Erdogan’s Survival Mechanism: Making Turkey Great Again With Drone Warfare

Source: Ahval

February 27th 2020 marked an unprecedented shift in military history. After 34 Turkish soldiers were killed in the Syrian war, Turkish National Defense Minister Hulusi Akar, under Erdogan’s presidency, responded with Operation Spring Shield. This operation successfully obliterated part of President Assad’s army in Idlib, a northern region of Syria; 3,000 soldiers were killed. The systemic change? An operation in conventional battle fully based on drone attacks. An escalation in war, but at a distance. And, most probably, the point of no return – unless regulated soon. 

My previous blog focuses on what used to be, by far, the greatest drone power. The US counter-terrorism strategy was the first step towards a primary role of drones in conflict. Today, Turkey is an equal rival in the race to autonomous weapon systems. Operation Spring Shield is the evidence to confirm this rivalry and the groundbreaking change in the role of drones – the next milestone in drone warfare. 

President Erdogan and his close circle of decision-makers have been the drivers behind this change. However, we should view drones not as an end, but as a tool for these leaders to reach their political and personal goals. Unfortunately to the rest of us, the means to these ends are as risky as the ends. Drones have facilitated the Turkish conflict escalation in Syria and, seeing their success on the battlefield, they have caught the attention of other leaders. 

Erdogan’s Goal: Making Turkey Great And Self-sufficient

Just like me, you are probably tired of hearing these words coming out of politicians’ mouths. Or maybe not. In many more instances than imagined by observers of international relations, these words can easily creep into public opinion. In some aspects, Turkey has not been an exception. 

First, it is necessary to understand the context in which Erdogan is ruling to then comprehend why he is aligning with such an overused rhetoric and the overall link to drones. Since the Arab Spring in the early 2010s, Turkey has experienced regional instability as a result of an increase in conflict among its neighbours. The Syrian war is the most prominent and destabilizing example, which has led to a significant refugee flow towards Turkey and military conflict along its borders. 

Domestically, Erdogan has faced social, economic, and political instability. The everlasting conflict with the Kurdistan’s Workers Party (PKK) has always been a destabilizing factor. The Syrian war worsened this conflict by strengthening the position of Kurdish independentists in the Syrian border. Moreover, in 2013, the Gezi Park protests challenged the legitimacy of Erdogan’s former position as Prime Minister; protesters accused Erdogan of having an authoritarian and Islamist-driven way of government.

The greatest challenge came in a failed military coup in 2016, which aimed at ousting President Erdogan and his government. Erdogan’s lost popularity has led his party (the AKP) to loose support in the national assembly. These issues, coupled with slower economic growth, form the stumbling ground on which Erdogan stands. 

As a result, and with the 2023 elections around the corner, Erdogan has gone into a “survival mode” to maintain his political power. At home, he has begun using repressive tactics to avoid any sort of opposition to his power and policies. Abroad, Erdogan has turned Turkey’s foreign policy towards an assertive path, especially in the Middle East. Both domestically and internationally, national security has become the priority – partly in an attempt to divert citizens’ attention from Turkey’s many troubles and partly as a way to appeal to the nationalist right and the nationalist beliefs among the population. Erdogan’s extreme focus on the PKK struggle is the main example. The regional instability that is strengthening the PKK is a good enough justification for Erdogan’s military assertiveness, which contributes to diverting citizens’ attention. 

Behind this assertive strategy stands the perception that Erdogan can and will revive Turkey’s lost imperial power. The fall of the Ottoman Empire is still fresh in the electorate’s minds, thus Erdogan’s rhetoric resonates within the population. While, in theory, such a strategy sounds good, it is impossible to achieve it without a strong military. And here is where drones come into play.

Drones As The Perfect Means To Erdogan’s Desired End

Something that always escapes my imagination is the patriotism that strong military capabilities bring about in the population and its leaders. Somehow, violence is able to incite a feeling of pride – or maybe it’s just the result of fear inculcated in people’s minds and the framing of violence as the only solution – like, “hey, we are strong and we can beat you”.

Turkey’s defense industry had traditionally been dependent on foreign exporters. That was about to change when a US-trained, Turkish engineer Selcuk Bayraktar pitched the idea of drones to some Turkish military officials. Simultaneously, Turkey’s main military importers were failing to live up to Turkey’s expectations. Bayraktar’s proposal came with perfect timing and it fitted within Erdogan’s goal of reviving Turkey’s old power, which would aid in maintaining his own. This goal could only be achieved with a strong and independent military, which Erdogan has publicly stated as a priority.

Bayraktar’s TB2 drone is today the foundation of Turkey’s aerial operations. Erdogan has even taken a personal interest and active role in their development as he took control of Turkey’s defense industry in 2018. Later in 2019, Erdogan promised to direct $100 million to Bayraktar’s drones. And let’s not forget that Bayraktar married Erdogan’s daughter. A happy drone-driven family.

The conflict with the PKK has been the experimental ground where Turkey’s drone program has been tested – with success. Drones have been a game changer in eliminating PKK militants within Turkish grounds, which used to be a difficult task due to the mountainous terrain where they hide. The inspiration to use drones came from the US counter-terrorism operations in Pakistan, where the mountainous terrain had also been problematic before drones came into play. Turkey’s use of drones against its citizens is just one example of the dangerous precedent the US has set, as I mentioned in my previous blog.

Much to Erdogan’s satisfaction, his drone program and its success against the PKK has become a source of national pride. Advanced (aka effective at killing) drones produced at home are seen as a symbol of technological superiority; Turkish politicians are more than eager to post videos on Twitter showing off how well drones can destroy targets. The successful conflict escalation with the PKK, which has led to hundreds of presumed PKK militants’ deaths, has added to the nation’s pride. Without drones, such operations would have been more costly in terms of time, resources, and lives. 

This conflict escalation against the PKK has been possible thanks to drones. The national pride it gives rise to has removed any political restraints that may question the violence used by the Turkish state within Turkish soil. Erdogan’s political position has also been strengthened as a result. These benefits exemplify the lack of political costs of using drones. Erdogan is most probably well aware of these benefits, thus drones have proved to be the perfect means to his ends – both domestically and internationally. Indeed, conflict escalation with drones has not been limited to Turkey’s borders. 

Drone Conflict Exported Abroad: An Unprecedented Change In Military Warfare

Drones have also eased Erdogan’s assertive goals within the region. The most transcendental example has been that of Operation Spring Shield in Syria, which I mentioned earlier. This was the first time an air operation was solely based on drones – and succeeded. Opposition factions against Assad’s regime were able to take hold again of some territory in Northern Syria, thus leading to a prolongation of the Syrian war. 

Without an advanced drone program, the costs of such an operation in Northern Syria would have been too high for Erdogan, especially with regard to financial costs from deploying traditional air force and life costs from soldier casualties. The latter scenario could have also led to high political costs from population backlash against Erdogan, which is a situation he cannot afford with his recent loss of popularity.

In the Libyan conflict between the UN-recognized Tripoli government and the rebel General Khalifa Haftar, Turkish drones have also helped to “reverse the tide” in favour of the former as they destroyed many air-defense systems from Haftar’s Libyan National Army. This move allowed the UN-backed government to take back a strategic air base – and, in line with Erdogan’s goals, for Turkey to come out as a renewed regional power with a more consequential leader as its head. 

It’s all happy news for Erdogan. Now we’ll have to see if his constituents buy his strategy or if Erdogan’s popularity keeps decreasing.

The Implications Of Drones: More Conflict, More Casualties, And An Established Precedent

Overall, whether you support the winners from Erdogan’s operations or not, one thing is clear: just as with the US drone-based counterterrorism operations, Turkish drone-based domestic and international operations have also led to an increase and prolongation in conflict. Just as with Obama’s case study that I explored in my previous blog, Erdogan’s case study shows that the threshold for violence has been reduced with drones due to the benefits that they bring to Erdogan and his political goals.

In fact, Erdogan has used the US case as a justification for his drone program:  “Some countries eliminate terrorists whom they consider as a threat to their national security, wherever they are. Therefore, this means those countries accept that Turkey has the same right”. Obama’s dangerous precedent has borne its fruits.

And, just as with the US case study, there are many other negative implications from this unprecedented change in military history. 

Civilian deaths are among these implications, and they probably will continue to be a problem in my next case studies. There are numerous accounts of drones killing innocent people unrelated to the PKK in and outside Turkey – to say the least, as any prolongation of war such as that of Syria and Libya leads to more civilian deaths. The opposition party in Turkey has tried to attack Erdogan on this ground, to which Erdogan answered framing these civilians as terrorists. 

Another issue that I also raised regarding Obama’s counterterrorism operations was the lack of a fair proceeding in which the status of presumed terrorists could be confirmed. More than 800 presumed terrorists from the PKK have been killed in Turkish drone operations without this fair proceeding. 

Similarly to what I concluded in the US case study, public opinion has stopped being an obstacle to the use of drones despite their negative implications. In the US, it appeared to be due to a lack of care, as no US lives were at stake. In Turkey, national pride and the fear of terrorists lead to a lack of public opposition to Erdogan’s use of drones – which is exactly what Erdogan planned for.

Finally (and unfortunately), this Turkish case study shows a trend towards the offense dominance of drones. In my first blog of this series, I mention that drones had not yet achieved the military capabilities to destroy air defense systems. The above examples are proving otherwise since, both in Syria and Libya, Turkish drones were successful in destroying the opponents’ air defense systems

At any moment, we might face a situation in which drones become the preferred weapon for conventional battles. This extremely plausible scenario brings about important questions on what factors (if not “treasure, blood, and reputation”) could then stop a leader from using domestic and international violence. 

The precedent has been established and, with it, the dangerous future consequences that may arise. Drone proliferation has gone out of control; state and non-state actors can now easily access the cheap technology used by Turkey (cheaper than that of the US). Indeed, Erdogan has been able to make his drone program a profitable export business. Ukraine and Qatar are the biggest customers he has. 

Now, all that is left is watch as an already unstable region becomes even more unstable with drone swarm attacks all over. Unless we regulate, of course. Keep an eye out for my next blog if you want to learn more about leaders, drones, and conflict!

Adriana Rodriguez

Executive Director of Research and Analysis