Which of Turkey’s military operations could become a fully-fledged war?
Turkey’s increasingly assertive military activity in the Middle East and eastern Mediterranean has put it at odds with an array of countries and local factions in both regions.
Over the past year, Turkish forces have launched major offensives against Kurdish armed groups in Syria and Iraq, intervened against rebel General Khalifa Haftar and his forces in war-torn Libya, fostered warmer ties with Islamist groups such as the Palestinian Hamas movement, backed Azerbaijan in its post-Soviet territorial dispute with Armenia, and confronted the Greek navy in the disputed waters of the Mediterranean.
The conflict in some of the aforementioned areas are increasingly involving new countries and players, risking them boiling over into full-fledged wars with more bloodshed. Looking at the regions, it is difficult to surmise which conflict will the first to do so.
The largest issue making news headlines related to Turkey in the past month has been its military build-up with Greece in the latest chapter of their ongoing dispute over territorial claims in the eastern Mediterranean.
Tension rose between the NATO allies after Ankara sent the Oruç Reis research vessel escorted by Turkish warships to a disputed area between Cyprus and the Greek island of Crete on Aug. 10. Athens responded to the move by sending naval and air units to shadow the Oruç Reis and conducting military exercises with Cyprus and France in the area, creating a standoff at risk of escalating into a direct confrontation with Turkey.
On Wednesday, Greek Prime Minister Kyriakos Mitsotakis called for reconciliation talks with Ankara on the condition that it ceased its aggressive activities in the area. Germany meanwhile has taken a mediating role in the issue, sending Foreign Minister Heiko Maas to Athens and Ankara this week in an effort to prevent a full-blown incident and de-escalate tension.
However, Turkey has shown little indication that it is willing to stand down and talk at the moment.
The Turkish navy also announced in a navigational telex (Navtex) on Thursday that it would hold live fire exercises off the coast of its southeastern İskenderun province on Sept. 1-2.
On Saturday, Yeni Şafak reported that warship commanders partaking in the exercises were ordered to use their own discretion when responding to any harassment to Turkish vessels, including resorting to opening fire. In other words, warships have been given the green light to respond to perceived threats as they see fit without waiting for a decision by Ankara first.
The navy issued another Navtex alert for military exercises off the coast of Turkey’s southern Anamur town between Aug. 29 and Sept. 11.
In response to Turkey’s unwillingness to reconcile, European Union foreign affairs chief Joseph Borrell told reporters on Friday that the EU was preparing sanctions designed to limit Turkey’s ability to survey for natural gas in contested waters.
That same day, German Chancellor Angel Merkel, whose country holds the EU presidency, said that all EU member states are obliged to support Greece in the dispute.
Then, with Turkish Vice-President Fuat Oktay and Turkish Foreign Minister Mevlüt Çavuşoğlu calling Greece’s plans to expand its territorial waters to 12 nautical miles a “cause for war”, only time will tell if this dispute is another bout of brinkmanship or an escalation into direct confrontation.
Political and military tensions between NATO allies Turkey and Greece have surged in the past year after Turkey sought to explore for gas and oil reserves on Greece and Cyprus’ continental shelves.
Intending to legitimise its claims in the area, Turkey and Libya’s United Nations-recognised Government of National Accord (GNA) in Tripoli signed a maritime border in November to establish an exclusive economic zone, much to the ire of Greece, Cyprus, France and other nations collaborating on a pipeline project off the Cypriot coast.
In return for signing the agreement, the GNA has received substantial Turkish military support to turn the tide of its armed conflict against the self-proclaimed Libyan National Army (LNA) and its commander Haftar, who is backed by Egypt, the United Arab Emirates (UAE) and Russia, among other countries.
After reversing the gains made by an LNA offensive launched in April 2019 to take Tripoli, Turkey and the GNA have marked as their next targets as Sirte, a gateway to Libya’s main oil terminals, and al-Jufra air base located in the oil region - two strategic locations controlled by Haftar’s forces.
Following international calls for a ceasefire, GNA Prime Minister Fayez al-Sarraj on Aug. 21 issued instructions all military forces to halt combat operations and called for parliamentary and presidential elections to be held in March.
Although the Tobruk-based House of Representatives, which supports Haftar, welcomed the ceasefire, the LNA commander dismissed it as “deceptive”, saying that GNA-allied militias were preparing an assault on Sirte.
“The initiative that Sarraj signed is for media marketing,” LNA spokesman Ahmed Mismari said during a briefing for journalists. “There is a military build-up and the transfer of equipment to target our forces in Sirte.”
On July 19, Milliyet newspaper reported that Turkey deployed missile launchers and artillery to positions near Sirte.
Egypt has warned that it will respond militarily to any attempts to take Sirte or al-Jufra. It has deployed troops and weapons to its western border with Libya and conducted land and sea exercises in preparation for a possible intervention.
In the Levant, meanwhile, Turkey’s military presence in Syria and Iraq have been defined by Kurdish armed groups operating in the embattled Middle Eastern countries.
Turkey launched a joint air and ground offensive into various regions of northern Iraq in June targeting the outlawed Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK) in response to increased attacks against Turkish military forces. Although Turkey regularly targets the PKK in operations in northern Iraq and on home soil, the scale of this cross-border campaign is unprecedented.
Since June, Baghdad officials, including Iraqi President Barham Salih, have called on Turkey to stop violating Iraq’s sovereignty.
To make matters more tense between Ankara and Baghdad, an air strike in northern Iraq killed two members of Iraq’s border guard and their driver in the Erbil governate, an incident the Iraqi military called a "blatant Turkish drone attack".
In response to the incident, Iraq cancelled a scheduled visit by Turkish Defence Minister Hulusi Akar and Baghdad summoned the country’s ambassador to hand him a letter of protest.
However, security expert Maya Carlin said in the Jerusalem Post that Prime Minister Mustafa al-Kadhimi will not likely react to Turkey’s military operations beyond diplomatic measures because Baghdad is hamstrung by a vast number of issues; including the spread of COVID-19, economic collapse, public distrust in the Iraqi government, and grappling with U.S.-Iranian tensions on Iraqi soil - and thus cannot afford a larger response.
Regarding Syria, meanwhile, Turkey has launched three operations into the country aimed at pushing back Kurdish armed forces - namely the People’s Protection Unit (YPG) militia - south from the Syrian-Turkish border.
The Kurdish-majority YPG has played a vital role in the U.S.-led coalition’s ground operations against the Islamic State (ISIS) militant group, which at one-point controlled swathes of Syria and Iraq. However, Turkey views the YPG as an offshoot the PKK, thus a threat to its national security.
Turkey has also allied itself with opposition and jihadist groups fighting against the Syrian government and its main backer Russia. Earlier this year, Turkey deployed military force to try to halt the Syrian army's advance on the last rebel-held province of Idlib, northwest Syria which had displaced around 1 million people.
A new counter-offensive - Operation Spring Shield - was launched by Turkey on March 1 after at least 36 Turkish soldiers were killed in an air strike at the end of February that has been attributed to Russian planes backing Syrian forces.
Russian President Vladimir Putin and Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan brokered a ceasefire agreement on March 5 to end the fighting in Idlib between Turkish-allied armed groups and the Syrian military.
The deal stipulated the establishment of a security corridor in northwest Syrian, with Turkish and Russian military units conducting joint patrols along the strategic M4 highway to put a buffer between pro-Damascus forces and rebel and Islamist militias.
However, some of Turkey’s Syrian allies have protested Erdoğan’s softened stance against Russia, which has led to road block protests and even armed violence against the joint patrols.
Meanwhile, analysts have said that a recent Turkish military build-up in Idlib signal a possible end to the recent lull in fighting in the area.
Ruwan al-Rejoleh, an independent analyst based in Washington, told Arab News on Aug. 20 that Turkey was sending reinforcements to Idlib ensure the security of Turkish forces already present in Idlib and deter a possible military campaign led by Russia and the Syrian army targeting rebel groups in Idlib.
Navvar Saban, a military analyst at the Omran Center for Strategic Studies in Istanbul, said neither Russia nor Turkey was attempting to initiate a major confrontation at the moment.
Turkey observers and pundits say Ankara’s foreign policy approach, under Erdoğan’s leadership, is attempting to reclaim the heritage of the Ottoman Empire by resorting to military intervention and gain the support of Muslims of different nationalities.
Erdoğan’s Presidential Communications Directorate posted a YouTube video called “Kızıl Elma” (“Red Apple” in English) on Monday which displayed Turkey’s military power along with re-enactments of soldiers in action throughout the Ottoman Empire’s history.