Studies

How Turkey Changed in Five Years | Turkish Military Bases and Interventions between 2015-2020

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Preface

This series of studies review the remarkable developments in Turkey’s international, regional, and internal status over the last five years (2015-2020) that witnessed qualitative and fundamental changes, including the failed coup in 2016, the restructuring of the Turkish State, the referendum, and transforming the government into the Presidential System. 

There were also many international and regional changes— most notably, Donald Trump becoming the United States President and the changes in the States Administration’s priorities after Joe Biden took over. It is equally important to mention the effective direction of Turkey’s foreign policy towards international issues such as Syria and Libya and its increasing role in Africa and Central Asia.

Finally, the economic, social, and political changes imposed by the Covid-19 pandemic.

Our studies cover Turkey’s energy, military industrialization, foreign relations, internal status, economy, external military interventions, and military bases beyond national borders.

As Turkey faces many challenges while moving forward, we hope to shed light on the facts of Turkey’s current regional and international position compared to five years ago.

Dr. Mustafa Al-Wahib
Director of Anadolu Center for Near East Studies 


1. Introduction

With a relentless pursuit to restore the regional balance, Turkey’s foreign policy was redirected towards military operations beyond its borders and the establishment of foreign military bases in countries like Libya, Qatar, and Syria. The new policy can be attributed to Turkey’s strategic development in military industrialization in the past five years.

Led by the AK Party, the Turkish government adopted the “zero problems with neighbors” doctrine till 2014. Later, the foreign policy embraced “the Blue Homeland or Mavi Vatan” concept, a new framework that established the basis for Turkey’s recent foreign diplomatic and military movements.

There are other important drivers of Turkey’s foreign policy’s changes, including the government’s transformation into the Presidential System after the failed coup in 2016 and the deterioration of relationships with the West due to fundamental disagreements that endangered Turkey’s interests.

2. Turkish military Interventions Beyond the Border before 2015

The principle of zero problems with neighbors had been the core of Turkey’s foreign policy vision until 2015. As a result, Turkey has not engaged in any military operation individually— except its intervention in the Turkish Republic of Northern Cyprus in 1974.

Notwithstanding the above, Turkey participated in several military operations as a member of the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO) and the International Peacekeeping Forces:

Date Location Under the Auspices ofAim 
1999KosovoUNSecurity maintenance
2002Afghanistan United Nations resolution/ 2189Train Afghani commanders and support the governmental, military formation in Kabul to maintain the security of Hamid Karzai Airport.
2004Bosnia and HerzegovinaEU Operation ALTHEAPeace and security maintenance
2005 – 2006Northern and Southern SudanUNPeace maintenance 
2006LebanonUNPeace maintenance 
2006MaliUNPeace maintenance  
( Renewed annually)2020The central African RepublicUNPeace maintenance
( Renewed annually)2020The Democratic Republic of the CongoUNPeace maintenance 
Table 1: Turkish military participation abroad before 2015.

It is to be noted that Turkey maintained permanent military posts in Northern Iraq through a mutual agreement with the Iraqi government in the 1980s. Accordingly, the Turkish army has carried out several military operations against PKK bases in Iraq since the 1990s. 

Map No. (1): Turkish military bases and posts on the Iraqi border.

3. Drivers of Turkish Military Interventions after 2015

The transformation in Turkey’s military and defense strategy, which secures the state’s political and economic interests, led to Turkey’s individual military intervention (not supported by NATO) in many international arenas. 

This is a fundamental change in Turkey’s foreign policy that can also be attributed to the following drivers:

3.1. Countering Terrorism and Maintaining Border Security 

Turkey was forced to undertake external military interventions due to the undermining regional stability caused by the rapid proliferation of non-state armed groups in the aftermath of the Syrian crisis (Kurdish militias supported by the U.S and the EU and PKK militias in Northern Iraq), the NATO ceased alliance to counter the cross-border threats following the downing of the Russian Sukhoi aircraft, and the Patriot missile system withdrawal from the Southern Turkish border.

These challenges forced Turkey to be more assertive, and the military interventions against ISIS, PKK, and YPG started in Syria and Iraq in August 2015.

3.2. Blue Homeland (Mavi Vatan) Strategy

Blue Homeland is a geostrategic concept aiming to secure the Turkish geopolitical water rights on the high seas, i.e., the Black Sea, the Mediterranean Sea, and the Aegean Sea. President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan announced the strategy adoption in 2019.

Ever since, Anakara has developed its naval military industry and launched military exercises in its territorial waters, deploying its naval military forces in the Eastern Mediterranean and signing the “Delimitation of the Water Boundary” treaty with Libya.

3.3.  Strengthening the Regional Role

Due to its strategic location, inherent historical roots, and impact on the region, Turkey had to play a decent role that required its diplomatic and military contribution in regional developments to protect its interests and restore its deserved position.

3.4. Investing in Seaports

As a part of its strategy of external openness, Turkey has sought to invest in some strategic ports in Libya, Djibouti, and Somalia.

Turkey has recently signed a maritime cooperation agreement with Djibouti, one of the most important regional trade ports in the Horn of Africa. Concluded on February 19, 2020, the agreement sets out the legal basis for Turkish investments in Djibouti, such as port operation and management, international maritime transport, navigation services, and ship and yacht construction and training. 

According to Milliyet, the two sides also agreed on strengthening bilateral trade, developing their relations in the aviation, rail, and maritime sectors, and establishing a new free economic zone in Djibouti.

In Somalia, the Turkish firm Al-Bayrak has managed the Port of Mogadishu since 2014, with a privilege of 20 years of 45% of the port’s revenue. 

3.5. Economic Interests 

By establishing bases or deploying forces abroad, Turkey aims to achieve economic gains within a comprehensive framework of cooperation that opens new markets for Turkish exports, contributes directly to the public and private sector, and establishes free trade zones. 

  • According to the Turkish Institute of Statistics, the bilateral trade between Turkey and Somalia increased from $144 million in 2017 to $206 million in 2019.
  • Turkey has signed five agreements with the Libyan Government of National Accord, headed by Abdul Hamid Dbeibah. The Ronesans Group, a Turkish holding company, signed a memorandum to build an international passenger terminal for Tripoli Airport, and Aksa Energi signed a contract to build power plants.
  • Economic relations between Qatar and Turkey grew appreciably in many fields, with Turkish construction companies acquiring a large portion of the projects in Qatar and establishing a Turkish free trade zone. According to the Qatari reports, the value of Turkish imports has tripled in the last five years.
  • The value of Turkey’s imports of gas and oil from Azerbaijan has increased, as shown in our previous study of how Turkey has changed over five years in energy security. In addition, The value of trade and investment between the two countries has also risen; check details in a previous study by the AYAM center.

3.6. Development of Turkish Military Industries

Turkish military industries have developed considerably after 2015. The ground defense system’s improvement turned Turkey into a leading nation in tank manufacturing. For example, ALTAY MBT and KAPLAN medium tanks are among the most competitive Turkish defense products in world markets. 

Turkey has also developed indigenous air defense systems, such as HİSAR-A, a low-altitude air defense missile system. Yet, the most notable development in Turkish military industries is the Drone; one of the best is Bayraktar, a tactical unmanned aerial vehicle capable of conducting intelligence, surveillance, reconnaissance (ISR), and armed attack missions.

Check details in a previous study by the AYAM center.

As a matter of fact, the efficiency of the Turkish weapons in the outside operations indicates Turkey’s military strength and competitiveness in the international military industries.

4. Turkish Military Bases, Interventions, and Treaties

The Turkish Armed Forces collectively rank as the second-largest standing military force in NATO. Consequently, TAFs have been involved in many outside operations within the NATO missions.

Table 2: Turkish foreign military bases and operations (until 2020)

4.1. Military Bases

4.1.1 The Turkish Republic of Northern Cyprus

Established in 1974 in Northern Cyprus, the military base is the oldest and largest Turkish base abroad. According to the Treaty of Guarantee (1960), Turkey is a guarantor power of Turkish Cypriots security. Moreover, Turkey views its military presence in Cyprus as necessary for its own security.

4.1.2 Qatar 

On April 28th, 2014, a military cooperation treaty between the Qatari and Turkish Ministries of Defense established the Ar-Rayyan army base in Qatar— the first Turkish military base in The Arab Gulf. On June 7th, 2017,  the Turkish parliament ratified a bilateral defense bill with Qatar.

94 Turkish military personnel have been stationed in the base since 2015. Then, the number increased to 200, and it is expected to reach 500-600 soldiers when the upgrade to a joint tactical division headquarters occurs.

The core mission of Turkish soldiers deployed in Qatar is to train the Qatari army. They can, however, intervene and contribute to the resolution of potential crises affecting the region.

Overall, allowing Turkish forces to be stationed on Qatari territory and to use Qatar’s airspace and all necessary infrastructure is considered the most important item in the defense cooperation agreement between the two states. However, Turkey is not legally committed to defending Qatar should it be attacked. 

It is anticipated that the U.S (Turkey’s NATO ally) will focus on confronting the rising power of China. The fact that the American National Security Strategic Plan seeks to withdraw part of its forces present in the Middle East and reduce those forces’ financial resources can confirm the assumption. Therefore, the Turkish base in Qatar may contribute to protecting the interests of its NATO allies in the Arab Gulf in the future.

4.1.3 Iraq

Bashiqa military base, located within the border between the Kurdistan region and the rest of Iraqi territory, was established to train the Kurdish Peshmerga and Sunni Arab fighters to recapture Mosul from ISIS in 2015. 

Unlike Syria, Turkey does not control any territory in Iraq; however, the Iraqi central government called on Turkey to withdraw troops deployed in Bashiqa and suspend its operations in Iraq. 

Yet, Turkey insists that the military deployment is part of a bilateral agreement between the Kurdistan Regional Government and Turkey, requested by the former Governor of Mosul. Thus, Turkey often sends its aircraft and troops across the border to northern Iraq to target PKK posts.

4.1.4 Somalia 

Turkey signed a military agreement with Somalia in December 2012, in which Turkey pledged to restructure the Somali army. In October 2017, the Anatolian Barracks, a Turkish military base, was opened in Mogadishu.

With an area of 4 km2 and a construction cost of up to 50 million dollars, the Turkish base in Somalia is Turkey’s largest overseas military base.

The Anatolian Barracks has 200 personnel under the Turkish-Somali Task Force (STGK), and their main task is to protect the base and train the Somali army soldiers.

This agreement gave a strategic presence to Turkey on the Gulf of Aden (Bab al-Mandeb Strait), which is one of the global shipping joints and a strategic corridor, as shown in map 3.

Map NO ( 3 ): The Turkish military base in Somalia

Why does Turkey prioritize Somalia in its strategy towards the African States?

  • Geostragically, Somalia’s northern coast borders the Gulf of Aden, leading to Bab el-Mandeb, which is one of the most important global trade corridors.
  • Economically, Turkey is keen to protect its economic interests in Africa. In fact, the trade between Turkey and African countries reached $20 billion in 2015 and is set to reach $50 billion by 2023. Moreover, some reports confirm that there are large oil and natural gas reserves in Somalia.
  • Militarily, Turkey has already signed security agreements with Kenya, Ethiopia, Tanzania, and Uganda to train their forces to fight against terrorism, expanding the Turkish military influence in the Horn of Africa.
  • Commercially, Turkey is seeking to open new markets for its developed military industries.

4.2 Defense Cooperation

4.2.1 Albania 

A military cooperation agreement was signed in 1997 between Turkey and Albania. The deal included rebuilding Albania’s Pasha Liman Naval Base alongside granting access for Turkish use (24 Turkish soldiers are stationed in the base).

In February 2020, Albania and Turkey signed a defense cooperation plan to strengthen and intensify their interrelations in security and defense areas.

4.2.2 Azerbaijan

The agreement on strategic partnership and mutual support between Azerbaijan and Turkey was signed in 2010 and came into effect in 2011.

Under the second article of the agreement and Article 51 of the United Nations Charter on self-defense, both Turkey and Azerbaijan will support each other “using all possibilities” in the case of a military attack or aggression against either of the countries.

Articles 7 and 8 endorse the coordination in military commands, armaments, infrastructure, and logistical support in joint military operations under article 2.

“Based on this Convention, Turkey intervened in Azerbaijan to support it in Nagorno-Karabakh, sending military advisers and experts to operate Turkish drones during the clashes.”

On November 17th, 2020, the Turkish Parliament mandated President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan to deploy military forces to Azerbaijan amid Turkish-Russian differences over the details of the joint cease-fire monitoring post to be established in Azerbaijan away from the Nagorno-Karabakh conflict zone.

This one-year mandate authorizes the President to determine the time, extent, and size of military tasks in Azerbaijan.

4.2.3 Sudan

The establishment of a Turkish base in Sudan first came to light during the visit of President Recep Tayyip Erdogan in December 2017 during the reign of Omar al-Bashir- the former President of Sudan. 

The two countries then signed an agreement whereby Turkey would renovate the facilities on the Red Sea island of Suakin at an estimated cost of $650 million. (See map 5)

Earlier in October 2018, the Sudanese government agreed to implement a military cooperation and training agreement between Sudan and Turkey- still valid till now. 

4.3. Military Operations

4.3.1. Syria

The political priorities of Turkey have shifted over the war in Syria. The primary intention was to overthrow the Assad regime; however, the proliferation of PYD/YPG militias redirected the Turkish government’s main objective: Turkey has sought to prevent the PYD/ YPG from creating an area of dominance on its southern border.

On the humanitarian side, Turkey has worked to reduce the influx of refugees and establish a safe zone in Northern Syria.

To achieve these objectives, Turkey, together with Syrian opposition forces, carried out four military operations to secure four areas under the control of Syrian opposition forces, summarized in table 3.

Military OperationAimDate
Euphrates ShieldPushing ISIS out of Al-Bab City2016
Olive BranchTargeting PYD militia in Afrin city2018
Peace SpringTargeting PYD militia in Tel Abyad and Ras al-Ain cities2019
Spring ShieldTargeting Syrian regime forces around Idlib province2020
Table 3: Turkish military operations in Syria

“Since the beginning of 2020, Turkey has concentrated on the western Euphrates, particularly Idlib, the last opposition stronghold in Syria and an important buffer between Turkey and the Syrian regime.”

“According to Turkish sources, by March 2020, up to 20,000 Turkish troops had been deployed to the area with more than ten military observation posts as shown in Map No. 2.”

Map No. (2) Turkish bases and points in the Northwest of Syria

4.3.2 Libya

In 2019, after Gaddafi was overthrown and the Libyan War broke out, Turkey intervened militarily in Libya.

Using armed drones and other military means to support the internationally recognized Government of National Accord (GNA), Turkey succeeded in repelling the Libyan National Army attack led by Khalifa Haftar. 

According to sources, Turkey was in talks with the Government of National Accord to establish two bases in Libya, one at Al-Watiya, the most important airbase in western Libya. Turkey has also announced potential energy and construction deals with Libya once the fighting is over.

Turkey’s maritime interests in the Eastern Mediterranean are the drive of its involvement in Libya. Therefore, it can be inferred that Turkey is attempting to reinforce its claims to the exclusive economic zone and the energy resources in the Eastern Mediterranean.

5. Turkish Forces Military Exercises in the Eastern Mediterranean

The Eastern Mediterranean has always been a maritime boundary conflict zone, in which drilling and exploration activities for gas and oil resources are taking place. In addition, it is a point of military naval maneuvers between groups of countries bordering it.

The tension between Turkey and Greece, Cyprus, and the European Union was exacerbated by Turkey’s extensive exploration and drilling in the disputed areas. (Check Map No. 4)

Map No. (4) Disputed areas between Turkey and Greece

Consequently, Turkey has moved diplomatically and signed two conventions for maritime delimitation in the Eastern Mediterranean:

  •  2011: Turkey signed the Convention on the Delimitation of the Continental Shelf with the Turkish Republic of Northern Cyprus (recognized only by Turkey)
  • 2019: Turkey signed a memorandum of understanding with Libya on the delimitation of the exclusive economic zones of the two States in the eastern Mediterranean (signed by the Government of the Republic of Turkey and the Government of the State of Libyan National Accord).

Map No. 5 shows the water boundary in the Eastern Mediterranean Sea according to the Turkish vision.

Turkey has actively sought to protect its water rights by sending its warships along with its search and exploration vessels and conducting several military exercises in the Eastern Mediterranean, leading to numerous wrangles between Turkey, Greece, and the European Union States, particularly France.

“Included in Turkey’s plan to maintain its water security within the strategy of the Blue Homeland, the Eastern Mediterranean has become one of the top priorities and concerns of Turkish policy.”

6. Summary of Turkish Military Operations and Bases before 2015 and in 2020

Before 2015Between 2015-2020
Overall strategy Zero problemsBlue Homeland
Individual Military Operations– Cyprus Operation in 1974- Northern Iraq Airstrikes against PKKMultiple military operations in 3 countries: Libya, Iraq, and Syria
Military Participation in International Forces3 participations (Kosovo, Bosnia and Herzegovina, Afghanistan)
Foreign Military Bases and Points1 base (Cyprus)5 bases (Qatar, Iraq, Somalia, Libya, Syria)
The Use of Indigenous Arms in Foreign OperationsOn a large scale
International Training TasksAfghanistanQatar, Somalia, Libya
Military CooperationAzerbaijan, Albania

7. Conclusion 

Turkey has sought to reduce its dependence on arms imports from abroad, which has led to the development of its defense capabilities in the last five years, which in turn has made a difference in its outside operation in Syria, Libya, Iraq, and Azerbaijan.

Based on this, Turkey has obtained greater freedom in its foreign movements militarily, established military bases beyond its national borders, such as Qatar and Somalia, deployed its forces to Libya and Syria, and provided equipment, training, and military advice to Azerbaijan, Sudan, and some opposition factions in Syria.

It is important to note that, before 2015, Turkey had no military bases abroad other than a number of its troops in some States as part of international missions with NATO or as part of international peacekeeping forces.

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Anadolu Center For Near East Studies

Anadolu Center For Near East Studies

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