Turkey’s arms industry is on a war footing - High-risk foreign adventures

Erdoğan has been engaging in lavish military spending despite the poor state of the economy, reports Esen Uslu

In the aftermath of the defeat of president Recep Tayyip Erdoğan’s Justice and Development Party (AKP) in the Istanbul mayoral elections, the survival instincts of his regime are now focused on foreign policy. Following the infamous maxim of Sir Cecil Rhodes, “If you want to avoid civil war, you must become imperialists”, Erdoğan has adopted a new swagger in his approach to regional disputes. While no doubt this is intended to garner domestic support, it may also prove very costly to both Turkey and its neighbours.

His attempts to extend Turkey’s military commitments and acts of aggression come at a time when the economy looks unable to sustain costly foreign adventures. Spiralling inflation is back with a vengeance. Turning all established precepts upside down, Erdoğan-style economics blames high interest rates for rising inflation, and insists that only by reducing those rates can the economy be boosted. Even the head of the so-called ‘independent’ Central Bank - appointed by Erdoğan via a controversial process a few years back - was summarily dismissed when he seemed unwilling to reduce rates. Will the new governor of the bank dare cut the 24% rate, fixed in September 2018 to avoid a meltdown of the Turkish lira?

Since the interest hike, the government has attempted to reduce the impact of the painful economic slowdown by tax cuts, incentives and subsidies. For many goods the ‘Private Consumption Tax’ (PCT) and VAT rates were reduced (sometimes to zero) for a period that ends this month. The PCT was introduced as a special tax to alleviate the burden of the major earthquake of 1999. However, it was transformed into a regular tax in 2002, and has become a principal money-maker for governments since. Yet, despite all these attempts to fire up the sluggish economy, the results have been dismal and their effect could be measured by the Istanbul mayoral election results. Now a new package is being prepared.

Overseas conflict

Nevertheless, as I have pointed out, despite the sorry state of the economy the AKP is intent on financing foreign adventures. Turkish armed forces control two zones under occupation in Syria, and maintain 12 “observation positions” in Idlib province. They are threatening to occupy further zones west of the Euphrates river too.

The military is also waging a large-scale combined operation in northern Iraq against the Kurds. Daily surveillance flights with domestically produced unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs) are complemented by airforce raids, as well as UAV strikes. In some areas Turkish troops are in control up to 15 kilometres from the border within Iraqi/Kurdish territory and have established new bases controlling the traditional routes along the valleys. In effect Turkey has unilaterally redrawn the borders agreed with Iraq decades ago.

Meanwhile, the deep seabed exploration for gas and oil around Cyprus has become another bone of contention. The gas fields discovered off the coast of Israel and Cyprus and the development of the adjacent Zohr field in Egypt have increased competition as well as tension.

Turkey has declared that it does not accept the unilateral declaration of an economic zone off Cyprus by the internationally recognised government, and has sent two drilling ships, both of which are now operating to the south of Cyprus. Istanbul has been asked to desist by the ‘international community’ to no avail. When the Greek Cypriots issued international arrest warrants against the crew of the drilling ships, Turkey’s response was to use UAVs to keep the area under surveillance and organise navy and airforce patrols.

The outcome of the Greek elections, resulting in a new rightwing government, could also mean an escalation of tensions. Meanwhile Cyprus is planning to enlarge the Mari base to accommodate the French navy - president Emmanuel Macron has become quite vocal against Turkey’s drilling, and Erdoğan has publicly attacked him.

The US navy’s Sixth Fleet is also off Cyprus protecting the ExxonMobil company and other US interests in the region. On July 8, the state department released a press statement, which claimed: “This provocative step raises tensions in the region. We urge Turkish authorities to halt these operations and encourage all parties to act with restraint.”1

Turkey’s involvement in Libya’s civil war has also had repercussions. A spokesperson for Khalifa Haftar’s National Libyan Army recently declared that any ship or plane with a Turkish flag would be regarded as hostile and treated accordingly - immediately afterwards six crew members of a ship docked in a Libyan port were detained and released only after sustained pressure from Istanbul. This followed the defeat of his forces attacking Tripoli. It soon became apparent that overt and covert supply of Turkish arms and personnel had been instrumental in forcing the withdrawal of NLA forces.

While Turkey has built a good relationship with Russia, there are some who are piling on the pressure to thwart that. The Royal Navy’s HMS Duncan is yet again in the Black Sea, taking part in a large naval exercise called Sea Breeze with the participation of warships from 17 countries, including Turkey and USA. The exercise aims to demonstrate support for Ukraine’s territorial integrity in opposition to Russia’s annexation of Crimea and aggression in eastern Ukraine, according to official press releases. This is highly pertinent, since there is a large Crimean Tatar community living in exile in Turkey and, since the cold war era, the Crimea has been used as a tool to drum up anti-communist and nationalistic sentiments, making it quite difficult for Erdoğan to backtrack.

However, the president has been quite skilful when he decides to backtrack on some issues. During his recent visit to China, he uttered not a word on the plight of Uyghurs in Xinjiang and, when he was pressed on the issue, calmly stated that “Turkey remains committed to a one-China policy” - it “will not allow anyone to drive a wedge in its relations with China”. However, the extremist Uyghur fighters of the Turkestan Islamic Party are operating with impunity around Jisr al-Shughour under the protection of Turkish ‘observation posts’ in the Idlib province of Syria.


To facilitate these incursions into neighbouring countries Turkey has changed the structure of its armed forces. Now all land forces are made up of professional soldiers - compulsory military service is mainly used to indoctrinate the young male population with nationalist dogma for a couple of weeks - for the remaining service duration there is an option of paying a withdrawal fee, which is actually a form of taxation.

Meanwhile a major programme of shipbuilding - including submarines, frigates and even a helicopter landing ship - is underway. However, a joint programme with the UK to produce a domestic fighter-bomber with the financial backing of Qatar seems to have fizzled out, following Rolls-Royce’s withdrawal from supplying engine technology this year. But a helicopter gunship produced in collaboration with Italy was rapidly put into service. A new heavier version is on the drawing board and a helicopter peddled as the first example of a “local and national” aircraft has been undergoing flight tests.

Armoured vehicles and blast-proof personnel carriers are also big business. Mobile artillery and howitzers have been produced in large numbers and put into service. Similarly short- and medium-range artillery rocket technology has been developed and put into operation. Also anti-tank rockets for land-based and aerial platforms.

The main beneficiary of this spending spree - draped in the national flag and accompanied by Islamic chants in support of ‘martyrs’ - has, of course, been the Turkish arms industry. There has not been much media focus on this lavish spending. While for the moment the money is flowing in from the Gulf, the negative results may not be tangible, but in the long run all these debts have to be paid.

However, Turkey is facing another test as the USA and Nato are opposed to the purchase of long-range anti-aircraft systems from Russia - Istanbul is threatened with sanctions and a deterioration of relations. Nonetheless, it is pressing on with the deployment of S-400s. Despite the noises coming from the Trump administration, Russian military planes have been landing in Turkey along with the technical personnel needed to install the S-400 missiles (that includes visiting military airfields that have been off-limit for many years).

So these are interesting - and dangerous - times, yet the nationalistic, anti-Kurdish sentiment prevailing in so-called progressive circles has paralysed the opposition. Nobody is raising these issues on the streets except the Peoples’ Democratic Party, while parliament has been relegated to a talking shop. Even Turkish journalists working for the foreign press are now being targeted with veiled threats - giving an idea of what may come in the near future. Hundreds of journalists have already been imprisoned for years, with or without conviction, on trumped-up charges.

Could all this be a prelude to a new wave of repression or just the thrashing about of a dying AKP regime? There are many signs indicating that the AKP is decaying from within. A former economics minister, Ali Babacan, has resigned from it with the intention of forming an alternative political party, while ex-president Abdullah Gül seems to be supporting the move. And the former prime minister, Ahmet Davutoğlu, has been pursuing a similar aim. Will he also resign from the AKP and will they join forces? Watch this space

  1.  www.state.gov/turkish-drilling-in-cypriot-claimed-waters-2.↩︎