Turkey, a nation with a strategic position as a gate between Europe and Asia, has in recent years gained infamy for its assertive foreign policy and use of armed drones.  The Turkish elites seem confident in their newfound edge. They challenge their traditional allies in NATO and are increasingly willing to utilize their military abroad. So why are Turkish drones considered a game changer? What drives Turkey’s increased assertiveness? How do UAVs fit into the wider Turkish foreign policy?
The “Kyzaghan” of Modern Turkey
If any weapon should hold the name “Kyzaghan”, the Turkic deity of war, it should be the most notorious UAV of the early 2020s, the “Bayraktar TB2”.  This medium-altitude, long-endurance UAV is capable of intelligence, surveillance, and strike missions. Notably, it even has a popular Ukrainian song made about it called “Байрактар”. 
Turkish drones are only a part of changing way of warfare in which drones are rapidly becoming the weapons of choice of many states and even non-state actors.  Turkey’s weapons of war have gained notoriety due to their active usage in many recent conflicts ranging from Ukraine, South Caucasus, to Syria and North Africa.
The most recent trial by combat comes from its use in the Russo-Ukraine war. Notably, its usage was in the early stages of the conflict when it provided intelligence and tracking of Russian supply lines during the Russian push on Kyiv. However, its most notorious feat comes from its reported involvement in the sinking of the RTS Moskva, the flagship of the Russian Black Sea fleet. Ukrainian navy has used its Bayraktar to distract the Moskva’s air defence and allow for a successful strike by either western supplied Harpoon or by domestically produced Neptun anti-ship missile.  In addition, the Russian navy lost several other vessels of varying size, like a pair of Raptor-class patrol boats, or an Alligator-class Landing ship to Ukrainian Bayraktar TB2 strikes around the “Snake Island”.  If you want to learn more about the impacts of the ongoing Russo-Ukrainian War on the position of Turkey between NATO and Russia and its armament policies, read our article here.
Nevertheless, in the author’s opinion, there are two other examples of Turkish UAV use which show why many countries now wish to acquire this asset. The first comes in a form of the 2020 Second Nagorno-Karabakh war between Azerbaijan and Armenia. Turkish Bayraktars sold to Azerbaijan have played a significant role in helping to eliminate fortifications and attacking reinforcements behind the line of contact. This allowed the Azeris to overrun the well-dug-in Armenian defenders. The open-source footage shows at least 500 Armenian vehicles to have been confirmed destroyed by Bayraktar TB2s.  Turkish TB2s surprisingly managed to destroy many very potent and modern air defence systems such as Buk-M2, Pantsir-1S and even S-300PS.
Pantsir-S1, which is considered one of the best air defence systems in the world, prove ineffective also during the Libyan civil war when Turkish-backed forces destroyed the UAE-supplied Pantsir-S1s.  This brings us to the second example – the usage of Bayraktars by the Turkish-backed Government of National Accord (GNA) against general Haftar’s Libyan National Army (LNA). Although Turkey officially claims to adhere to the arms embargo on Libya, there is sufficient public evidence of their use and even pictures of destroyed Bayraktars in the Libyan desert. Some analysts like Ben Fishman or Conor Hiney, who are senior fellows at the Washington Institute, view its use as a game changer for the GNA during the LNAs offensive on Tripoli. Ankara also supplied its “Koral“ jamming system, which was able to jam LNAs Chinese-made Wing Loong drones. These supplies breached a capability gap between GNA and the LNA, which had a significant advantage in equipment supplied by its foreign backers. These include Egypt, UAE, Russia and France. 
Notably, the UAE has now purchased 20 Bayraktars TB2 drones with plans to buy more. This new détente between the formal regional rivals shows that even former enemies respect Ankara’s new weapons and wish to acquire them. 
The “Grand” Turkic Strategy
To understand the role that UAVs play in its foreign policy we need to take a look at Turkish strategic thinking. Turkish foreign policy is greatly influenced by two contradicting perceptions. One is the perception of national greatness, the other is the fear of extreme vulnerability. This stems from the country’s inheritance of the Ottoman legacy, an empire which spanned large parts of the Middle East, Caucasus, North Africa, and even south-eastern Europe. This is viewed as the golden age by many Turkish elites and would explain Turkish assertiveness in its regional neighbourhood.
Yet, it also carries a bitter memory of the empire’s defeat in WW1 and disintegration under the treaty of Sevres in 1920, which aimed to divide Anatolia into many separate parts.  Although the subsequent Turkish War of Independence stopped these plans and gave birth to the Turkish Republic, a so-called “Sevres-syndrome” has been born as well. This Syndrome is equal to other cautionary tales of countries experiencing major defeats which affected their national identity (e.g., Munich, Vietnam, or Afghan Syndrome). In practical terms, Turkish strategic culture is very geopolitically oriented and has a long historical memory of facing adversaries. 
These historical experiences with instability form the basis of the national narrative of foreign powers playing geopolitical games around Turkey. In this narrative, Turkey must be able to protect itself and its neighbours. This strategic vision could be summed up by the Turkish phrase: Oyun oynanan degil, oyun kuran, oyun bozan bir Turkey (translated into, “Turkey that doesn’t play the game, but upends and resets it”). 
Ömer Taşpınar,  a senior fellow at John Hopkins University, who is an expert on Turkish foreign policy, argues that the Turkish strategic vision under President Erdogan should be defined as “Turkish Gaullism”. This definition is based on the parallels with the French foreign policy under the 1960s Charles de Gaulle presidency.  He argues this more nationalistic, independent, self-confident, and defiant approach to foreign policy is a mix of both Neo-Ottomanism and Kemalism [i].
These policies are at the core of President Erdogan’s AKP (Justice and Development Party), which has ruled Turkey since 2002. Yet, its approval ratings face a decline, caused by inflation soaring to a 24-year high with consumer prices rising to 83%.  Gains in the local election by Turkey’s opposition party and a coming election in 2023 can lead to Erdogan’s party losing its majority and not being able to form a new government. 
However, those who think that a potential departure of Turkey’s longstanding leader would signal a change in the country’s assertive policies may be sorely disappointed. The dominant characteristic of Turkish opposition parties, except the pro-Kurdish HDP, is the deep nationalistic view on foreign affairs. An example of this is the two largest opposition parties, the IYI Party, and the CHP supported its policy of intervention in Syria and Azerbaijan.  Thus, even if a different party comes to power post the 2023 election, Turkish assertiveness may remain constant with only some minor, cosmetic changes.
A Piece on the “Geopolitical” Chessboard
As mentioned previously, Ankara’s strategic culture does not shine away from the active usage of its military when needed. An example of this is its long counter-insurgency campaign against the Kurdish PKK in the country’s east. This campaign even had Turkey launching commando raids into neighbouring countries. The most notable was its large-scale offensive against the Kurdish forces in the North of Syria. This doctrine could be summed up as „active deterrence“ (aktif caydırıcılık).  This national doctrine has now been amplified by the new military edge in the form of UAVs, which allows for a more flexible approach to military involvement abroad. Their use significantly limits the risk of sustaining losses to its regular army forces, which would inevitably lead to negative public opinion at home.
In purely economic terms, Turkish drone exports are a massive success with the list of buyers expanding rapidly. Turkeys’ indiscriminate sale policy has led to more than 22 countries reportedly signing export contracts with Baykar. These include NATO members such as Poland, Latvia and even the United Kingdom showing interest in the program. This export success has helped boost Turkey’s defence industry and the Turkish economy, which has seen a decline in recent years. By 2022, Bayraktar drone sales have accounted for at least $700 million in sales of $2.3 billion worth of Turkish arms exports.  The key advantage is the price. TB2 costs weigh at around $5m compared to a much more expensive $20m American-built MQ-9 Reaper, the acquisition of which entails rigorous control regime which restricts the export of this type of weapon. 
Turkey leverages its drones not as just a simple transaction of arms sales but as a part of a wider strategic outreach policy. The sale of drones also leads to even more lucrative, long-term partnerships on the provision of training, technical assistance, spare parts, and munitions. A key example of such a partnership is the plans by Turkey to buy Ukrainian aeroplane engines, while they cooperate on research and development with a special manufacturing facility for Bayraktar drones being planned in Ukraine.  Another example is the Turkish-Tunisia deal which had Turkey releasing Export-Import Bank loans which allowed Tunisia to buy its drones. At the same time, Turkey’s successful backing of the GNA helped sign an agreement to build an airbase in Libya and provided rights for Turkish oil platforms to drill in Libyan waters. 
Yet, there are cases which show that Turkish indiscriminate sales policy may potentially become a “double-edged sword”. An example of this was the 2021 Turkish sale of UAVs to Ethiopia which immediately used them against Tigray rebels. However, the U.N. report on a series of drone strikes in the region shows that majority of these strikes were indiscriminate and killed more than 300 civilians.  Such strikes have also led to sharp criticism by the US President Joe Biden and a statement from the U.N. warning that these strikes may constitute a violation of international law . Some critics argue that such a reckless sale of drones can lead to further public backlash and even lead to a potential export ban of key western components used in Turkish drones .
Overall, UAVs have become a part of a larger Turkish initiative to develop new relationships based on aid, trade, security, and education with many countries in Africa and Asia.  This access is coupled with an increase in diplomatic and economic ties. For example, Turkey increased its number of embassies in Africa from 12 in 2003 to over 40 in 2020, accompanied by an increase in direct flights and foreign investment. This is proven to be enticing for African leaders who view Turkey as a positive alternative to their growing dependence on China. 
An Assertive Power in Global Affairs
Turkey has become an assertive actor, who is willing to challenge its allies in NATO and make deals with former and current adversaries like Russia. An example of this is its willingness to “slow down” Swedish and Finnish admission into NATO, to achieve its political goals.  Turkey’s ability to pursue such initiatives lies in its ability to leverage its geography as the gatekeeper of both the eastern Mediterranean and the Black Sea. Using the Montreux convention to control the access through the straights of Dardanelles, Turkey controls the goods and military access from the Black Sea. Its position as NATO’s 2nd largest military also gives it political and military privileges as it hosts several U.S. and NATO bases.  The most prominent is the Incirlik Air Force Base where the U.S. nuclear weapons are stored.
As this article shows, Turkey’s newfound edge as a significant chess piece on the geopolitical strategy chessboard allows the country’s elites to pursue more unilateral action while utilizing its strategic position to increase its regional position. Even if it leads to a worsening of relations with its partners in the U.S. and at the same time willingness to mend relations with former adversaries like the UAE. Looking at Turkish conduct regarding its foreign policy a quote comes in, one spoken by a British Statesmen Lord Palmerston: “Nations have no permanent friends and no permanent enemies, only permanent interests”. 
Article was reviewed by: Jan Slánský, Adam Sitko
[i] Neo-Ottomanism: The aim of Neo-Ottomanism is to embrace the Ottoman past, as a „manifest destiny“ and shape the present and the future. It encourages engagement with former Ottoman territories to increase Turkish economic and political influence in the region.
Kemalism: The primary principle of Kemalism is to establish and maintain an independent Turkey through either military or diplomatic means. It also promotes its founders‘ expression of „Peace at Home, Peace in the World“, which could be understood as Turkey’s want for stability within neighbouring states.
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