Harking back to the glories of empire

Invest one, harvest three

Neo-Ottoman dreams cannot overcome imperialist realities, writes Esen Uslu

The fortunes of the Turkish regime in its overseas adventures are going up and down, as if they are trying to match the Turkish lira. Excessive volatility is the order of the day.

In the days preceding the first Gulf War, the then Turkish president, Turgut Özal, is said to have told his close associates, “If we invest one, we will harvest three” - referring to his policy of taking part in the US war effort. It became a catchphrase, summarising the outlook of the day. However, his policy failed, as it created a dispute within the higher echelons of the civilian and military bureaucracy that led to the resignation of his chief of the armed forces staff and his foreign minister.

Nevertheless, the ‘invest one, harvest three’ philosophy has been the byword of those who deal with the ‘defence’ and foreign policy of Turkey. Since the late 60s Turkey has been investing heavily in building up a substantial military-industrial base. The first fruit of these efforts came with the invasion of northern Cyprus in 1974, which has since been occupied by 40,000 troops stationed there.

The mini-debacles of the invasion - such as the airforce attacking three of its own navy destroyers and sinking one of them because of a lack of communication between the services - and the US arms embargo imposed after the invasion gave a new impetus to expanding Turkey’s military industry. Following the September 1980 coup the military regime gave priority to doing just that.

The effort to develop the military-industrial base also provided ample opportunities for the finance capital of Turkey, as well as the top brass, to enrich themselves at the expense of taxpayers. The expansionist foreign policy aims - or ‘Turkish dream’ - such as recovering ‘our former lands’ in Iraq and Syria (especially Kirkuk and Mosul, with their rich oil reserves) - were also kept alive to such an extent that one of the retired chiefs of the armed forces staff declared that his most cherished dream while he was at the helm was to see Azerbaijan and Turkey “unified”.

Of course, maintaining the second biggest armed force within Nato and equipping it with new armaments costs a lot. While Turkey was dirt poor, there seemed to be no problem siphoning off cash to the army and military-orientated industry. As a result, almost two-thirds of the ‘multi-party democracy’ era ushered in after World War II was spent under military rule, when nobody dared ask how that money was raised.

US aid was very important in shaping the new army, and provided ample inducements for those who controlled the purse strings. However, the greatest burden was shifted onto the working class through taxation. As collecting income tax was problematic, value-added tax was introduced, to be followed later by special sales taxes.

To maintain such robbery the justification needed was provided by the actual or virtual wars reported by the official media. The dirty war in Kurdistan was the mainstay, and the enmity with Armenians and Greeks, as well as Bulgarians and Serbians, have always been kept alight.

Post-cold war

After the implosion of the Soviet Union, disputes such as with Armenia and Azerbaijan, as well as the north coast of Africa - came onto the radar. The ambitions of the regime to pursue foreign adventures - Afghanistan, Palestine, Egypt and Sudan, Libya and Tunisia, the Gulf region - were reignited under Erdoğan. Supporters of neo-Ottomanism were promoted to key posts.

The Turkish Cooperation and Coordination Agency (TIKA) was formed to “exert cultural influence” and provide “development assistance” to the Turkic-speaking countries of central Asia, as well as former Ottoman countries in the Balkans and Africa. At present TIKA operates in no fewer than 150 countries, with 60 centres abroad.

The secondary education schools in those countries established by the Gülen movement under the auspices of the Turkish government were taken over after the attempted coup of 2016 by the Turkish Education Foundation (TMV). Today the TMV operates in 43 countries running more than 300 schools and over 40 dormitory facilities.

Also the Turkish armed forces run extensive training schools for the officers and specialists of the armed forces in Somalia, Afghanistan, Bosnia-Herzegovina, Kosovo and Libya. They also receive hundreds of cadets from foreign countries to be trained in Turkey.

The Syrian conflict provided a new opportunity to train, equip and manage a substantial jihadist force, brought together from various countries, in an attempt to forge a new Syrian army. Among them were the fighters from the East Turkestan Islamic Movement, and the Turkestan Islamic Party, recruited from amongst the Uighur people. Nowadays they hold the town of Jisr al-Shughur and the surrounding mountains in Idlib province, thus preventing the joint Turkish-Russian patrols from opening up the road connecting Aleppo to Latakia. Funnily enough, the Trump administration removed the East Turkestan Islamic Movement from its ‘terrorist exclusion list’ at the end of October. Meanwhile, Turkey has been using the highly trained core of the jihadist force as mobile shock-troopers in the Libyan civil war and the war in Nagorno-Karabakh.

The military-industrial complex has continued its development and has produced surveillance drones and armed unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs), which were used successfully in Syria, Libya and Nagorno-Karabakh. When Canada embargoed the optical parts used in the UAV surveillance and targeting cameras, locally manufactured equipment was rushed in.

The rocket, artillery and self-propelled long-range howitzer systems, as well as battlefield radars and close-in anti-aircraft systems, have been developed and introduced into service. Locally built maritime anti-ship missiles have also been installed on newly developed navy frigates. At the same time, a submarine building programme is going ahead with German assistance.

Locally built attack helicopters are in service now. And a new transport helicopter is being developed. New, locally produced air-to-air missiles have been introduced to rotary and fixed-wing aircraft. Stand-off missiles fired from aircraft, capable of hitting targets hundreds of kilometres away have also been introduced.

Military communication and surveillance satellites built in Turkey have been sent into orbit by Russian, Chinese and European launch vehicles. However, there have always been objections raised by Israel, as well as technical glitches that have caused delays and difficulties in launching the satellites. Now a new rocket capable of carrying them into space is being built. The Russian input here has been very important, and the purchase of S-400 long-range anti-aircraft missiles, with a view to joint production of similar missiles in Turkey.

Proving ground

Turkey’s military-industrial complex is also producing weapons - with a view to exporting them, as not all are viewed as suitable for its own neo-Ottomanist expansionism. The successful air campaign conducted by UAVs in Iraqi Kurdistan and northern Syria served as a ‘proving ground’ for drone technology and was quickly adapted by Azerbaijani forces.

Together with the Israeli ‘loitering munition’, which is also known as the ‘kamikaze drone’, Turkish-armed UAVs provided the air superiority during the short but sharp Nagorno-Karabakh conflict between Armenia and Azerbaijan. Libya provided the other successful advertisement for Turkish-armed UAVs, when they helped to halt the offensive led by Khalifa Haftar last summer. Maritime tension in the eastern Mediterranean provided another opportunity to showcase surveillance UAVs.

But neo-Ottomanist thinking inevitably came face to face with the realities of the imperialist hierarchy. The erratic Middle Eastern policies of the Trump era have provided some operational liberty to the Turkish regime, but now it has to come to terms with the incoming administration. Hopes for a second Trump term were high, and the regime of Recep Tayyip Erdoğan was one of the last to congratulate Joe Biden on his victory.

The US and French efforts in Libya put a stop to Turkish ambitions by opening a new round of talks aimed at resolving disputes in a more peaceful way. Turkey was betting on the UN-supported government, with which it has signed a maritime border agreement, to gain the upper hand, thanks to Turkish support. However, Turkey was excluded from the ‘peace table’. Today it is clinging on to the Al-Watiya airbase in western Libya, and trying to maintain an air bridge, as well as a maritime bridge, to supply the Tripoli regime.

However, the gun-running to Libya proved an irritation to various major powers, and the recent action by the European Union Naval Force Mediterranean Operation, when it stopped and searched a Turkish flagged cargo vessel in the middle of Mediterranean, shows that Turkey’s ventures will not always be given a nod and a wink.

A similar situation has emerged from the Nagorno-Karabakh campaign, which was launched with much nationalist and Islamist fanfare. After a month-long conflict, the regional hegemon, Russia, insisted that a ceasefire be agreed, to be overseen by its own forces. Turkey was assigned a role as a kind of sideline observer with its limited troop presence, and got a vague promise that the old railroad crossing through Armenia from the Nakhchivan exclave of Azerbaijan to Azerbaijan proper would be reopened under Russian supervision. The old railroad had been closed in the early 90s after rails and signalling were destroyed.

The Turkish base in Qatar seems the most promising, in terms of bringing in much needed cash. After the dream of establishing a naval base on Sawakin Island came to nought, the Sudanese authorities opted, instead, to give Russia permission to build a facility in nearby Port Sudan.

So nowadays Turkey’s age-old philosophy of ‘invest one, harvest three’ has reached its now customary ending: writing off losses. As the recent crisis has shown, Erdoğan’s novel fiscal policy, run by his son-in-law, floundered, leaving behind a huge private-sector debt, and much diminished foreign currency and gold reserves. As inflation is now spiralling out of control and the stagnant economy at a time of global recession is unable to provide cheap international credits, writing off the losses of these military adventures at the expense of the population at large will inevitably lead to massive discontent.

The creaking nationalist-Islamist coalition and the civil and military bureaucracy is lumbering on, without any ‘checks and balances’ provided by a parliament, but how long it can continue is a different question.