empire has the Turkish military had such an extensive global footprint. Under its ambitious president, Recep Tayyip Erdogan, Turkey sent troops to Libya to turn the tide of the war there, and it keeps up a military presence in Syria, Iraq, Qatar, Somalia and Afghanistan as well as maintaining peacekeeping troops in the Balkans. At the same time, the Turkish navy patrols the Mediterranean and Aegean seas where it has laid claim to energy and territorial interests amid escalating tensions with European Union members Greece and Cyprus. The effort comes at a cost. The military budget as a percentage of gross domestic product has risen, from 1.8% in 2015 to 2.5% in 2018, at a time when Turkey’s economy has weakened. Here’s a look at where Turkey is flexing its muscle, and why.

Libya

Erdogan has sent naval and land forces, as well as armed drones, to Libya to back the United Nations-recognized government, deepening a conflict that has become a proxy war. Turkey supports the Tripoli-based government of Prime Minister Fayez al-Sarraj against forces to the east aligned with strongman Khalifa Haftar, which are backed by Russian mercenaries, Egypt and the United Arab Emirates. Turkey aims to salvage business contracts worth billions of dollars that have been thrown into limbo by Libya’s protracted conflict. And in return for agreeing to defend Sarraj’s government, it won Libyan backing for a contentious maritime deal reinforcing Turkey’s claim to rights in the eastern Mediterranean, where it has territorial disputes with Greece.
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Syria

Turkey’s military intervention in Syria is one of its largest foreign operations since the collapse of the Ottoman Empire after World War I. Erdogan sent troops to Syria in 2016 to fight both Islamic State jihadists and U.S.-backed Kurdish forces, which are linked to militants of the Kurdistan Workers’ Party, or PKK, who have battled for an autonomous Kurdish region inside Turkey. Turkish troops also captured towns in northern Syria in an effort to establish a buffer zone to encourage some of more than 3.6 million Syrians who fled to Turkey to return home and avert a new wave of refugees. Turkey hit the brake on its Syria foray after it reached separate agreements with the U.S. and Russia in 2019 to keep Kurdish fighters in Syria away from its border.

Iraq

Turkey frequently sends warplanes and troops across the border into northern Iraq to target PKK hideouts. It also maintains military bases originally set up for a peacekeeping mission in the 1990s, designed to enforce a cease-fire between rival Kurdish parties in the area mediated by U.S. and U.K. diplomats. Turkey says its continued presence is a deterrent against the PKK and a check on the independence aspirations of Iraq’s Kurds.

Qatar

Turkey has steadily built up a base in Qatar since siding in 2017 with the gas-rich Gulf state in its spat with a regional alliance led by Saudi Arabia. Turkey and Qatar are wedded by their support for the Muslim Brotherhood, a political movement that has troubled the Saudis and most other Gulf monarchies who see it as a threat to their absolute rule, especially since the Arab Spring revolts at the start of the 2010s.

Somalia

In 2017, Turkey opened its largest overseas base in Mogadishu, where hundreds of Turkish troops are training Somali soldiers under a broader Turkish plan to help rebuild a country devastated by decades of clan warfare and an insurgency by the Islamist group al-Shabaab. Turkey has been increasing its foothold in the Horn of Africa nation since Erdogan visited in 2011, helping to revive such services as education and health as well as security. In 2015 Erdogan pledged to build 10,000 new homes in the country, while defense and industrial agreements were also signed. And in 2020 Erdogan said Turkey had an offer from Somalia to participate in oil exploration off its coast.

Cyprus

Turkish naval ships escorted the country’s exploration and drilling vessels in the eastern Mediterranean in August as it asserted its claim over disputed energy rights. Turkey and Cyprus are at loggerheads over offshore gas reserves around the island, which has been divided since Turkish forces captured the northern third in 1974, following a coup attempt in which a military junta in Athens sought to unite Cyprus with Greece. Tensions have been inflamed by both Turkey and the breakaway Turkish Cypriot government issuing exploration licenses in waters claimed by the internationally recognized government in Nicosia. The Republic of Cyprus, which is not recognized by Turkey, is an EU member and officially has sovereignty over the entire island, while the Turkish minority’s self-proclaimed state in the north, recognized only by Ankara, also claims rights to any energy resources off its coast.

Greece

Turkey is also in dispute with Greece over maritime borders in the Aegean and Mediterranean, with both countries claiming that waters south of Turkey form part of their exclusive economic zones, in which they have a sovereign right to exploit natural resources. Greece says that islands must be taken into account in delineating a country’s continental shelf, in line with the UN Law of the Sea, which Turkey has not signed. Ankara argues that a country’s continental shelf should be measured from its mainland, and that the area south of the Greek island of Kastellorizo — just a few kilometers off Turkey’s southern coast — therefore falls within its exclusive zone. Greece signed a maritime border agreement with Egypt on Aug. 6, defining the limits of their respective zones and challenging the 2019 Turkish-Libyan accord.

Afghanistan

Turkish troops are in Afghanistan as part of a NATO-led coalition of more than 50 countries supporting the Afghan security forces against the Taliban, the Islamic fundamentalists who once ruled there. Within the North Atlantic Treaty Organization, Turkey has the second-largest military in terms of personnel. It also has a long history in Afghanistan. The country’s founder, Mustafa Kemal Ataturk, offered troops to Afghanistan’s King Amanullah in 1928 to put down an uprising by radical Islamists over the monarch’s decision to send Afghan girls to secular Turkey for schooling.

Azerbaijan

Turkey’s armed forces also have a presence at an army base in Azerbaijan and access to an air force base there. The countries held joint military exercises in Azerbaijan in August after skirmishes with Armenia left casualties among Azeri troops and civilians. Turkey pledged to upgrade Azerbaijan’s military equipment and supply new defense systems, including Turkish-made drones, missiles and electronic warfare devices. Turkey has provided military support to Azerbaijan since its conflict with Armenia over Nagorno-Karabakh, a majority Armenian-populated region of Azerbaijan, three decades ago as the Soviet Union collapsed. Armenians took control of the mountainous region, which is still internationally recognized as part of Azerbaijan, along with seven adjacent districts, before Russia brokered a cease-fire in 1994. No peace deal has been signed despite mediation by the U.S., Russia and France.

Elsewhere

The military has participated in NATO-led peacekeeping missions in Kosovo and Bosnia-Herzegovina since the war in the 1990s. It has a particular interest in helping to protect ethnic Turkish communities there. More controversially, Turkey agreed to establish military training centers in Sudan during the rule of ex-president Omar al-Bashir, who is on the International Criminal Court’s wanted list for war crimes in the Darfur region in western Sudan. Erdogan also signed deals with the north African country to increase Turkish investment and trade. Bashir’s government agreed to lease Turkey Suakin Island for 99 years, a move that would allow Turkey to build a base on the island, once ruled by the Ottoman Empire, and expand its military reach to the Red Sea.

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