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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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