Turkey’s Terrible Week: Ankara’s Serious Problems in the Middle East

Turkey has had a terrible week in the Middle East. As the chaos in Syria continues to reverberate in Lebanon and Iraq, Ankara now finds itself in a very difficult position vis-à-vis the American arming of the Iraqi army and the Lebanese Hezbollah’s procurement of the Yakhont anti-ship cruise missile.

Turkey has a serious interest in preventing the transfer of F-16s and Apache helicopters to Iraq. Ankara regularly violates Iraqi airspace when conducting air strikes on Kurdish targets in Iraqi Kurdistan. While the strikes have stopped since peace talks with the Kurdistan Worker’s Party (PKK) began, any erosion of Turkey’s qualitative military edge vis-à-vis Iraq is likely to be a source of concern in Ankara. Turkey, therefore, has an incentive to pressure the United States to block the transfer of advanced arms to Iraq. (I would say that this is the only time that I can think of where Ankara and the U.S. Congress agree on the issue of arms sales.)

However, Baghdad’s lack of air power will likely lead to a protracted struggle between Al Qaeda in Iraq and the Iraqi military for control over Ramadi and Fallujah. (Certainly, one could argue that air power would not allow for the Iraqi forces to quickly overrun the AQI militants.)  In turn, any protracted battle is likely to further exacerbate sectarian tensions in the region. The further increase of such tensions could spill over into Turkey, or, at the very least, further complicate what is already an impossible Turkish position in Syria.

Yet, Ankara is likely to continue to quietly argue against the arming of Maliki, so as to protect its longer-term interests, which is the weakening of the PKK through the political co-option of anti-PKK Kurds (Barzani etc.) and potential future military action using manned and unmanned aircraft. In Syria, the recent development are likely to harden Ankara’s support for anti-Assad rebel groups, including those fighting against AQI’s sister organization in Syria, ISIS.

Secondly, Turkey’s position in the Eastern Mediterranean will be impacted by Hezbollah’s procurement of the Yakhont anti-ship cruise missile. The Yakhont is an upgrade over the Styx anti-ship cruise missile, which was used to sink the Israeli destroyer Eilat in October 1967. (For reference, Hezbollah used a Chinese made silkworm in 2006 against an Israeli naval ship.) Ankara has an ambitious plan to spend $900 million to develop (with cooperation from a Spanish firm) an amphibious assault vessel. (The Turkish press continually refers to this ship as an aircraft carrier.) The Yakhont has a 75-mile range, which could complicate Turkish operations on the Eastern side of Cyprus.

While the graft probe has dominated Turkey’s headlines, these two recent events have further eroded Turkey’s position in the Middle East. Ankara will be forced to mull its very bad options in Iraq and choose the best course of action. Moreover, the Yakhont missile issue underscores Turkey’s vulnerability to the proliferation of cruise missile technology. Ankara has few good options, which leads me to believe that the foreign ministry will fall back on “Zero Problems” style rhetoric, while MIT works to empower its favored rebel groups to do all that it can to help change the facts on the ground before the Geneva II peace conference. 

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About aaronstein1

I am an Istanbul based PhD Candidate a King's College London.
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