In an increasingly volatile neighbourhood, Türkiye seeks regional solutions and invests in defence resilience

10 November 2023

Türkiye finds itself in a volatile neighbourhood at the crossroads of continents and civilisations. After Russia’s brutal and illegal invasion of Ukraine on 24 February 2022, Türkiye’s strategic security environment has degraded further and significantly. And, over the last few months, the neighbourhood saw a military operation by Azerbaijan, renewed tensions in Kosovo and, most dramatically, Hamas’s heinous terrorist attacks on Israel on 7 October, which has raised concerns of regional conflagration. 

Türkiye also continues to contend with persistent and acute terrorism challenges. It is the NATO Ally the most impacted by the scourge of terrorism, the Alliance’s most persistent direct asymmetrical challenge. The most recent attack on the Turkish Ministry of the Interior came only hours before the opening of Parliament on 1 October.

To better understand Türkiye’s foreign and defence policies to mitigate these challenges, a joint delegation from the NATO Parliamentary Assembly’s (NATO PA) Defence and Security Committee and Mediterranean and Middle East Special Group (GSM) visited Ankara and Istanbul from 30 October to 2 November. The delegation was led by the Vice-Chair of the Sub-Committee on Transatlantic Defence and Security Cooperation (DSCTC) Fernando Gutierrez (Spain), who was also elected Chair of the GSM during the visit, and GSM Vice-Chair Jean-Marie Fiévet (France). Thirty-one members from ten NATO Allies and NATO Invitee Sweden joined this visit. 

A Challenging Neighbourhood: Defence and Foreign Policy Priorities 

Türkiye maintains a very strong military position in the Alliance. In fact, Turkish forces have played an integral role in NATO’s deterrence and defence posture for over 70 years, serving as a bulwark of NATO’s southern and eastern flanks. Türkiye maintains the second largest military in NATO and is in the top four contributing nations to Allied missions, operations as well as forward defence and reinforcement efforts. Currently, Türkiye leads NATO’s peacekeeping force in Kosovo (KFOR) and NATO’s Response Force Maritime Component. The country also hosts significant NATO infrastructure such as Allied Land Command.

Turkish officials are quick to note the consistency of their strong military posture is a direct result of the complexity of the security arenas surrounding Türkiye. As Deputy Minister of Foreign Affairs Burak Akçapar told the delegation: “Türkiye is the only Ally not to experience the post-Cold War ‘Peace Dividend’. During the Cold War, Türkiye maintained 22 divisions at high readiness; but immediately after the Cold War, the Balkans, the Caucasus and the Middle East erupted in conflict, so Türkiye has been forced to maintain significant, ready military capabilities.” 

Turkish officials stressed the imperative of a proactive foreign policy, backed up by significant investment in the capabilities necessary to deliver a 360-degree approach to defence and security. In fact, Turkish foreign policy has maintained a consistent underlying approach over its 100-year existence, the delegation heard: Peaceful and good relations with neighbours is a necessary complement to peace at home.

Black Sea Security and ‘Active Neutrality’ 

Since Russia’s renewed invasion of Ukraine 21 months ago, Türkiye has worked diligently to leverage its distinct regional position and long-standing ties to Russia and Ukraine to find ways to limit the scope and the impact of the war. Ankara’s invocation of its legal powers under the Montreux Convention sought to keep the balance of power in the Black Sea in check.

The most significant achievement of Türkiye’s efforts was the negotiation of the Black Sea Grain Initiative on 22 July 2022 to alleviate the global food crisis due to Russia’s blockade of Ukraine’s Black Sea ports. Until Russia’s July 2023 withdrawal, Ukraine managed to export 38.2 million tons of grain, fertilizer and other foodstuffs through a safe maritime corridor. Since Russia’s withdrawal, Türkiye has actively worked to find ways to revive it and mitigate the fallout of its collapse.

As Russia’s war against Ukraine is increasingly threatening the security of Black Sea littoral states and the vital sea lanes of communication (SLOCs), Turkish officials voiced strong support for the attention paid to Black Sea challenges at the NATO’s Vilnius Summit, particularly its call for Black Sea Allies to take the lead in finding solutions. One such step, Turkish officials noted, is a soon-to-be launched Black Sea Mine Countermeasures Task Group coordinated and resourced by Türkiye, Romania and Bulgaria to protect Black Sea SLOCs from the significant number of untethered Russian mines. 

In parallel to these efforts, Turkish officials noted their nation’s robust support for Ukraine’s fight for freedom since the beginning of the war. Türkiye has called for the restoration of all occupied territory to Ukraine (including Crimea) and expressed strong support for Ukraine’s future NATO membership. Early in the war, Türkiye also provided battlefield-critical military support, most notably a significant number of Baykar Bayraktar TB2 unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs), which had a significant role in turning the tide of the war in its early weeks. In October 2022, Haluk Bayraktar, the company’s CEO, announced plans to develop a manufacturing plant in Ukraine within the next two years. 

Counterterrorism: Constant Vigilance

Turkish officials noted the significant and enduring terrorism challenge facing the nation. As Yaşar Güler, Minister of National Defence stated clearly: “The fight against terrorism remains an essential focus for Türkiye, just as it is essential to NATO’s collective defence efforts.” Allies indeed continue to make it clear that terrorism remains the most direct asymmetrical threat facing NATO. 

Türkiye’s long history of enduring the scourge of terrorism was significantly amplified by the descent of Syria into civil war in 2011 and the subsequent rise of Daesh. Türkiye has since become a leading Ally in the coalition efforts to eradicate the group and deny its ability to find new safe havens in the Middle East and North Africa. 

Minister Güler noted the regional fallout from Daesh’s rise and fall remained a key focus of Turkish counterterrorism efforts, as the weak state authorities in Syria and Iraq allow armed groups to take advantage of power vacuums. The Minister briefed the delegation on the four separate military operations by Turkish forces in Syria to block attempts by a range of armed groups to establish what he termed a ‘terror corridor’. In parallel, he noted, Turkish forces have also been at the forefront of regional humanitarian assistance efforts to help Syrians rebuild. 

Both Minister Güler and Deputy Minister Akçapar made it clear that the PKK (the Kurdistan Workers’ Party), a group declared a terrorist organisation by Türkiye, the EU, UK, US and Canada, as well as its wide range of affiliates, also continues to exploit state weakness in northern Syria and Iraq for organisational space and use as a launching pad for terrorist operations inside of Türkiye. 

Both advocated for Allies to continue to work with Türkiye to assist weak states in NATO’s near neighbourhood and beyond to build the strong institutions and the resilience necessary to eradicate the terrorism threat pushing up against NATO’s southern flank.

Türkiye’s Defence Industry on the Rise

Underpinning Turkish defence policy in recent decades has been a significant amount of investment in domestic defence industrial production. Türkiye has moved from importing most of its defence equipment, particularly high-end platforms and systems, to being capable of producing up to approximately 80% of its domestic needs. Today, Türkiye counts 27 defence industrial producers, four major shipyards and a large ammunition producer, supported by a growing number of small to medium-sized producers. 

Türkiye’s focused investment in its defence industrial base has allowed for not only domestic supply but also to export to a growing number of foreign buyers, principally in Asia and Africa. Market demand for Turkish defence exports has expanded significantly in recent years. Overseas defence exports increased by 42% between 2020 and 2021, driven in particular by land and UAV systems. 

The delegation was able to see first-hand the variety of the Turkish defence industries’ advanced maritime, land, air and unmanned systems on visits to Baykar Defense, Turkish Aerospace Industries (TAI), HAVELSAN and the Istanbul Naval Shipyard. 

Turkish defence capabilities are having a significant impact in international security, in particular Baykar drones used in combat, intelligence, surveillance and target acquisition as well as counterterrorism. Baykar CEO Haluk Bayraktar noted the company’s strong support for Ukraine’s fight for freedom. The firm has donated a number of Bayraktar TB2 UAVs as well as radar surveillance systems. 

Beyond Ukraine and UAVs, the Turkish defence industry has a growing global footprint across multiple domains including space and cyber. Among Allies, HAVELSAN's land-air-sea command control information systems software was recently used in the NATO Coalition Warrior Interoperability Exercise, and the company is seeking future opportunities to collaborate with Allies bilateral as well as with NATO through initiatives like Defence Innovation for the North Atlantic, President and CEO of TAI Temel Kotil told the delegation. 

The Evolving Energy Security Environment

Energy security and mitigating the impact of climate change feature prominently in Türkiye’s strategic outlook. As Deputy Minister of Energy and Natural Resources, Ahmet Berat Çonkar noted, Türkiye is not spared the effects of the most pressing climate change-related issues of droughts and water shortages, severe weather and rising sea levels. As Minister Çonkar told the delegation, Türkiye continues to adhere to the goals of the 2015 Paris Agreement and understands the energy sector must shoulder the most significant changes. 

Decarbonisation, Çonkar noted, remains Türkiye’s biggest challenge, but it maintains an ambition of reaching net-zero emissions by 2053 with peak emissions by 2038. Much of the transition to net-zero will rely on the expansion of renewable energy generation, but also by supply diversification with nuclear energy and natural gas.

Türkiye’s focus is not just internal: it is actively engaged in regional energy security and supports the role of NATO in coordinating a unified Allied approach. Türkiye constitutes the fourth largest natural gas producer in Europe and sits at the crossroads between Europe and key energy suppliers in the Black Sea, the Caucasus and the Middle East. Türkiye secures key energy supply routes. Meanwhile, it is increasing its own energy production, notably at the Sakarya gas field in the Black Sea where operations began this year. 

Energy expert Professor Oktay Tanrisever told parliamentarians that Allies must cooperate on renewable energy and share renewable technology to make the Alliance more resilient – particularly as Russian seeks to weaponise energy against the Alliance – and that NATO should be proactive in preventing regional unrest from undermining Allied energy security. 

Perspectives on the Middle East & Adoption of the GSM Report

During delegation visits to the Ministry of Foreign Affairs and Ministry of National Defence, Turkish officials said that Türkiye fears growing instability because of the ongoing war between Israel and Hamas. Deputy Minister Akçapar condemned the October 7 attack by Hamas against Israel and the subsequent escalation of violence. Akçapar stressed that regional peace will depend on Israel addressing the deeper roots of the conflict and that the international community should push parties toward a ceasefire allowing humanitarian access to Gaza. 

At the Grand National Assembly of Türkiye, members of the GSM also discussed and adopted a report titled Shifting Geopolitics in Iran and the Gulf by NATO PA Vice-President and GSM Rapporteur Theo Francken (Belgium). In his address, Francken condemned Hamas’ attack on Israel and emphasised the strategic importance of the Gulf, warning parliamentarians about the dangers of Iran’s evolving aggression and China’s expanding regional footprint. 

The delegation engaged, among other, with the following speakers:

Ministry of National Defence
•    Yaşar Güler, Minister of National Defence of Türkiye

Ministry of Foreign Affairs
•    Burak Akçapar, Deputy Minister of Foreign Affairs of Türkiye

Ministry of Energy and Natural Resources 
•    Ahmet Berat Çonkar, Deputy Minister of Energy and Natural Resources of Türkiye 

•    Şevket Ünal, Vice president of International Business 

Turkish Aerospace Industries (TAI)
•    Temel Kotil, President and CEO

Baykar Defense
•    Selçuk Bayraktar, Chairman and Chief Technology Officer
•    Haluk Bayraktar, Chief Executive Officer

The delegation also met with the following academics at Altinbas University:

•    Oktay Tanrisever, Professor, Middle East Technical University
•    Çağrı Erhan, Rector, Altinbas University
•    Mitat Çelikpala, Professor of International Relations and Dean of Faculty of Economics, Administrative and Social Sciences, Kadir Has University
•    Aylin Ünver Noi, Associate Professor, Haliç University
•    Özden Zeynep Oktav, Professor of Political Sciences and International Relations, Istanbul Medeniyet University

Photos of the visit 

© Grand National Assembly of Türkiye
© Ministry of Energy of Türkiye
© Turkish Aerospace Industries 
© Turkish Naval Forces
© Ministry of National Defence of Türkiye

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