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Can Turkey Afford its Military?

F-16 Fighter Jet
Image: Creative Commons.

When Turkey’s President Recep Tayyip Erdogan chose to play diplomatic hardball over Sweden and Finland’s NATO accession, he and his top aides knew many defense analysts, diplomats and think tankers would fall in line.

After all, the Erdogan regime has long had an inflated sense of Turkey’s importance. “Let’s be clear, we have been a member of the alliance for 70 years and have the second-largest army in the alliance,” Turkish Presidency Spokesman Fahrettin Altun remarked, explaining why Ankara was in the driver’s seat.

Turkey can be forgiven for such arrogance. After all, the United States, European Union, and NATO often enable it with lip service to Ankara’s importance and the size of its army. “Turkey has the second largest armed forces in NATO after the United States. And they’re a very strong second, I might add,” President Donald Trump, for example, remarked at a 2019 news conference with Erdoǧan. “Our partnership with Turkey – which has the second largest standing military in NATO – enables us to project power in the region and defend NATO’s eastern and southern flanks,” Undersecretary of State Victoria Nuland stated a year ago in testimony before the Senate Foreign Relations Committee. On March 11, 2022, even as Turkey obstructed resupply to Ukraine, NATO Secretary-General Jens Stoltenberg traveled to Turkey to praise Erdoǧan and the “importance of Turkey’s contributions to NATO.” Perhaps Stoltenberg thought he was being diplomatic, but for Erdoǧan, such supplication reinforces his self-perception as a new sultan.

While Turkey has more troops under arms than France and Germany combined, it is a mistake to translate this into indispensability or even influence. The size of the military is a direct result of conscription. Mandatory military service, however, does not often translate into power. Before Operation Desert Storm, the 1991 liberation of Kuwait, Iraq had the fifth largest army in the world, but still folded after a ground campaign of just 100 hours.

Mustafa Kemal Atatürk, the founder of modern Turkey, rose to fame as an Ottoman military officer, but his legacy was as much his attempt at Turkey’s social transformation. Here, conscription played a major role as it enabled the state to re-educate and indoctrinate every male in the country. Today, Erdogan uses the army in much the same way as he tries to impose a conservative, Islamist order on society.

Nuland can spout empty rhetoric about Turkey protecting NATO’s southern and eastern flanks, but the reality is Turkey endangers those flanks more than protects them. There would have been no Islamic State in Syria had it not been for Turkey. Turkey’s efforts to allow both Russia and Iran to evade sanctions encourages aggression. State Department bothsiderism aside, Turkey is the aggressor in the Eastern Mediterranean, not Cyprus or Greece.

But even if Ankara’s army’s power was proportional to its numbers, that too is changing.  Erdogan has bankrupted the country; the swaps and fraudulent accounting he uses to cover that reality will be increasingly apparent after September. Inflation is already triple digit and living standards plummet. A financial crash is on the horizon, but no bailout will be coming without austerity. Turkey’s debt-to-gross domestic product (GDP) ratio may only be 42 percent, a sharp increase from years past, but it is foolish to assume that Erdogan allows Turkey to provide accurate figures; Turkish debt is far higher than Ankara acknowledges.  International lenders privately acknowledge this. They will soon question whether a bankrupt state can spend upwards of $20 billion annually on a bloated military that does more to destabilize the region than protect Turkey.

Ankara fulfills the NATO demand that each member country spend two percent of its GDP on defense, but even if Ankara means to maintain that commitment, a shrinking GDP will lower what Turkey can reasonably spend by perhaps 50 percent or more.

This will not harm Turkey. Happily, Turkey no longer needs to maintain such a large force. No longer does Turkey need a large army for domestic security. Erdogan may seek to fan nationalist flames to distract the public from his failings, but the reality is that the Kurdistan Workers Party (PKK) insurgency is over. The PKK abandoned separatism more than a decade ago. Today, the Kurdish issue in Turkey is political rather than military. Its solution requires not an army, but an end to repression and recognition of equality of all citizens, cultures, and religions under the law. Likewise, Turkey faces no threat from Cyprus or Greece. Indeed, Turkey could likely save billions of dollars more if it stopped subsidizing its occupations in Cyprus, Syria, and Iraq. While Turkey claims it faces a terror threat from portions of Syria governed by Kurds, terrorism and violence is one-way, from Turkey into Syria.

Simply put, as Turkey’s economy implodes, Ankara can no longer afford conscription. While Turkey and its lobbyists may seek to demand diplomatic influence proportional to the size of Turkey’s army, diplomats who accept such arguments are enabling Turkish delusions. It is time for NATO to accept that, with Turkey’s GDP less than Italy and Spain’s, the idea that it can maintain an army respectively twice and four times as large is irresponsible. Ankara’s bloated military is no longer sustainable.

Expert Biography – Now a 1945 Contributing Editor, Dr. Michael Rubin is a Senior Fellow at the American Enterprise Institute (AEI). Dr. Rubin is the author, coauthor, and coeditor of several books exploring diplomacy, Iranian history, Arab culture, Kurdish studies, and Shi’ite politics, including “Seven Pillars: What Really Causes Instability in the Middle East?” (AEI Press, 2019); “Kurdistan Rising” (AEI Press, 2016); “Dancing with the Devil: The Perils of Engaging Rogue Regimes” (Encounter Books, 2014); and “Eternal Iran: Continuity and Chaos” (Palgrave, 2005). You can follow him on Twitter: @mrubin1971.

Written By

Now a 1945 Contributing Editor, Dr. Michael Rubin is a Senior Fellow at the American Enterprise Institute (AEI). Dr. Rubin is the author, coauthor, and coeditor of several books exploring diplomacy, Iranian history, Arab culture, Kurdish studies, and Shi’ite politics, including “Seven Pillars: What Really Causes Instability in the Middle East?” (AEI Press, 2019); “Kurdistan Rising” (AEI Press, 2016); “Dancing with the Devil: The Perils of Engaging Rogue Regimes” (Encounter Books, 2014); and “Eternal Iran: Continuity and Chaos” (Palgrave, 2005).

9 Comments

9 Comments

  1. pagar

    July 21, 2022 at 7:12 pm

    Turkey or turkiye is the most dangerous threat to peace in the middle east (and the mediterranean).

    Hiding under and fully protected by the coattails of NATO, turkiye has hatched massive havoc in syria via its active support for select jihadist groups and has attacked iraq with impunity.

    Can ankara support its rampaging military. Yes, it can via exports of terror operations and military equipment and support from NATO.

    The hts group supported by ankara even has its own ‘central bank’ to take care ofmoney in parts of syria that it currently controls.

    Turkiye has or holds europe amd biden by the balls. It has ability to direct streams of migrants to western euripe anf its massive military has put fear in countries like greece.

    After biden in october 2014 said turkey was in cahoots with ISIS, he had to apologize immediately afterward, as he was suddenly reminded that america’s CIA (and DoD) agents operate near the syria border and kurdish region freely only with ankara’s green light.

  2. Ευτυχία

    July 22, 2022 at 8:03 am

    How very strange to read voices outside of Greece or Cyprus say the same things we have been screaming at Europe and the US for the past 50 years…
    And there are STILL too many unconvinced.
    Amazing.

  3. JD

    July 22, 2022 at 8:57 am

    Not accepting what Turkiye is today and what it will be tomorrow is hiding one’s head in the sand.

    Like or dislike but Turkiye is doing what’s good for Turkiye.

  4. Mike

    July 22, 2022 at 9:25 am

    Weird that Rubin who is well known anti-Turkey advocate and a neocon is allowed to be published here. A lot of points made in the article is biased and untrue.

    Also, Rubin’s position is directly correlated to his staunch support for Israel.

    So go figure it out.

    • Realist

      July 22, 2022 at 10:59 am

      A Neocon Zionist is complaining about Turkey. It is nothing new. They cannot dictate to Turkey anymore.
      Turkey must be doing something good for itself for Rubin to complain so much.

  5. Ömer

    July 23, 2022 at 3:08 pm

    Turkey’s economy isn’t imploding – not by a long margin.. it’s reorienting to be an export economy, and doing so at an unstable time.
    Exports are at 250 billion dollars annually and growing monthly. A year ago it was at 200 billion. Next year is is predicted to be closer to 300 billion dollars.
    Also, Turkey’s aren’t isn’t strong due to “head count” (conscription). It’s got the second largest number of professional soldiers IN NATO as well. And it’s got it’s own arms industry.
    Rubin knows all this. I’m just making sure other do too.

  6. Anonymous

    July 30, 2022 at 4:29 am

    Michael Rubin puts out article after article bashing Turkey across dozens of websites. Just search his name on Google News. This is his day job. Nobody takes him seriously except for his own choir.

    Rubin is affiliated with the AEI which propped up the ‘WMDs in Iraq’ hoax which cost countless lives and is what actually destabilized the region and gave China a greenlight to become a superpower and a free-pass to do whatever it wanted.

    Rubin is also affiliated with the Greek and Armenian lobbies. So take what he says with a grain of salt.

  7. European

    August 16, 2022 at 9:22 am

    Biased Article with no grounds of truth.
    The article writer/author is racist and hates Turkish people.

  8. Mehmet tolga

    August 20, 2022 at 1:39 pm

    Ohh what a catastrophe, leaders doing what is best for their countries interests instead of kissing white house backside is a fairytale.

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