Contributor: Defence Dateline Group
Posted: 05/21/2012 12:00:00 AM EDT
By Robert Knapp
Ahmet Davutoglu, Turkey’s Foreign Minister since 2009, is currently attracting much greater attention from the Western media than would normally be expected. For all the clichéd talk of Turkey being the ‘bridge between East and West,’ it is a country that has for many decades not exercised the diplomatic weight that it should, in either the Middle East or Europe. A country of 74 million people, with an economy that has largely shrugged off the effects of the global economic crisis, and with the second largest military in NATO, Turkey has always been a ‘sleeping giant’ of European politics. However, that is a situation that is now rapidly changing due a combination of the shifting domestic dynamics of the Turkish state and the continuing reverberations of the Arab Spring. Turkey’s time on the side-lines looks set to be coming to a close.
The sword of the state
In recent years the Turkish armed forces have been focused upon changing from a Cold War standpoint to one in which they are much more suited the meet the challenges Turkey faces in the first decades of the 21st Century. The key objective has been to make the military more flexible and mobile so that it can respond to the greater range of roles that are now expected of it – many of which are expected to extend far beyond Turkey’s borders. With Turkey spending roughly $17.5 billion on defence (2.4% of GDP) she has the 6th highest defence budget in Europe, and this is only likely to rise as countries like Italy cut back their defence funding.
With an arsenal of over 400,000 men, over 2,000 front line main battle tanks (a mixture of Leopard 1s, 2s, M60s, elderly M48s and the new domestically produced Altay) and 7,000 artillery pieces the army is one of the most capable old fashioned heavy mechanised armoured forces in Europe. Now this is being combined with an increase in the amount of rapidly deployable air-mobile forces available to it. Experience gained from the on-going insurgency in the south against the PKK and the deployment of an infantry brigade to Afghanistan have led to a military that is increasingly skilled and competent.
The air force is the service that is currently receiving the greatest degree of equipment modernisation with the on-going introduction of B-737 AWACS planes and the imminent arrival of the first A400M aerial transport greatly expanding the capabilities of the Turkish air force. It already possesses a well trained and highly valued fast jet fleet (a mixture of F-16 variants and F-4 Phantoms) that is set to receive a significant number of F-35 JSFs at the end of the decade and one of the largest aerial tanking fleets in Europe (7 Stratotankers). The whole force is highly regarded throughout NATO due to the quality of training and equipment that its pilots and ground crews possess.
The navy is the smallest of the three services but the fleet of 14 diesel electric submarines and 18 frigates, plus numerous smaller corvettes and patrol boats is a substantial force by regional standards. The deployment of vessels to Somalia and Libya has shown it more than able to operate as part of multinational flotillas.
A military castrated
Since the creation of the modern secular Turkish state by Kemal Ataturk the Turkish military has proudly regarded itself as the guardian of this secularism. This has extended to numerous military coups; the most recent of which occurred in only 1997 when Turkey’s first Islamist government was forced to give up power. Since Turkey’s main moderate Islamist party – the Justice and Development Party (AK) – came to power in 2002 its Prime Minister, Recep Tayyip Erdogan, has been steadily moving to limit the military and ensure that it keeps its nose out of politics. With the recent trial and imprisonment of multiple former senior military officers, including the former Chief of the General Staff Ilker Basbug, over the planning of an alleged coup against the AK, Mr Erdogan’s position and the solidity of AK in government seems secure. However, it must be made clear that these moves have not been universally supported in Turkey, with the secular opposition and many liberal intellectuals questioning the coup claims; many allege that it is a politically motivated campaign of vengeance by Mr Erdogan and other senior members of the government. This situation of limiting the military’s domestic political power is only likely to continue with the planned re-writing of the 1980 constitution. The hope is that the army will from now on stay in its barracks.
The castrating of the Turkish military in the political sphere has coincided with a sharp increase in the internal and external challenges that are facing it. The on-going Kurdish insurgency, the brewing civil war over the border in Syria and the continued concerns about the effects of an Israeli military attack on Iran are all issues that are increasingly coming to the fore. This is all at a time when Turkey is at a point in which it is increasingly attempting to re-orientate its foreign policy in a more multi-directional way beyond its traditional alliances with the United States and Israel.
The greatest of these challenges is the continuing unrest in Syria that has arguably already fallen into a state of virtual civil war. At the time of writing the Kofi Annan-brokered UN cease-fire is just about holding stable but there is the very real risk that the conflict between the Syrian opposition and the government of Bashar al-Assad will spill over into Turkey. There are already tens of thousands of refugees sheltering on the Syrian side of the border with allegations being made that the Syrian Free Army is being allowed to shelter and launch operations from bases within Turkey. Having previously enjoyed friendly relations with Assad’s government, Mr Erdogan has publicly called for regime change and it is a strongly held belief by many Western diplomats that the coming summer will see direct intervention by Turkey in the form of safe zones and enclaves being set up on the Syrian side of the border; the only thing currently stopping this occurring is American opposition to direct military intervention but as the ceasefire continues to tremble, the U.S.’s position is likely to relent.
The greatest on-going security challenge for the Turkish military is its prolonged counter-insurgency operations against the Kurdish Workers Party (PKK). This decades old conflict was at its most intense between 1984 and 1999 when there was virtually open warfare in the south of the country, but in the past two years the situation has destabilised once more, as Prime Minister Erdogan’s peace initiative have fallen by the wayside. This has included the mass arrest and detainment of thousands of civilians on often dubious charges of being members of the PKK and its political front the Kurdish Peace and Democracy Party. The existence in Iraq of the autonomously governing Iraqi Kurdistan and a further 2 million Kurds in already destabilised Syria are only increasing the importance that is attached to resolving Turkeys Kurdish problem. The most likely current attempt with be for Mr Erdogan to use the imminent writing a new constitution to attempt to push through some reforms for Turkish Kurds, but for the time being the bombs of an airstrike seem the favoured solution.
Turkey is a country that is expected to take an increasingly assertive and important role in the international community over the coming decade. This can be seen through its leading role in promoting Turkish-style Islamist democracy in the Middle East, its key role in attempts to find a negotiated solution to Iran’s alleged nuclear weapons programme, and the recent break from Israel over its assault on the Gaza aid flotilla in 2008. Turkey, led by a popular and charismatic Prime Minister, has every chance of taking on an increasingly senior role in the Middle East, providing it can navigate the challenges in its neighbourhood that have sprung up this year. The talk of a new Ottoman Empire may be overblown but the return of an independent and powerful Turkey is not.