15 October 2020
Turkey & Nagorno-Karabakh
Yet another proxy war.
By Neil Tidmarsh
Claims by Armenia that one of its warplanes has been shot down by Turkish fighter jets; stories of Turkish-backed Syrian rebels being re-deployed to Azerbaijan to fight as mercenaries against Nagorno-Karabakh; accounts of Turkish Bayraktar military drones inflicting crushing casualties on soldiers and civilians in the Armenian enclave… Turkey is open in its support of Azerbaijan against Armenia, but so far it has maintained an official silence about these and other claims concerning the extent of its involvement in the latest outbreak of the thirty-year conflict over Nagorno-Karabakh, the ethnic Armenian enclave within Azerbaijan. Nevertheless, it does seem that Turkey now has a third proxy war on its hands.
As if two aren’t enough. Turkey has been involved with the Syrian civil war since its outbreak in 2011, backing the rebels against the Assad regime. The conflict has more or less ground to a halt, but it continues with Turkey the last foreign force remaining in the field against the regime, the rebel’s last support against complete destruction. Meanwhile, in Libya, Turkey’s intervention on the side of the Tripoli government has halted the advance of the forces of the rival Tobruk government in the most recent manifestation of that country’s protracted and intermittent civil war.
All three conflicts – Syria, Libya and Nagorno-Karabakh – have a lot in common: foreign powers lining up behind a civil war’s two competing factions; territorial and ethnic complications; hastily-arranged and hastily-abandoned cease-fires; the potential to blow up into a bigger conflict engaging all the powers in the wider region. But the most noticeable common factor is that they all find Turkey and Russia facing up to each other across the firing line. In Syria, Russia backs the Assad regime; in Libya, Russia backs the Tobruk-based government; and although both Armenia and Azerbaijan are ex-Soviet republics, Russia sympathises with Armenia and has a mutual defence agreement with it.
Turkey and Russia have been in conflict ever since the Ottoman Empire began its long, slow decline (the Crimean War wasn’t an isolated incident), of course, and the two countries are neighbours separated by the Black Sea. But Turkey’s relationships with its other neighbours aren’t much smoother. It shares land borders with seven countries (Bulgaria, Greece, Syria, Iraq, Iran, Armenia and Georgia) and this renewed friction with Armenia means that it’s now in conflict with all but two of them (Bulgaria and Georgia). Iran, as a supporter of Assad, opposes Turkey in the Syrian war. Iraq’s Kurdistan is right up against the border with Turkey and the two are bitter enemies. Syria’s Kurdish region is also spread along the border with Turkey and the two are also at war with each other. Greece and Turkey have never been on friendly terms and in recent months they’ve come close to open conflict over the rights to oil reserves in the eastern Mediterranean (a short unofficial cooling-off period was broken this week with Turkey sending its oil exploration ships back into action).
The global picture as well as the regional picture confirms the suspicion that Turkey is remarkably short of friends and allies for one with so many fights on its hands. Egypt, Saudi Arabia and the rest of the Arab world oppose Turkey because of its support for the Muslim Brotherhood and political Islam. It has angered the USA and its other Nato allies by buying missile systems from Russia. It has been at loggerheads with the EU for years over issues such as membership, migrants, human rights and press freedom. Its international isolation is clearly evident over Nagorno-Karabakh; the UN, the EU, Russia and Iran have all called for a cease-fire; Turkey alone ignores the call.
An aggressive foreign policy for such a friendless state is all the more puzzling considering the dire state of its economy (the last six years have seen Turkey’s GDP falling, inflation rising and the value of its currency plummeting, while defence spending has almost doubled to 2.5% of GDP) and the extensive purges its armed forces suffered in the aftermath of the attempted coup of 2016 (a study by the Council of Europe concluded that a third of Turkey’s military personnel was cut, with half of all its generals fired).
On the other hand, war is doing Turkey’s economy some favours; its defence exports totalled over $3 billion last year, a rise of 40% over the previous four years. It has invested over $1.5 billion in its arms industries, concentrating on drone development. It’s likely that it’ll become self-sufficient in defence equipment by 2023, one of Erdogan’s aims. And an assertive foreign policy may be doing Erdogan some political favours, too. He wouldn’t be the first beleaguered national leader to find that the safest thing to do with a troubled army was to keep it busy in foreign fields, that aggression abroad can foster national pride, that external enemies are a useful distraction from domestic problems and that perceived threats from outside can encourage cohesion and unity at home.