Turkey’s armed forces have significantly expanded their overseas and expeditionary warfighting capabilities since 2011, marking a profound shift in mission set and mindset after decades focused on internal security. Turkey’s new global military footprint and power projection capabilities are a double-edged sword for Washington. On the one hand, it benefits the United States and NATO to have an ally capable of deterring aggression, building security institutions, and combating terrorism in countries like Libya, Syria, Ukraine, and Somalia. Yet, it is disruptive when Ankara’s newly assertive foreign policy steps on toes in Greece, Armenia, or the Gulf.
Turkey’s military long suffered from outdated equipment, inadequate resources, and a leadership cadre that was simultaneously focused on domestic politics and ideologically divided. The twentieth-century Turkish military functioned as a praetorian institution, superior rather than subordinate to civilian political authorities. The failed factional coup of 2016 and subsequent reforms decreased the military’s independence from civilian control; professionalized large portions of the force; and refocused the institution on external threats, challenges, and opportunities.
The pre-2016 Turkish military did carry out limited extraterritorial operations, notably in Cyprus and northern Iraq, and contributed to multilateral missions in the Balkans and Afghanistan. But none of these compared with the projections of power demonstrated since 2016, including simultaneous, sustained, often decisive Turkish combat operations and engagement in multiple theaters.
Through a combination of domestically produced military hardware and overseas basing and access, the Turkish armed forces (Turkish abbreviation TSK) has developed interregional operational capabilities. TSK’s global footprint now includes five types of operational presence: NATO missions, non-NATO key partnerships, development projects, multilateral peacekeeping missions, and sustained unilateral operations. Such a footprint is surpassed by only a handful of militaries in the world.
Operational presence within NATO
TSK contributes to several ongoing NATO operations. Turkish Land Forces provide a corps-level headquarters and mechanized brigade for NATO’s Very High Readiness Joint Task Force on a rotational basis, with the last rotation in 2021. Turkey hosts NATO Land Command, provides key elements of NATO Mine Countermeasures Group 2, and hosts NATO aerial refueling and air defense radars on national territory. The Turks have been NATO’s fifth-most-active operational contributor and eighth-highest budget contributor.
Non-NATO key partners
Ankara has developed military partnerships with another tier of key partners, including Azerbaijan, Pakistan, Ukraine, Qatar, and the Kurdistan Region of Iraq (KRI). The most striking example is Azerbaijan, where TSK has engaged in “three decades of meticulous army building.”
TSK in 2016 opened its first permanent Middle East base in Qatar, with several thousand ground, air, and naval personnel operating under a Qatar-Turkey Combined Joint Force Command. As with Azerbaijan, the relationship was not restricted to equipment sales, but included training, personnel exchanges, technical advice, and institution-building as part of an “all-inclusive package.” A partnership with Pakistan has focused more on the defense industry, but the two militaries have committed to increasing joint training and counterterror efforts, and have held exercises in Pakistan and Azerbaijan—including the exclave of Nakhchivan—over the past eighteen months.
Another partnership with the Pesh Merga forces of the KRI is opaque but wide-ranging. The Turkish Zelkan base near Bashiqa in Iraq’s Nineveh Province has been used for joint training, but Erbil’s sensitivity to local sympathies toward the Kurdistan Workers’ Party (Kurdish abbreviation PKK) dictate a low profile based more on coordination and deconfliction than integration.
Ukraine is also a unique case, in that Ankara has provided Kyiv important materiel assistance while maintaining economic ties with Moscow. Defense cooperation with Ukraine—reportedly including discrete joint military training—long predates Russian President Vladimir Putin’s invasion, and is likely to grow even deeper in the coming years. Other countries that have purchased Turkish defense equipment but seem intent on broadening the relationship include Bangladesh, Malaysia, and Indonesia. TSK employs several annual multilateral exercises to deepen interoperability with a variety of partners. These include the Anatolian Eagle air exercise (2022 participants included Pakistan, Azerbaijan, Jordan, the United Kingdom, and NATO) and the combined arms EFES exercise (over ten thousand personnel from thirty-seven allied countries in 2022).
Developmental partners and multilateral missions
A novel part of TSK’s growing operational reach has been training missions in conflict-torn developing countries, especially in Africa. The Turkish Task Force Command in Somalia (Turkish abbreviation STGK) has overseen training at Camp TURKSOM in Somalia and at bases in Turkey since 2011. The TSK Libya Mission Group (Turkish abbreviation LGG) has trained a variety of Libyan forces, with key bases in Tripoli, Misrata, and Wattiya, and has sought to develop foundational security institutions for Libya. TSK and Ethiopian forces train jointly, supplementing Ankara’s reported approval of the sales of drones to the Abiy Ahmed government. Niger and Togo have established military cooperative programs after purchasing Turkish drones, and several more (Tunisia, Morocco, and Angola) have formally expressed interest in doing so.
Closer to home, Turkish military and security forces have engaged in a major developmental project with armed opposition groups in Syria, centralizing and restructuring fractious elements into a Syrian National Army. TSK has also worked to improve the defense capabilities of Georgian forces, including through training, advising, staff exchanges, and donations of Turkish-produced military equipment. While the two-decade Turkish effort to help train and advise Afghan security forces ended with the Taliban victory in 2021, the experience helped refine the TSK approach and resources for partner development.
Turkish forces also participate in a number of multilateral peacekeeping operations, including in Kosovo, Bosnia-Herzegovina, and Lebanon.
Sustained unilateral deployments
Direct unilateral Turkish military operations constitute the fifth and final element of TSK’s global footprint. These include combat operations in northern Iraq and northern Syria, as well as deployments in northern Cyprus and the eastern Mediterranean.
TSK operations in northern Iraq and northern Syria aim to disrupt armed activities of the PKK and its affiliates near the Turkish border and protect groups friendly to Ankara. TSK has established nearly two dozen bases and outposts in northern Iraq with an estimated five thousand to ten thousand troops, supported by air and artillery assets based in Turkey. It has conducted a series of operations in northern Syria to carve out an aspirational “safe zone” for some five million Syrian civilians. Thousands of Turkish troops work alongside the Free Syrian Army with plans to add several more areas. (Manbij and Tel Rifaat).
TSK also maintains tens of thousands of troops in northern Cyprus, including ground, naval, and air elements. Increasingly assertive Turkish naval patrols and exercises in the Mediterranean, Aegean, and Black Seas under the Mavi Vatan (Blue Homeland) doctrine have raised tensions with regional rivals, and represent an additional expansion of TSK’s regional footprint.
The significant increase in Turkey’s global military footprint over the past decade has matched maturing defense industrial capabilities with the robust set of external bases, partnerships, and operations outlined above. Ankara achieved independent power projection capabilities despite predictions that the post-July 15 TSK would be less professional and less capable. This affects security balances in several adjacent regions, including the broader Middle East, the Caucasus, southern and eastern Europe, Central Asia, and Africa. In an era when Washington eschews primary responsibility for security in these regions, a capable and engaged Turkey comports with Western interests—as long as it remains tethered in functioning alliance relations with NATO and other US partners.
Washington can either try to stabilize these regions through a network of actors that excludes and marginalizes Turkey, or through one that integrates an increasingly capable Turkey at the cost of a constant need for deconfliction and intra-alliance compromise. In a world of great-power competition that features fundamentally anti-American actors such as China, Russia, and Iran, the hard work of managing a frustrating partner with partial interest overlap remains the better option.
Rich Outzen is a geopolitical consultant and nonresident senior fellow at the Atlantic Council IN TURKEY with thirty-two years of government service both in uniform and as a civilian. Follow him on Twitter @RichOutzen.