The anti-Western euphoria in the current Turkish government, which has gone well beyond posturing and definitely moved into a new phase with actual policy choices, is undermining the agility, robustness and strength of the Turkish military and exposing it to weaknesses and vulnerabilities that will be very difficult to repair.
Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan, the chief architect of the ill-advised transformation of Turkey’s orientation away from the transatlantic alliance, falsely brags about how his government has made Turkey self-reliant in its military and defense manufacturing base and turned it into an economic powerhouse. He seems to have forgotten the importance of liberalized global trade and the relatively free flow of investment schemes in contributing to the trade-and-investment-dependent Turkish economy. He also overlooks the significance of technology transfer, know-how and educational exchanges the West has provided Turkey as a member of this strategic alliance, which would be hard to replace with either Russia or China in the foreseeable future.
Turks should not take for granted the important value of the Western alliance as a key anchor in providing security, trade and investment for Turkey. Even the Turkish military’s limited Afrin operation, which is moving very slowly, with the Russians and Americans looking the other way, is a perfect case in point explaining how the Turkish military needs NATO backing in order to sustain such an offensive and maintain a safe zone if it comes to that. It is true that the Turkish military is the second largest force in NATO, which guards the alliance’s southeastern front, but that is mainly in terms of its manpower, which exceeds 600,000 including reserve personnel. Let’s not forget that the false flag coup attempt in 2016 and ensuing massive purge also deprived the military of experienced generals and officers who plan, run and execute operations.
In terms of defense and military technology, Turkey lags behind many in NATO and certainly requires assistance for its intelligence capabilities. Information shared with me by a well-placed source in Turkey’s security establishment on how Ankara was kept in the dark when artillery fire hit the Turkish border town of Akçakale in the southeastern province of Şanlıurfa on Oct. 3, 2012 is quite telling as to where Turkey stands when it comes to countering threats. I was amazed by what this man, whose name I am keeping confidential for security reasons, told me, but I was certainly not surprised. He said after the mortar attack that killed five Turkish citizens and injured nine, the government demanded immediate retaliation. The Turkish governor gathered all the top security brass in the province including the police and intelligence chiefs and military commanders. They discussed where exactly the fire had originated and by whom so that they could return fire in kind.
Speculation was rife, but none of them had any solid intelligence on where the mortar fire came from or from which group. The National Intelligence Organization (MIT) regional director briefly left the room to call headquarters in Ankara to find out if they had any leads. He returned empty handed. The military commanders did not offer any intelligence, either. Eventually, the police chief told the group that the police intelligence branch had been working with a smuggler who moved goods across the border and had been turned into an informant. He said the smuggler might be able to find out through his contacts. It turned out the man was in Syria at the time and told the police that he knew where the fire came from because he was in the vicinity during the attack. He could not relay the exact coordinates, however.
The military commanders suggested using the Turkish-made 155-mm artillery gun Fırtına, which uses South Korean gun technology and a German-designed diesel engine. The artillery is not precise and the smuggler could not provide the exact location. What they had come up with was to keep the man on the phone so he could tell them where the mortars landed while Turkish troops on the other side of the border kept firing artillery on targets in his vicinity. After several adjustments in targeting in the third round, the phone connection was lost, suggesting that the smuggler became collateral damage. When I see this type of artillery being used in the Turkish military offensive in Afrin today, I recall this story and find myself in disbelief at the claims of the Turkish government, which rejects any civilian causalities as a defamation campaign by critics.
If one thing is certain, this is not a campaign to neutralize a terror threat. Rather, Erdoğan and his associates are trying to score political points with this military incursion that relies on a ragtag militia of the Free Syrian Army (FSA) and includes al-Qaeda affiliated factions, splinter groups and other jihadists. Every day the Turkish president counts the number of dead on the other side, crunching the numbers to show he is winning the battle without elaborating on an ultimate exit strategy that is not at all clear. The government talking heads brag about how the military is using domestically produced arms and ammunition to run the campaign, when in fact most critical components of these weapons systems have to be imported from abroad.
The government people know all about this, yet they prefer to lie during the campaign in Afrin. For example, in a debate on the defense budget in Parliament, Turkish Defense Minister Nurettin Canikli had to admit this dependency when he explained how Turkey was prevented from finalizing export sales of defense products to third countries. He said Turkey had signed contracts with Saudi Arabia, Qatar and an unnamed third country to sell 150mm Fırtına howitzers but failed to deliver on these contracts because the original license deal with Germany, which produced the MTU-881 KA 500 diesel engines for Fırtına, did not allow sales to third countries. The deal with Saudi Arabia alone was valued at $1 billion, according to Minister Canikli.
This is only one example. But in almost all sophisticated military technology that is required for domestically manufactured defense materiel, Turkey is currently facing an undeclared embargo by the US, Germany and others because of the growing confidence crises with the Erdoğan government, which has adopted a hostile stance. Therefore, not only was Turkey prevented from proceeding with export sales but also from replenishing its own inventory. Although Erdoğan and other defense officials claim they can always find a willing partner to replace Western suppliers, that is easier said than done. A whole lot of problems from compatibility issues to the risk of facing sanctions would hit Turkey hard if Ankara manages to complete the purchase of S-400 long-range missile batteries from Russia.
Perhaps the time has come to realize that what was taken for granted is no longer there and the Turkish government has to show real determination to improve ties with NATO allies and cease efforts to undermine them. Since the interests of Turkey’s national security no longer overlap with the personal interests of Erdoğan, who would risk any and every thing to prolong his repressive regime at all costs, it would not be easy to realign Turkey’s path with the traditional alliance that has provided security for Turkey for over half a century. As a result, we’ll continue to see patchwork diplomacy with zigzag maneuvers from President Erdoğan on many policy decisions. Despite the challenges in military capabilities and lack of support from allies, Erdoğan won’t hesitate to shed the blood of Turkish troops as well as the lives of others as long as he can keep his head above troubled waters.
That is why he pushed for the offensive in Afrin on Jan. 20, 2018, perhaps prematurely as the Turkish military was not ready for such a ground incursion. During Operation Euphrates Shield in northern Syria, which was launched on Aug. 24, 2016, Turkish forces lost at least 15 German-made Leopard tanks to attacks by man-portable anti-tank systems (Manpats). When the operation ended in March 2017, the Turkish military had lost 71 soldiers. The main reason for this was that the Leopard tanks were not outfitted with active armor protection systems, which are used by many modern tanks to neutralize Manpat missile threats. Similar tanks survived the Taliban’s IEDs attacks in Afghanistan thanks to this technology. The Turkish state-owned defense company Aselsan has already been working on developing these systems called AKKOR upon orders from the Undersecretariat for the Defense Industry (SSM), the government’s top arms procurement agency.
Defense Minister Canikli told lawmakers in Parliament on Dec. 14, 2017 that the AKKOR system would be installed in Turkish tanks by March 2018. Therefore, the Turkish military incursion could have been postponed until March to prevent troop casualties. Yet it was not, and five soldiers were killed on Feb. 3, 2018 when a missile hit a Turkish tank in the Sheikh Horoz region in northeastern Afrin. Erdoğan does not care about the safety and security of Turkish soldiers but rather is focused on his own ambitions. He is in a hurry to make quick political scores out of this military adventure on the eve of critical elections scheduled for next year, if not pushed to an earlier date. We are facing a dangerous madman who believes he was entrusted by God with leading all Muslims in the world and would surely scorch the earth to get what he wants.