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How Is Drone Power Broadening Turkey’s Regional Competition?

Alwaght- In the past few years, Turkey has taken long steps to develop military and civilian drone manufacturing capability, with Baykar Defense company being at the center of the industry. Since his assumption of power in 2002, Recep Tayyip Erdogan dreamed of transforming Turkey into a regional power. The country increased its military presence wherever in the region other actors have been absent, including Syria, Iraq, Libya, and recently Karabakh through cooperation with Azerbaijan.

At the same time, engaging in numerous regional wars led to an increase in Turkey’s field action to test domestically-developed weapons on the battlefield and to upgrade their capabilities. Now Turkey claims that due to the competitiveness of its drones with similar products of other countries, the demand for its military drones has increased significantly and Poland, Ukraine, Qatar and Tunisia, along with its ally Azerbaijan, are among the applicants.

The drones, in addition to their export revenues and helping Erdogan show to public the departure of the country from the reliance to the Western arms supplies, are used to influence the competition with a range of regional rivals.

But these sales have led to increased sensitivities of other actors and even tensions with rivals. Exports of combat drones to Ukraine have recently triggered tensions between Moscow and Ankara, both already rivals in Syria and Libya conflicts.

A last week attack of the Ukrainian army on Russian-backed Donbass separatists using Turkish-made Bayraktar TB2 revealed the fact that the Ukrainian armed forces now enjoy new potentials to preserve the balance of power.

Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov, who had expressed concern about the sale of Turkish drones to Ukraine a few months after Erdogan and his Ukrainian counterpart Volodymyr Zelensky met, said on Thursday: “New events in Donbass prove the veracity of our concerns. We have said before that we are worried about this. We have good and special relations with Turkey. But there is no doubt that the use of Turkish drones by the Ukrainian army will have negative consequences.”

Ukraine is not the only buyer. A fortnight ago, Erdogan toured Africa and inked with regional countries weapons deals including combat drones.

Prior to his trip to Angola, the Turkish leader told reporters that Turkey was on track to become Africa’s leading trading partner. This means that Turkey is on the path to greater involvement in other conflicts and crises in Africa in competition with other international and regional powers. Bayraktar TB2 sales to Morocco and Ethiopia was an important news in Erdogan’s Africa tour.

Morocco has reportedly purchased 13 TB-2 drones for delivery in April and an unspecified number of launch pads. According to local media reports, Rabat made the acquisitions as part of a $70 million contract with Baykar, Turkey’s leading drone maker headed by Erdogan’s son-in-law.

On October 14, Reuters reported that Ethiopia was also acquiring an unspecified number of Turkish drones, although neither Turkish nor Ethiopian officials had yet publicly confirmed the deal.

For Turkey, after concluding contracts with allies such as Ukraine, Qatar and Azerbaijan, the sale to African states is another point in the chain of successful drone exports. However, if the agreement is completed, Turkey will further engage in extensive regional rivalries in North and East Africa, given growing concerns about use of its drones in conflicts such as the Tigray war, which has actors such as Ethiopia, Morocco, and the UAE. So far, Ethiopia has relied on its air force to strike the rebels of Tigray region.

On the other hand, it should not be forgotten that Ethiopia also has a serious dispute over a dam on the Nile River with Egypt and Sudan, and the Egyptians with no doubt see Turkey’s sale of military weapons to Ethiopia as a step towards undermining their interests, something even slowing down the already sluggish Turkish-Egyptian de-escalation efforts.

It is unclear how the Turkish drone deal with Ethiopia could harm the efforts to restore relations with Egypt. After an Ethiopian delegation visited Ankara in the summer, Erdogan offered to mediate a dispute between the two over the construction of the Grand Ethiopian Renaissance Dam (GERD). This happened at a time when diplomatic movements were slowly moving towards the normalization of relations between the Turks and the Egyptians. 

Likewise, Morocco is believed to becoming a major drone powerhouse in North Africa with the Turkish assistance. Rabat still uses platforms supplied by the US, China, and Israel, but these surveillance platforms are thought to be unarmed. However, after a mysterious airstrike in the disputed Western Sahara region on April 8, speculation mounted that Morocco may have procured armed drones.

Morocco has been fighting for decade a separatist group called Polisario Front that seeks the independence of the Western Sahara from Rabat. After decades of calm, the rebel group announced in November 2020 that it would resume war on Moroccan security forces.

Although in its official stances Turkey seeks diplomatic solution for the conflict, it seems that it wants to sell drones as part its efforts to gain a degree of regional influence.

Just unlike in other parts of Africa where the Turkish interests revolve around trade and soft power, in North and East Africa Ankara is involved in a geopolitical rivalry in which hard military power is key.

Turkey is competing for influence against rivals such as the UAE, Russia and France, and has been looking for potential partners. Erdogan previously had good relations with the former Islamist governments of Egypt and Sudan, but both were toppled via coups arranged by Ankara’s rivals.

Since then, Erdogan used his military power in Libya, another competition ground, to save his allies in Tripoli and also to save a military base used by the Turkish forces in Somalia.

Although Ankara seeks to reduce competition with Egypt and its allies in the Persian Gulf, there are indications that the sale of drones by Turkey could prove troublesome for mending ties with Arab monarchies.

Concerning Morocco, Ankara has weaker relations with Rabat than with its rival neighbor Algiers. The two African states since their independence from the French colonization in 1960 have been in a dispute over Western Sahara and accusing each other of meddling in each other’s affairs.

With Algeria cutting its diplomatic ties with Morocco in late August, their tensions resurfaced. Immediately after the move, Algiers closed its airspace to the Moroccan planes and rejected extending a contract to supply gas to a pipeline constructed by Morocco to transfer gas to Europe.

For Turkey, Algeria, as the fourth-largest energy supplier and a diplomatic ally in Libya, is an important partner. While the state media in Turkey play down the influence of the drone sales to Morocco on the Turkish-Algerian relations, the vague Turkish stances on the Western Sahara begin to catch the attention in Algeria. With conflict between Rabat and Polisario Front is likely to intensify, any role of the Turkish-supplied drones in the encounters can cause problems for Ankara’s ties with Algiers.

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