Turkey’s active foreign policy in the Middle East and the Caucasus has led to a debate about whether its policies are sustainable. Many critics pointed to the depreciation of the Turkish Lira, the economic setback due to the coronavirus, and claims that Turkey’s military engagements are not sustainable.
Others claim that the economy will not deter Turkey from pursuing its geopolitical goals and national interest, but argue that in the mid-term the economy will become a ball and chain for Turkey. However, all of them are wrong. Turkey’s military engagement in Syria, Iraq, Libya, and Turkey’s aid to Azerbaijan is no economic burden.
Starting with the recent conflict in Azerbaijan, Turkey’s support for Azerbaijan comes at no economic cost to Turkey. The actual Turkish support for Azerbaijan on the battlefield is very limited to arms sales; most notably the Turkish manufactured Bayraktar TB2.
Speaking from an economic perspective, Turkey has gained from its help to Azerbaijan. Azerbaijan has become Turkey’s primary gas supplier and that the border between Turkey and Armenia is closed due to the Armenian occupation of Azerbaijani territory.
In the Libyan conflict, the Turkish approach was cost-efficient and successful. Where warlord Khalifa Haftar’s backers paid immense amounts of money and supplied him with several sophisticated weapon systems, Turkey has been far more efficient. As the social dynamics of Libya were clearly against Haftar, his backers had to increase their support in tandem. Instead of burning money like the United Arab Emirates, Turkey has achieved more with a lot less. In this manner, the Libyan case is a textbook example of working smart spending fewer resources.
While Russian mercenaries and European mercenaries were costly, the Chadian and Sudanese mercenaries did not cost as much but were less experienced and suffered from low morale. Syrians brought in by Russia to fight on behalf of warlord were of little use as they lacked any motivation to fight.
On the other side, Syrians fighting alongside the forces of the Libyan government have a motive, common enemy, morale, and are among the most battle-hardened in the world. They see the Libyan cause as part of the broader Arab Spring and see Libyans as their fellow brothers in a struggle against another dictator similar to the Syrian dictator.
Additionally, the states backing Haftar, most notably Russia and the United Arab Emirates are also seen as adversaries of the Syrian people.
Furthermore, the purchase of Bayraktar TB2 drones and Turkish-manufactured weapon systems by the Libyan government has created an economic surplus for Turkey. Keeping in mind that Turkey secured lucrative economic deals in Libya, gained a significant geopolitical victory, and saved the legitimate government of Libya – its ally –Turkish military engagement in Libya was an economic win for Turkey.
Continuing with Turkey’s military operations in Syria, overall Turkey managed to limit the costs of these operations. The joint military operations together with the Syrian National Army have not only facilitated Turkish victories but also massively reduced costs.
Even though providing aid to the population in opposition-controlled areas has some costs, it is lower than hosting them as refugees in Turkey. Additionally, these operations reduced the costs caused by terror attacks in Turkey. In the past, the Turkish people and the economy suffered far more from terror attacks by the PKK and Daesh.
The Turkish military operation in Iraq, however, can be seen at first sight as costly, but in comparison to the past 40 years of counter-terrorism operations, it isn’t. In the past, Turkey dealt with the PKK within its borders, but now fighting is raging in the mountains of northern Iraq and Turkey has the support of the Kurdish Peshmerga. The approach is markedly different, more effective, and has less economic costs.
Additionally, while in the past Turkey had to conduct costly airstrikes with F-16 fighter jets, this job has been partially taken over by armed drones. The fight against the PKK is seen as a constant in Turkey’s security policies but thanks to armed drones and military successes in recent years, the cost of anti-terror operations have decreased significantly.
To sum it up, the Turkish approach has proven cost-efficient and sustainable. In contrast to Turkey’s adversaries, Turkey has spent less but gained more. Especially if one compares the devastation caused in Yemen and the huge economic costs of military operations for little victories. So what is the secret to this cost-efficient method?
The short answer is popular support and robust domestic defence industry.
Turkey’s military operations have always secured popular support in the respective foreign country. When it comes to Libya, the Libyan government is backed by the United Nations.
In Syria, the Syrian National Army and the Syrian Interim Government enjoys major support from the Syrian people and have no lack of manpower. In Iraq, Turkey works with the democratically elected Kurdish regional government against PKK terror group.
In Azerbaijan, Azerbaijan is fighting to liberate its internationally recognised territory from an occupation. Being on the right side of history enables Turkey to gain local allies with determination.
Secondly, the domestic defence industry is a crucial element to produce weaponry tailored to its needs. This has allowed Turkey to be independent, have lower costs, and more efficient weapon systems.
Even though the success in armed drones, namely ANKA-S and Bayraktar TB2 are well-known examples, the MAM-L munitions they use and the electronic warfare systems (KORAL) who support them, or the armoured vehicles Turkey produces are all part of a broader recipe for success with low economic costs.
As a side-effect, many states like Ukraine, Serbia, Qatar, and other states are interested in purchasing battle-proven Turkish defence products.