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Ukraine, Nagorno-Karabakh, Balkans, Central Asia… Erdoğan’s  war of drones

In Novem­ber 2020, Azer­bai­jan defeat­ed the Armen­ian forces in the self-pro­claimed repub­lic of Nagorno-Karabagh, also known as Art­sakh, fol­low­ing a war car­ried out with light­ning speed in six-weeks. A vic­to­ry brought on by Azebaijan’s mil­i­tary supe­ri­or­i­ty, on the whole  thanks to the pres­ence of Israeli-made Orbiter 1K and Harop2 kamikaze drones, and  of the fear­some lat­est mod­el of Bayrak­tar TB2 drones made in Turkey. Spe­cial­ists were pro­vid­ed along with the weapons, par­tic­u­lar­ly the Turk­ish engi­neers han­dling the remote-con­trolled attacks. Arme­nia, total­ly unpre­pared and lack­ing any form of equip­ment capa­ble of neu­tral­is­ing these attacks was doomed to los­ing rapid­ly. More­over, fol­low­ing the prece­dents in Libya and North­ern Syr­ia, Turkey had almost imme­di­ate­ly sent in rebel Jihadist mer­ce­nar­ies from the Syr­i­an Nation­al Army, sup­port­ed and trained by Ankara. The worst atroc­i­ties com­mit­ted by these mil­i­tas in Libya and in Arme­nia have been documented.

Azer­bai­jan is the cen­tre­piece in the news pan­turk­ish and Neo-Ottoman con­fig­u­ra­tion con­duct­ed by the Turk­ish “big broth­er” in the Cau­ca­sus, apply­ing the pol­i­cy of “one nation, two States” with the intent of cre­at­ing  an eco­nom­ic and ide­o­log­i­cal empire rest­ing on an oft-fan­ta­sized ancient kin­ship in lan­guage and ter­ri­to­r­i­al belong­ing. If truth be told, if Azer­bai­jan, of Shi­ite  per­sua­sion, con­trary to Sun­ni Turkey, shares some eth­nic roots, the for­mer long belonged to the Per­sian Safavid empire.  Almost for the first time, the qua­si-total­i­ty of oper­a­tions were car­ried out at a dis­tance, far removed from the zone of com­bat. The only prece­dent occur­ring with the twen­ty-day attack by Israel against Gaza in May 2020, where the Israeli Defense Forces (IDF) used sur­veil­lance and com­bat drones, thus spar­ing its own army. There can be no doubt that Gaza and Art­sakh are indi­ca­tors of the direc­tion future armed com­bats will take.

Fol­low­ing on this Turk­ish vic­to­ry, the mil­i­tary indus­try has become the cen­ter­piece of Erdoğan’s  project of eco­nom­ic, social and cul­tur­al dom­i­na­tion, from Cen­tral Asia to Africa, includ­ing a for­ay into North­ern and East­ern Europe. The many videos filmed direct­ly by the drones and con­stant­ly shown on Azer­bai­jan net­works dur­ing the con­flict are now part of the Baykar factory’s sales kit, a fac­to­ry,   inci­den­tal­ly, belong­ing to Erdoğan’s son-in-law. In prepa­ra­tion for the cen­ten­ni­al of the Turk­ish Repub­lic sched­uled for Octo­ber 29 2023, Turkey has decid­ed to show itself as a major pow­er, one of the greats among the great­est, at least, in the indus­tri­al field of weapon­ry where it aims to com­pete with the Unit­ed States and Rus­sia. 1.

Some 2 000 km from Arme­nia, anoth­er part of the ter­ri­to­ry of the for­mer Sovi­et empire holds the atten­tion of the Turk­ish reis. Ukraine is sep­a­rat­ed from Turkey by the Black Sea but is home to a Sun­ni Turk­men Tatar pop­u­la­tion con­cen­trat­ed in the ancient Ottoman khanat of Crimea, direct­ly sup­port­ed by Ankara, which explains its oppo­si­tion to the annex­a­tion of the region by Rus­sia. A good num­ber of  Crimean Tatars have tak­en refuge in Ukraine, which would have moti­vat­ed the con­struc­tion by the Turk­ish gov­ern­ment of an impos­ing mosque in the cen­ter of Kyiv. We might note in pass­ing that a part of Ukraine, Podolia, was with­in the Ottoman Empire in the 17th century.

Obvi­ous­ly, the threat of an inva­sion by Rus­sia dom­i­nates all nation­al and inter­na­tion­al pre­oc­cu­pa­tions for the time being, and   Ukraine is on a war foot­ing.  Dur­ing a per­son­al phone con­ver­sa­tion on Feb­ru­ary 2nd with activist Maria Dmitrie­va in Kyiv, she expressed strong con­cerns over the Russ­ian impe­ri­al­ist pol­i­cy.  She was per­plexed when I men­tioned Turkey, being at the most grate­ful for the mil­i­tary aid it was sup­ply­ing via the sale of Bayrak­tar drones. The Bayrak­tars bought in 2018 proved incred­i­bly reas­sur­ing to the Ukrain­ian mil­i­tary who open­ly expressed this, well aware of the unequaled destruc­tive pow­er of these drones against an army as well equipped as that of the Russ­ian Fed­er­a­tion. Moscow is con­cerned, and with good rea­son. On Jan­u­ary 14, in the surg­ing cli­mate of ten­sion,  Russ­ian pres­i­dent Alyev paid an offi­cial vis­it to his coun­ter­part in Kyiv, sign­ing a mutu­al coop­er­a­tion agree­ment. Ukrain­ian strate­gists were seem­ing­ly impressed by the mil­i­tary strat­e­gy deployed in Art­sakh and decid­ed to order their sup­plies from the same source for drones, which prob­a­bly explains the alliance of these two improb­a­ble part­ners, sole­ly unit­ed by a wish to dis­tance them­selves from Moscow…

A first use of the Bayrak­tar — and the only one so far — on the front­lines of Don­bass was not­ed last Octo­ber 26, destroy­ing a Russ­ian field how­itzer. Since 2019 in fact, Ukrain­ian mil­i­tary are trained by their Turk­ish coun­ter­parts in the Baykar fac­to­ry in Turkey itself. A fac­to­ry is being built near Vas­sylkiv, 20 km from Kyiv, for the pro­duc­tion of Turk­ish drones of the next gen­er­a­tion of the ANKA type, by the end of 2022.

On Feb­ru­ary 3rd, Erdoğan made an offi­cial vis­it to Kyiv, offer­ing in a lord­ly fash­ion, his ser­vices as medi­a­tor with Rus­sia with whom, how­ev­er, rela­tions are some­what murky. As with Azer­bai­jan, we note that Turkey is the main eco­nom­ic part­ner of Ukraine, the two coun­tries hav­ing just signed a free-trade agree­ment. Are Azer­bai­jan and Ukraine noth­ing but sim­ple cus­tomers of an oppor­tunis­tic Turkey? To the author of these lines, it appears that these exchanges mask a much wider pol­i­cy with longer term objectives.

An irredentist project?

Fol­low­ing on the war against Nagorno-Karabakh, pur­chase orders  flowed to the Baykar fac­to­ry: from Poland to the Horn of Africa, and also from Ser­bia and Geor­gia. True, these drones are much less expen­sive that their Amer­i­can coun­ter­parts: 1 to 2 mil­lion dol­lars against the 20 mil­lion required for a sin­gle Amer­i­can Pro­tec­tor drone, man­u­fac­tured by Gen­er­al Atom­ics.  True also, Chi­nese drones are cheap­er, but they do not offer an after-sales ser­vice as Turkey does, much too hap­py to pur­sue long term fruit­ful rela­tions with customer-countries.

Beyond the mer­can­tile oppor­tunism, a guid­ing thread links these new cus­tomers of  Bayrakar TB2 drones.

With the fall of the USSR, Turkey invest­ed mas­sive­ly in the Turk­ish speak­ing coun­tries. Researcher Bayram Bal­cı not­ed the clum­si­ness of the Turk­ish gov­ern­ment under Prime Min­is­ter Süley­man Demirel who, in the ear­ly 1990s, called for the cre­ation of a “Turk­ish world from the Adri­at­ic to the Great Wall of Chi­na”, with­out the means to imple­ment it. The dis­tant Turk­ish Kha­ganat Demirel was refer­ring to dat­ed back to a time pri­or to the rise of Islam. How­ev­er, a uni­fy­ing dis­course was in con­struc­tion, includ­ing in school books  that stressed the “his­tor­i­cal” links between Turkey and these new states — Azer­bai­jan, Kaza­khstan, Ouzbek­istan, Kirghizs­tan and Turk­menistan — while the lat­ter, for whom Russ­ian was the lin­gua fran­ca 2 pur­sued indi­vid­ual nation­al iden­ti­ties after the fall of the USSR. The pres­ence of a pop­u­lar Islam in each of the coun­tries involved pro­vid­ed a moral ground­ing which was rapid­ly inte­grat­ed into their for­eign poli­cies as well as  com­mer­cial and cul­tur­al links  estab­lished with Mus­lim coun­tries and through mem­ber­ship in Islam­ic organ­i­sa­tions. 3. This was the angle priv­i­leged by Turkey for direct inter­ven­tions through the Pres­i­den­cy of Reli­gious Affairs (Diyanet) in domes­tic poli­cies  with­in the area of Cen­tral Asia and the Cau­ca­sus, which proved to be a gen­uine and most effi­cient  soft pow­er. Thus, the build­ing of mosques (in an Ottoman style unre­lat­ed to tra­di­tion­al archi­tec­ture), the open­ing of uni­ver­si­ties, of Fac­ul­ties of The­ol­o­gy, of almost tuition-free high schools. With the pro­gres­sive dis­ap­pear­ance of old­er lead­ers at the head of these coun­tries, one can expect an increased open­ness to Erdoğan’s pro­pos­als, espe­cial­ly  since they come with extreme­ly favor­able com­mer­cial con­di­tions and, cur­rent­ly, with access to a lead­ing mil­i­tary tech­nol­o­gy. The pro­pos­als ema­nat­ing from Iran and Sau­di Ara­bia are, de fac­to, total­ly  supplanted.

The best way to intro­duce these Cen­tral Asian coun­tries into the Pan­turk­ish fam­i­ly is through the sale of Bayrak­tar drones. Up until now, Ouzbek­istan is the only coun­try that has resist­ed a Turk­ish takeover on reli­gious mat­ters and com­mer­cial links, Rus­sia and Chi­na remain­ing its main sup­pli­ers. At least until the end of 2020, that is. Tashkent recent­ly announced the con­struc­tion of its own drones, undoubt­ed­ly with help from Turkey, fol­low­ing the sign­ing of a mil­i­tary coop­er­a­tion agree­ment. This is how coun­tries of Cen­tral Asia, plus Azer­bai­jan, will short­ly be equipped with a mas­sive­ly dis­sua­sive weapon, much less expen­sive than nuclear pow­er and ready-for-use if required… The out­look is concerning…

Ter­ri­to­ries that were even momen­tar­i­ly under Ottoman rule hold a qua­si-mys­ti­cal appeal for Erdo­gan: this is the soil of the Turk­ish Ur-Nation with its time­less moral val­ues, con­firmed by an Islam a la tur­ca, seen as the foun­da­tion­al civ­i­liza­tion, had it not been devi­at­ed by the depraved athe­is­tic project from the West, all traces of which must be erad­i­cat­ed from non-indi­ge­neous  pop­u­la­tions, or even in the inter­nal oppo­si­tions that might raise obsta­cles to the accom­plish­ment of this vision. As Hamit Bozarslan explains so well4, Erdoğan has self-pro­claimed him­self as the enforcer of this qua­si-mes­sian­ic project, this millenia’s prov­i­den­tial figure.

Some lands, the Balka­ns in par­tic­u­lar, hold a greater sen­ti­men­tal appeal for him, those where Mus­lims are still des­ig­nat­ed as « Turks » to this day. Nat­u­ral­ly, these are « broth­ers » in Alba­nia, in Koso­vo and par­tic­u­lar­ly in Bosnia since the war (1992–1995). Erdo­gan has tak­en on the cause of defend­ing threat­ened Mus­lims as his own — a most expe­di­ent move —  offer­ing to serve as the weapon-wield­ing arm of Islam: the appar­ent kin­ship with the Bosni­ac war leader Ali­ja Izetbe­gov­ic has been reit­er­at­ed in numer­ous films and series ded­i­cat­ed to him 5. Erdoğan also nur­tures his rela­tions with the Ortho­dox coun­tries in the region, such as Bul­gar­ia and Ser­bia, propos­ing this new  Neo-Ottoman empire as a valid alter­na­tive to the Euro­pean Union. Apply­ing no dis­crim­i­na­tion what­so­ev­er, he is ready to sell drones to every­one. Since Alba­nia is on the list of cus­tomers, one can­not exclude the pos­si­bil­i­ty that some day, Tirana and Bel­grade will be mutu­al­ly exchang­ing the same drones…In the mean­time, the Serb Pres­i­dent Alek­san­dar Vučić has threat­ened to use drones in order to recon­quer Koso­vo, com­par­ing the right­ful­ness of his ambi­tion to that of Nagorno-Karabakh — a sum­mit of sophistry, when one remem­bers that Ser­bia is proud­ly Chris­t­ian and Koso­vo  con­stant­ly more demo­nized for being Mus­lim! One isn’t sur­prised to learn that Pristi­na replied they were also plan­ning to acquire drones…One has rea­son to fear a true destabilisation.

If the Balka­ns fea­ture as the reis’ favorites, this is not the case for Machrek, the Maghreb and Ara­bic penin­su­la who were also sub­jecte of the also sub­ject­ed to the Sub­lime Porte. Con­trary to the Balka­ns and Cen­tral Asia, the col­lapse of the Ottoman Empire there was fol­lowed by the cre­ation of republics mod­elled on the Kemal­ist exam­ple, includ­ing in Egypt, Syr­ia, Irak, Alge­ria and Tunisia. Sau­di Ara­bia fol­lowed anoth­er path that puts it in direct com­pe­ti­tion with Turkey in zones of region­al and spritu­al influ­ence : both see them­selves as the sole rep­re­sen­ta­tive of an Islam both con­ser­v­a­tive and res­olute­ly mod­ern, sup­port­ed by a Neo-lib­er­al econ­o­my and the use of lead­ing edge dig­i­tal tech­nolo­gies. Be they occa­sion­al allies or cus­tomers, the  Arabs can­not be con­sid­ered as “broth­ers”. How­ev­er, we note that the Emi­rates as well as Sau­di Ara­bia and Qatar, despite their rival­ry or even their ene­my posi­tions in Yemen, are all prepar­ing to buy drones from Turkey. Will we also wit­ness a con­fronta­tion between iden­ti­cal drones here  on these for­mer­ly Ottoman lands?

Of course, this new form of impe­ri­al­ism con­tributes to the cre­ation of hege­mon­ic blocks in the mean­ing ascribed to them by Gram­sci. Obvi­ous­ly, one could retort that the Mar­shall Plan was also an impo­si­tion of the Amer­i­can way of life in a sim­i­lar man­ner in Europe, with NATO serv­ing as the mil­i­tary pres­ence safe­guard­ing against the Com­mu­nist ene­my. But here, we are see­ing an attempt to resus­ci­tate and re-invig­o­rate an ancient dom­i­na­tion under con­tem­po­rary terms, the whole exer­cise being steeped in a rig­orist reli­gious ide­ol­o­gy, even when it involves a coun­try that is not of Mus­lim affil­i­a­tion in any way.

As per­tains to women, for exam­ple, the ortho­dox pat­tern in Ukraine does not have much to envy Erdoğan’s Islamist vision. The same ret­i­cence con­cern­ing the Istan­bul Con­ven­tion was observed (Con­ven­tion crim­i­nal­is­ing vio­lence against women) from which Erdoğan had pulled out his coun­try in 2021. Which nei­ther Ukraine, nor Rus­sia nor Azer­bai­jan have joined, evok­ing cus­tom and reli­gion as suf­fi­cient safe­guards. Need­less to say that vio­lence against women keeps increas­ing in these coun­tries. We should also note that none of the coun­tries buy­ing the Bayrak­tars have illus­trat­ed them­selves in the defense of human rights, which fore­shad­ows the use of drones against their own pop­u­la­tions, as Turkey has done against the Kurds. In Novem­ber 2021, Moroc­co used its brand new Bayrak­tar against a con­voy of Sahrawi vehi­cles, killing thir­teen civil­ians accord­ing to the Polis­ario. Sim­i­lar­ly, last Jan­u­ary, with the bomb­ing of a refugee camp in Tigray by the Ethiopi­an gov­ern­ment, a recent client of Baykar Makina.

When Turlkey uses its drones directly against its own people

It is extreme­ly odd how the world has shown lit­tle inter­est in drones when Turkey has used them, in par­tic­u­lar against its own Kur­dish cit­i­zens (20% of the pop­u­la­tion) on Turk­ish ter­ri­to­ry, in the name of a fren­zied fight against the PKK ‚ongo­ing since 1984 and inten­si­fied in 2016 with the whole­sale destruc­tion of entire towns such as Cizre, Kızıl­te­pe, Şır­nak and Sur. Plau­si­bly, the entire region served as a test­ing ground for the new drones being devel­oped by the Baykar fac­to­ry. The bomb­ings also tar­get­ed ancient and his­tor­i­cal neigh­bor­hoods, indi­cat­ing the will not only to com­mit urbi­cide but also to erase all traces of an ancient and non-indi­ge­neous cul­ture, as was the case for Arme­nia and Art­sakh, con­duct­ed by its Azer­bad­jan vas­sal. The vision of Neo-Ottoman hege­mo­ny and Pan­Turk­ism does not leave room for plu­ral­i­ty, as also shown by the ambigu­ous atti­tude toward Jews, an atti­tude often described as antisemitic.

With­out open­ly call­ing out for geno­cide as such, Erdoğan demands sub­mis­sion to the point of efface­ment, the most severe ver­sion of the ancien sta­tus of dhim­mi6. This is because , for Erdoğan the obses­sion­al war against the Kurds is a holy war, a notion cov­ered by the term “War against ter­ror” launched by the Unit­ed States in 2001 and which now serves as jus­ti­fi­ca­tion for a qua­si-uni­ver­sal mul­ti­form repres­sion. Imbued with his role of Dis­penser of Jus­tice, he does not hes­i­tate in using for­eign air­space (Syr­i­an, Ira­ki, Azer­bad­jan) in order to lead an unde­clared Jihad against oppo­nents defined as mis­cre­ants by their very oppo­si­tion, which undoubt­ed­ly explains the aid pro­vid­ed to the Islam­ic State which whom, in fine, Erdoğan shares the world vision.

For the past five years or so, his fight has focused on the forces of the PYD, The Demo­c­ra­t­ic Union Par­ty of Roja­va, the Kur­dish can­ton in Syr­ia, whose troops were the only ones to fight on the ground against those of the Islam­ic State. True, sup­port for Roja­va as the sole demo­c­ra­t­ic and equal­i­tar­i­an move­ment in the Mid­dle East led in 2019–2020 to Cana­da, Ger­many and Great Britain end­ing the pro­vi­sion of required com­po­nents for the fab­ri­ca­tion of drones but the Baykar fac­to­ry quick­ly cov­ered these short­ages, to such an extent that Turkey hard­ly imports weapons from the Unit­ed States any­more. In August 2021, Turkey launched twen­ty drone attacks in a sin­gle week, specif­i­cal­ly tar­get­ing per­son­al­i­ties in the YPG (People’s Pro­tec­tion Units of Roja­va) with­out the Unit­ed State or Rus­sia budg­ing an inch. In full view of the threat­ened inva­sion of Ukraine by Rus­sia, attacks against the Kurds in Syr­ia and Irak con­tin­ue, ignored by every­one. In truth, the drones incar­nate Jupiter’s thun­der, dis­pens­ing a “just” pun­ish­ment on his ene­mies, decid­ed by the sole and sov­er­eign will of the reis for whom soci­ety is essen­tial­ly an organ­ic body at war, and there­fore total­ly pli­able.7

Erdo­gan once took plea­sure in quot­ing the words of a nation­al­ist poet: “My friends, know that for six cen­turies, we dom­i­nat­ed three con­ti­nents and sev­en seas. We shall dom­i­nate again… Minarets are our bay­on­nets, their domes are our hel­mets. Mosques are our caserns, believ­ers, our soldiers”

We might add: “And the Bayrak­tar are our pen­nants” espe­cial­ly since the term has the  pre­cise mean­ing of “flag bearer”.

Car­ol Mann

Carol Mann
Associate researcher at Paris 8, she is the author of “Femmes afghanes en guerre” at Editions le Croquant (2010) et of “De la burqa afghane à la hijabista mondialisée”, a brief sociology of the Afghani veil and its incarnation in the contemporary world, at Editions L’Harmattan (2017) as well as a number of articles about Afghanistan.

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Translation from French by Renée Lucie Bourges
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