Turkey’s Lethal Weapon

From Ukraine to Syria, Drones Are Reshaping Erdogan’s Foreign Policy

On April 14, Ukrainian forces stunned the world when they sank the Moskva, the heavily armed cruiser that was the flagship of Moscow’s Black Sea fleet. As widely noted in the international press, the Ukrainians succeeded in hitting the ship with their homegrown Neptune missiles, despite the ship’s significant defenses. What has been somewhat less noted, however, were the foreign-made drones that enabled this remarkable attack: according to Ukrainian officials, the strike was coordinated by a pair of Turkish Bayraktar TB2 unmanned drones, which were able to evade the ship’s radar and which provided precise targeting information for the missiles.

It is not the first time the Turkish drones proved decisive in Ukraine’s resistance to Moscow’s invasion. Since the first days of the Russian assault, the low cost but lethal TB2 unmanned weapons have again and again proved crucial in taking out Russian tanks and stopping the Russian advance in its tracks. This is no accident. In January, as Russia mounted huge numbers of troops on the Ukrainian border, Kyiv quietly went on a military spending spree with Turkey, purchasing 16 Bayraktar TB2 drones, along with other Turkish weapon systems, for a total of nearly $60 million—30 times more than it spent on defense equipment from Turkey during the same period a year earlier. These joined around 20 other TB2s that Ukraine had previously bought from Turkey. So important is the Bayraktar to the Ukrainian war effort—its name means “the flagbearer” in Turkish—that it has inspired a patriotic Ukrainian song that has made the rounds on social media.

Despite the interest in Ukraine’s drones, however, far less attention has been paid to the strategy of the country supplying them. Produced by a Turkish firm with close ties to Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan, the TB2 is more than a crucial equalizer in the war in Ukraine. In recent years, the drones have played a decisive role in numerous conflicts in the Caucasus, Africa, and the Middle East. In marketing drones to nearly two dozen mostly low- and middle-income states, Ankara has been able to extend its geopolitical influence, while at the same time positioning itself to shape the outcome of major regional power struggles.

Ankara’s drone diplomacy has not been without drawbacks. In the Middle East, Turkey’s expanding military involvement in countries like Libya has spurred rivals, such as Greece and Egypt, to form new loose coalitions aimed at constraining Turkish power. In Ukraine, the drones threaten to undermine Ankara’s careful balancing act with Russia, with which it continues to maintain relations. In recent years, Republicans and Democrats in the U.S. Congress have expressed alarm at Turkey’s drone proliferation. Citing the unmanned weapons’ role in Azerbaijan’s conflict with Armenia in Nagorno-Karabakh in 2020, U.S. Senator Bob Menendez, a Democrat from New Jersey, said last fall that “Turkey’s drone sales are dangerous, destabilizing, and a threat to peace and human rights.”

Nevertheless, after years of go-it-alone unilateralism—which brought Turkey a growing number of regional adversaries and frayed its alliances with the United States and Europe—the Turkish government has been able to leverage its Bayraktars and other drones to transform its international profile. In the Middle East, the drones have helped Turkey assert its own interests with relatively limited diplomatic resources. With Ukraine, Ankara’s military assistance has given Erdogan renewed clout in NATO at a time when his government is in a perilous position at home and his relations with the United States and Europe have been in crisis for several years. If Turkey can continue to successfully manage and build upon its drone program, it may have given itself a crucial new form of influence—and redefined drone warfare in the process.

UNDER THE RADAR
Turkey’s drone program was born of frustration with foreign suppliers. As early as the late 1990s, when the United States was the dominant maker of armed drones, Turkey tried to access the U.S. technology to combat the Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK), which both the United States and Turkey have designated a terrorist organization. Then, in 2005, it turned to Israel instead, but with similarly disappointing results. In later years, Ankara was rebuffed in its efforts to purchase more advanced U.S. drones, including an armed version of the MQ-9 Reaper. Finally, it resolved to develop its own.

In 2012, a Turkish government-owned enterprise developed a drone prototype, and by 2016, it was able to provide effective reconnaissance. During these same years, another breakthrough came when Selcuk Bayraktar, an MIT-trained engineer and future son-in-law of Erdogan, designed the Bayraktar TB2. In 2012, the TB2 went into mass production, and within three years it had achieved the capability to execute precision strikes, making it a significant new tool in Turkey’s arsenal. Like the U.S.-made MQ-1 Predator and MQ-9 Reaper, the TB2 is a Medium Altitude Long Endurance (MALE) drone. Compared to their Turkish counterpart, the U.S. drones are indisputably more sophisticated: they have ten times the range, twice the speed, and can carry nearly twice as many weapons. But they also are three times or even four times as expensive. The munitions alone for some advanced Western drones cost more than the complete TB2, fully armed, which is estimated to cost as little as $1 million or $2 million.

Beginning in 2015, the Turkish military began using its drones in its long-standing struggle against Kurdish PKK militants. Over the next three years, the new drones enabled Turkey to largely drive the group out of Turkish territory and to kill large numbers of PKK members, including some of its leadership in Iraq. Soon after, Ankara also began to use the drones against Kurdish fighters in Syria known as the People’s Protection Units (YPG) and linked to the PKK, a strategy that allowed Turkey to consolidate control of its southeastern and southern borders and extend its reach into northern Syria and Iraq without risking large military forces on the ground. For the first time in decades, Ankara was able to obtain a decisive advantage in the long-running conflict with the PKK.

FLYING IN ALL DIRECTIONS
The features that made the Bayraktar indispensable to the Turkish government’s own security priorities soon proved equally useful to numerous small and middle powers abroad. For a relatively modest investment, a country could obtain lethal military technology that could change the dynamics of a conflict or provide an effective deterrent against insurgents or other forces. In 2017, Turkey began exporting the TB2, and within five years it had sold drones to nearly two dozen countries, including allies and partners in Europe (Albania, Poland, and Ukraine); Central and South Asia (Kyrgyzstan, Pakistan, and Turkmenistan); Africa (Ethiopia, Libya, Morocco, Somalia, and Tunisia); the Gulf (Qatar); and the Caucasus (Azerbaijan). Although these arms deals have been driven by a combination of mercantilism and geopolitics, they have almost always involved countries in which Turkey has a strategic interest.

In the wake of these deals, Turkish drones have tipped the balance in numerous conflicts. In Libya in 2020, they enabled the Turkish-supported and internationally recognized government in Tripoli defeat a vicious assault by the Russian-backed warlord Khalifa Hafter. Similarly, the drones helped Azerbaijani forces successfully regain territory in its disputed Nagorno-Karabakh region that had been held for decades by Armenian forces. In Syria’s Idlib Province, they enabled the Syrian opposition forces to stop a Syrian government offensive aimed at driving them into Turkey. And in Ethiopia, Turkish drones supplied to the government in Addis Ababa helped turn the tide in its civil war with Tigrayan rebels. As in the other cases, Turkey’s interest in Ethiopia was not merely commercial: Ankara views strengthened ties with Addis Ababa as a way to assert Turkish influence in the Horn of Africa and counterbalance Egypt, with which it has competed for regional influence.

Turkish drones have tipped the balance in numerous conflicts.
Turkey’s rapid emergence as the leading drone supplier to low- and middle-income countries has created benefits for Turkish power, but it has also created new challenges. A number of countries, including Ethiopia, Somalia, and Tunisia, have acquired Turkish drones without the full complement of technical systems to run them. These countries may not gain decisive results against a well-trained or numerically superior enemy, and sometimes they misstep. During the conflict in Tigray, the Ethiopian government was harshly criticized for causing civilian casualties and even hitting a school with its Turkish-built drones. Such incidents have also contributed to the perception, shared by some U.S. officials, that Turkey has become a reckless drone proliferator.

A still greater problem may be the effect on rival states. Turkey’s intervention in conflicts like Libya’s has unsettled rivals, including Egypt, France, and the United Arab Emirates. In May 2020, as Turkish drones were shifting the course of the civil war in Libya, Egypt formed an informal alliance with Cyprus, France, Greece, and the United Arab Emirates to oppose Turkish activity in the eastern Mediterranean through coordinated political, diplomatic, and naval presence. The United States has recently ramped up military aid to Greece as a hedge against Russia—but also, to a degree, against Turkey and its growing military footprint in the region.

THE UKRAINE DILEMMA
Turkey’s drone diplomacy has perhaps proved to be most important, and potentially riskiest, in Ukraine. Kyiv began purchasing TB2s in 2019 and first used them against Russian-backed Donbas separatists in 2021. But with Russian President Vladimir Putin’s war against Ukraine, these weapons took on a more fraught status: for the first time, they have been deployed directly against Russia’s own forces. Already, there have been more than 60 successful strikes by TB2s on Russian tanks, artillery pieces, vehicles, and even supply trains, and unreported incidents are likely significantly higher. For Turkey’s relations with the West, the unexpected role that the Bayraktars have played in strengthening Kyiv’s hand against Moscow has had important consequences. It has elevated Ankara’s standing inside NATO to a level not witnessed in years, and a thaw is now underway with some key European governments, including France.

But Ukraine’s drone war has also raised complicated new questions for Turkey’s efforts to maintain working relations with Moscow. Turkey must deal with Russia in numerous areas, from the Black Sea to Syria to Azerbaijan. On the strategic side, Ankara will do everything it can to ensure that Kyiv does not fall under Moscow’s thumb. This is because Putin’s aggression against Ukraine has instilled a sense of realism in Ankara when it comes to Russia, Turkey’s historic nemesis. Ankara values Ukraine and other Black Sea countries, now more than ever, as indispensable allies with which to build a bloc balancing against the Russian behemoth north of the Black Sea.

Yet if Putin succeeds in conquering part of Ukraine—or fails and blames Turkey for the failure—he could apply significant new leverage against Turkey. Putin could undermine Ankara’s interests in Syria, for instance, by triggering massive refugee flows toward Turkey from Idlib. Anti-refugee sentiments in Turkey have become potent recently, mainly due to the country’s economic crisis; Erdogan would likely come under enormous pressure if there were a large influx of refugees. Putin could also put economic pressure on Turkey by limiting Turkish agricultural exports to Russia, barring Russian tourists from Turkey, or ending gas deliveries to Turkey. Such moves would undermine Turkey’s economic rebound, and with that, Erdogan’s reelection prospects in 2023.

Erdogan has quietly armed the Ukrainians while cozying up to Moscow.
Publicly, Ankara has downplayed its role in arming the Ukrainians, asserting that it is not the Turkish government but a private company that is supplying the Bayraktars. Even as it supplies drones to Kyiv, it has also sought to position itself as mediator, including hosting a meeting in Antalya, a city on the Turkish riviera, with the foreign ministers of Ukraine and Russia on March 10. Turkey fears a Russian defeat only slightly less than it fears a Russian victory, in part because Russia is a useful trade partner and in part because the Turks and Russians have working—if adversarial—understandings in the Caucasus, Libya, and Syria that might be jeopardized by a Russian defeat. If Putin has a list of countries he will punish for supporting Ukraine after the war, Turkey is close to the top of that list after the Baltic states, Poland, the United Kingdom, and the United States. Erdogan’s ultimate goal is to avoid a showdown with Putin, who could use economic leverage or even cyber attacks to derail the Turkish president’s reelection prospects.

What is more, Erdogan wants to lure sanctioned Russian oligarchs to Turkey, hoping that their assets and cash could help boost Turkey’s struggling economy. Turkey could also become a real estate market for Russia’s upper-middle class eager to safeguard its wealth. Erdogan’s strategy in Ukraine, therefore, is to provide quiet military support to Kyiv even as he seeks to sustain diplomatic channels to Putin and economic profits from Russia. To that end, Erdogan has refused to support the West’s sanctions against Russia, and Turkey continues to buy Russian oil. And unlike its Western counterparts, Turkey has kept its airspace open to Russian civilian flights. This Janus-faced strategy might just be acceptable for Putin at the moment. It is unlikely that the Russian leader will pick a fight with Turkey right now, especially if Erdogan provides him and his oligarchs with an economic lifeline. But if the war in Ukraine is prolonged, and the TB2s continue to bring down major Russian assets like the Moskva, the Turkish ban against Russian naval vessels crossing the Turkish Straits could put Ankara and Moscow into more direct conflict.

FOREIGN RELATIONS ON AUTOPILOT?
As the war in Ukraine puts growing pressure on the Erdogan government to be a strong part of the Western alliance, dealing with the United States remains a special challenge. On the one hand, the surprising role of Turkish military technology in the Ukrainian resistance has won Turkey new respect in NATO. Since the Russian invasion began, many European leaders have renewed ties with Ankara, including Dutch Prime Minister Mark Rutte, despite recent political fistfights between his government and Erdogan. But Erdogan has yet to be embraced by U.S. President Joe Biden, with whom he has long had a cool relationship.

As vice president, Biden was the main interlocutor with Turkey between 2013 and 2016, but relations deteriorated when Erdogan blamed then President Barack Obama for the 2013 coup in Egypt. (Turkey was an important ally of Egypt’s Muslim Brotherhood government, which came to power in the wake of the Arab Spring.) At the time, Erdogan was also angered by U.S. support for the PKK-linked YPG, which the United States regarded as key to defeating the Islamic State (also known as ISIS). Biden had promised that the support would be, as U.S. policy language described it, “tactical, temporary, and transactional,“ only to have that policy morph into something more like an open-ended subsidy. Biden, in turn, was frustrated by Erdogan’s backsliding on democratic norms and undermining of institutions in Turkey, by his defiance of U.S. strategic and policy priorities in the Middle East, and by his increasingly direct criticism of the Obama administration. Accordingly, Biden has been unmoved by Erdogan’s recent charm offensive. At NATO’s summit in Brussels in late March—a full month into the Russian invasion—Biden snubbed Erdogan, turning down the Turkish president’s request to meet.

Even if Turkey’s involvement in Ukraine does realign Turkish foreign policy closer to the West, there is the risk for Erdogan that Biden, and some European leaders, may be so anxious to be rid of him that they postpone any rapprochement with Ankara until after the 2023 election. For now, Erdogan’s stock seems to have risen as a result of his drone diplomacy and the crucial support it has given Ukraine. But it is unlikely that he will win reelection—assuming the race will be free—unless the Turkish economy rebounds and grows in double digits over the next year. At the same time, while the drones have given Turkey the ability to punch above its weight in global politics, should its economy experience a further meltdown—driven by a showdown with Putin or simply because markets will avoid a country in which rule of law has become a joke—Erdogan will have squandered Ankara’s newfound clout and his own political future.

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