As the US Biden administration settles into office, most of the discourse about bad Middle Eastern actors is rightly focused on Iran. But under the cover of the mayhem that has engulfed the region since the so-called Arab Spring, another problematic actor has emerged that requires containment. This is President Recep Tayyip Erdogan’s Turkey, which poses a challenge to its neighbors that is compounded by the privileges and protections it enjoys as a member of NATO.
It is no secret that Erdogan’s rule has grown increasingly authoritarian over the past decade, and especially since the failed 2016 coup, which underscored the antipathy between the secular-rooted military and the Islamist-based regime. To circumvent that problem, Erdogan has quietly established a network of private militias manned entirely by fighters imported from Syria in a remarkably brazen and cynical move. Their role is to advance his grand plan of re-establishing influence over a region roughly overlapping the former Ottoman Empire — from the Palestinian territories to Syria and the Caucasus to as far away as Kashmir, according to some reports.
This structure is used both for internal repression and for off-the-grid adventures abroad by the Turkish government. As such, it has implications both for Middle East stability and for the future of Turkey’s struggling democracy. In both areas, its impact is strongly negative.
Over the last five years, Turkey has launched armed interventions into northern Syria and northern Iraq, offered support to the Hamas terror group among the Palestinians, tussled with its Greek and Cypriot neighbors in the eastern Mediterranean, and supplied military support to allies in Qatar, Azerbaijan and Libya, often at the cost of instability and disruption.
In all these arenas (with the exception of the naval contest in the eastern Mediterranean), the parallel structure created by Erdogan has played a vital role alongside the official state security forces. Its central function has been to provide the Turkish president with a large pool of available, organized, trained, easily deployed and easily disposable proxy foreign manpower as a tool of power projection, which can be used with a degree of plausible deniability.
By relying on these proxies, Erdogan seeks to minimize domestic public criticism of his extraterritorial military campaigns. While he could justify the mobilization of Turkish Armed Forces personnel to neighboring countries like Syria and Iraq — for homeland security reasons — it is more challenging for him to persuade the Turkish public to dispatch soldiers to a distant theater like Libya.
By taking such bold moves, Erdogan provides a clear message to his constituency: Turkey, the successor state of the Ottoman Empire, is resuming its rightful place as a regional power with influence in the empire’s traditional hinterland, and this is the reason why rivals are seeking to destabilize it. Such a neo-Ottoman foreign policy, which is intertwined with Islamist impulses, is also driven by domestic concerns.
Erdogan’s partnership with the Nationalist Movement Party (MHP) naturally pushes him toward a harsher stance on the Kurdish PYD (the Democratic Union Party in Syria) and the PKK (the Kurdistan Workers’ Party in Turkey). Similarly, this nationalist-rooted political alliance explains Turkey’s unconditional support for the Azeris (a Turkic ethnic group) against Armenia.
This structure is used both for internal repression and for off-the-grid adventures abroad by the Turkish government.
Dr. Hay Eytan Cohen Yanarocak and Dr. Jonathan Spyer
So what are the components of this structure? At its core is the relationship between Erdogan and a group of senior Turkish military officers cashiered from the service for their support for Islamist politics, but subsequently brought back to activity through informal channels. The 76-year-old retired Brig. Gen. Adnan Tanriverdi, who was appointed national security adviser to Erdogan after the coup attempt of 2016, is a pivotal figure in this relationship.
Tanriverdi, an artillery officer by background, founded the SADAT private military consulting company in 2012 with 22 other former officers expelled from the army for Islamist activity. SADAT, the only privately owned defense consulting firm in Turkey, is the body centrally responsible for the Turkish state’s widening practice of irregular and proxy warfare, and its mobilizing of Islamist militants to serve Turkish state interests.
The pool of manpower that Turkey is exploiting is drawn entirely from one of the most desperate populations of all: Syrian refugees, who have been forced out of their country or are resident in the small and beleaguered Turkish-controlled corner of northern Syria. They are flown out to the various war fronts in which Ankara requires their engagement. They are then deployed as useful, disposable and deniable cannon fodder.
The Turkish government also maintains relations with older paramilitary formations such as the ultra-nationalist Grey Wolves organization. This body is the youth wing of the MHP. It was recently banned in France and plans are underway to ban it in Germany too.
This activity is especially nefarious when considered against the background of the unrest that has swept through the Middle East over the last decade. One of its key results has been the severe weakening (and in some cases the near-disappearance) of formal state structures. In Syria, Libya, Lebanon and Iraq, these have been replaced by a chaotic reality of militias, lawlessness, and anarchy.
The people of these countries have been the main victims. Turkey, despite being a NATO member state, a candidate for EU membership and an ostensible ally of the US, is currently one of the main factors maintaining and destabilizing this situation.
This needs to end. Militias, terror groups and Islamist extremism are all elements that the Middle East must outgrow if it is to achieve stability and reconstruction. The paramilitary network established by Erdogan, in partnership with the Islamist military officers of SADAT and extremists from northern Syria, is one of the main factors preventing this possibility. The banning of the ultra-nationalist, violent, far-right Grey Wolves in France is a good start. But Western governments need to raise this matter in a more decisive manner with Ankara. Erdogan’s proxies must be contained.
• Dr. Hay Eytan Cohen Yanarocak is an expert on contemporary Turkish politics and foreign policy, Turkish-Israeli relations, and the Kurds.
• Dr. Jonathan Spyer has traveled extensively in Syria, Iraq and the Kurdish areas and his books include “Days of the Fall: A Reporter’s Journey in the Syria and Iraq Wars” (Routledge, December 2017).