Turkey’s growing military visibility in the Middle East

Turkey’s growing military visibility in the Middle East

A much-anticipated meeting between U.S. President Barack Obama and President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan took place late on March 31 on the sidelines of the fourth Nuclear Security Summit following the latter’s talks with Vice President Joe Biden and Secretary of State John Kerry on March 30. 

Despite reports by American media outlets that Erdoğan received a rather cold reception in Washington D.C., he was still able to meet with the top three U.S. officials in less than two days, finding enough time and avenues to express his opinions on a number of issues, especially the fight against all sorts of terrorism and developments in Syria and Iraq. 

(However, it’s also a fact that growing pressure by Erdoğan and the Turkish government on the free media, academics and dissidents has given only more evidence to civil right groups, think tankers and the media in the U.S. in their assessment that Turkey is becoming more authoritarian every day. Dozens of news reports, analyses and columns published in the American media have depicted Erdoğan as an authoritarian leader with ambitions to consolidate his one-man rule in the country at the cost of eroding democracy and fundamental human rights and freedoms. This sentiment in Washington D.C. will surely last even after presidential elections and the coming of the new president in early 2017.)

It’s no surprise that Turkey and the U.S. still continue to differ when it comes to the role the Democratic Union Party (PYD) can play in the fight against the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (ISIL). 

However, as Foreign Minister Mevlüt Çavuşoğlu put it in a lecture March 28 in Washington D.C., the two allies will not fall out because they have different thoughts on the PYD but will focus on their common objective of degrading ISIL by keeping Syria unified. In this regard, the reassurances given by Joe Biden that the U.S. is against the fragmentation of Syria have been carefully noted by the Turkish side. 

This series of meetings comes at a time when the Iraqi army has launched an offensive against ISIL to liberate Mosul, the country’s third largest but one of its most strategic towns, which has been under ISIL control since mid-2014. The two countries’ senior diplomats and intelligence chiefs, Hakan Fidan from the National Intelligence Organization (MİT) and John Brennan from the CIA, were able to find good opportunities to discuss the developments in the Syrian theater and plan the next steps in the anti-ISIL fight. 

It would not be unexpected if joint efforts to seal the 98-kilometer strip of the Turkish-Syrian border along the Marea-Jarablus line will be stepped up in the aftermath of these talks in Washington. 

One important element in assessments, namely, that Turkish-American cooperation could be intensified, was voiced by Prime Minister Ahmet Davutoğlu last weekend during a visit to Jordan. Davutoğlu described Aleppo and Mosul as two key cities for the fate of the Middle East, emphasizing that these two cities should always be in the right hands. 

For the Turkish prime minister, the regime’s seizure of Aleppo would mark the end of unity in Syria while extremist Shiites’ capture of Mosul would spark a civil war in Iraq. 

That’s why, Davutoğlu added, Turkey had decided to establish the Bashiqa military base near Mosul along with two other reasons. He implied that the Turkish military presence would stop Shiite forces from gaining control of the city if Mosul is liberated from ISIL. That does not necessarily mean that Turkish troops will actively fight Shiite groups but that Sunni and Peshmerga forces being trained by Turkey at the base would do the fighting instead. 

Despite serious complaints from Iraq and the Arab League as well as Russia, Iran and some other regional forces, Turkey continues to keep its forces there and has openly expressed that its security begins in northern Iraq and Syria. Davutoğlu’s conceptualized security line begins from Latakia and goes through Aleppo, Mosul and Sulaymaniyah. 

The base in Bashiqa could be regarded as just the beginning of Turkey’s military march in the Middle East and beyond. Defense Minister İsmet Yılmaz said Turkey would build a base in Qatar within two years and deploy a considerable contingent of troops. Likewise, there are plans to build another base in Somalia where Turkey has undertaken a massive effort to develop the world’s poorest country. 

At the same time, the signing of agreements with Saudi Arabia and Gulf countries in the fields of defense and military cooperation are considered as the basis for a legal and political framework for Turkey’s military activities in the region. 

Having been disappointed in its efforts to topple Bashar al-Assad since 2011 and left isolated from the Syrian process both politically and militarily (Turkish aircraft have not been able to fly over Syria since Nov. 24, 2015), there are very big question marks on what could be the motives and objectives in establishing military facilities in regions beyond Turkey’s direct influence and far from the security line drawn by top Turkish officials.