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 is expanding its intervention in Syria while keeping up a military presence in Iraq, Qatar, Somalia and Afghanistan and maintaining peacekeeping troops in the Balkans. At the same time, the Turkish navy patrols the Mediterranean and Aegean seas to protect energy and territorial interests. The effort comes at a cost. The military budget as a percentage of gross domestic product has risen, from 1.8 percent in 2015 to 2.2 percent in 2017, at a time when Turkey’s economy has weakened. Here’s a look at where Turkey is flexing its muscle, and why.
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 PKK militants who have battled for an autonomous Kurdish region inside Turkey. Turkish troops are also massing along the 911-kilometer (566-mile) border in the hope of establishing a safe zone to encourage the more than 3.6 million Syrians who fled to Turkey to return home and avert a new wave of refugees.
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. Turkey never left, saying its presence is a deterrent against the PKK and a check on the independence aspirations of Iraq’s Kurds.
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, especially since the Arab Spring revolts at the start of this decade.
In 2017, Turkey opened its largest overseas base in Mogadishu, where hundreds of Turkish troops are training Somalian 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.
The Aegean and Mediterranean
Turkish warships shadow Turkey’s drilling and exploration ships in the Mediterranean around the clock as the country seeks to claim disputed energy rights. Tensions with Cyprus and Greece have been inflamed by the issuance of exploration licenses by Turkey and the breakaway Turkish Cypriot government in areas claimed by Cyprus. The northern third of Cyprus has been occupied by Turkey since an attempted coup to unite the island with Greece in 1974. “Nothing can be done in the Mediterranean without Turkey, we won’t allow it,” Turkish Foreign Minister Mevlut Cavusoglu said Feb. 21. A separate long-running dispute with Greece over the sovereignty of numerous Aegean islets has led to mock dogfights between aircraft and face-offs between warships.
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.
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 plans to establish centers in Sudan to train the country’s armed forces. Erdogan made the commitment during a 2017 visit when he also signed deals to increase Turkish investment in and trade with Sudan, whose president, Omar al-Bashir, is on the International Criminal Court’s wanted list for war crimes in the Darfur region in western Sudan.