[OPINION] Erdoğan’s drones escalate Ukraine crisis, Africa is next

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Türkmen Terzi

Turkey’s President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan, who has developed strong ties with Russian President Vladimir Putin in recent years, surprisingly criticized Moscow’s recognition of Ukraine’s rebel region, Donetsk and Luhansk, known collectively as Donbas, as “unacceptable” and said Russia’s invasion of Ukraine was a “heavy blow” to regional peace and stability.

Turkey’s Bayraktar TB2 drones, manufactured by Erdoğan’s son-in-law, Selçuk Bayraktar, were used against Russia in the Donbas region, leading to Putin openly condemning Turkey’s supply of drones to Ukraine.

As the entire world held its breath over the unfolding of Putin’s nuclear threat against NATO allies and his army’s movement onto Ukrainian soil, Erdoğan was in West and Central Africa convincing his good friend, President of Senegal Macky Sall, and Democratic Republic of Congo’s (DRC) leader Felix Tshisekedi to buy Bayraktar drones.

Turkey’s strong interest in armed drones began with its need to monitor the activities of the outlawed Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK) on its southeastern territory and in northern Iraq.

Ankara bought 10 Heron unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs) from Israel in 2008, but due to technical problems with the UAVs and Israel’s failure to provide technology transfer commitments, Turkish defense contractor Baykar, owned by the Bayraktar family, began developing its own drone technology.

Turkey has long since been using drones against the PKK, the armed group fighting the Turkish state, listed as a terrorist organization by Turkey, the US and the European Union, leading to Turkey’s long experience in drone technology and its use.

Turkey is now among the top drone manufacturers in the world along with the United States, Israel and China.

Turkey’s Bayraktar TB2 drones were a game changer in Syria, Iraq and Libya as well as in Azerbaijan’s war against Armenia in Nagorno-Karabakh. Most recently the Ethiopian army used Turkish drones to suppress separatist rebels in the Tigray region.

Erdoğan is in a desperate bid now to export Turkey’s defense technologies as Turkey’s economy continues to suffer major crises.

The Turkish lira has been crushed, and millions of Turks are struggling to afford basic food, fuel and medicine due to high levels of inflation. Thus, Erdoğan’s focus is no longer on Turkey’s traditional agriculture or textile exports but on more profitable arms sales. According to the Turkish Exporters Assembly, Turkey exported $2.793 billion in defense equipment in the first 11 months of 2021.

The Turkish government has not hidden the fact that Turkey sells drones to Ukraine and also continues to proudly market Turkey’s drones to the rest of the world.

Ukraine and Turkey received harsh criticism from Putin about the drone exports.

“Kiev was aiming to disrupt peace agreements in eastern Ukraine, with provocative military action in the conflict zone, including the use of [Turkish-made] Bayraktar unmanned aerial vehicles,” Putin told Erdoğan during his phone call on Dec. 3 of last year, several media outlets reported based on the Kremlin transcript.

Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky said last October that “Ukraine’s use of Turkish strike drones in the conflict in the Eastern Donbas region is defensive and does not violate any agreements.”

The General Staff of the Ukrainian Armed Forces also confirmed that a Bayraktar TB2 drone had destroyed an artillery unit belonging to pro-Russian separatists using a guided missile.

However, Turkish Foreign Minister Mevlüt Çavuşoğlu made a more careful statement so as to not anger Putin by saying that Turkey cannot be blamed for Ukrainian UAVs as these drones were produced in Turkey but it belong to Ukraine after being exported by Ankara.

In addition to Ukraine, Africa is also a large potential market for Turkey’s drone exports.

Erdoğan has made more official visits to African capitals than any other non-African leader in the world.

The Turkish president has been to over 30 African countries during his two-decade-long rule and just completed an Africa tour. He had to cancel a planned visit to Guinea-Bissau and returned to Turkey to join an online meeting with other NATO leaders.

Erdoğan’s ruling Justice and Development Party’s (AKP) focus in Africa has been diplomacy, trade, education and humanitarian work since the declaration of 2005 as “Africa Year,” but Erdoğan’s main focus now is to sign more defense and security deals with the continent.

Turkish Defense Minister Hulusi Akar has accompanied Erdoğan on all his recent Africa trips.

Turkey’s Bayraktar drones played a major role in preventing Khalifa Haftar’s invasion of Tripoli in 2019, and since then Turkey has steadily expanded its African footprint.

Erdoğan is now targeting other African countries engaged in armed conflict. Turkey’s drone sales to Ethiopia angered Egypt, while Algeria is not happy with Morocco’s Turkish drone acquisition.

Democratic Republic of Congo President Tshisekedi said on Sunday that “Win-win” security and economic deals were reached during Erdoğan’s “historic” official visit to the DRC.

Separatist rebel groups in eastern DRC have long been threatening civilians, and it seems that Tshisekedi is willing to buy Turkish-made drones.

Nigeria is another major market player, with the Nigerian army looking to buy Turkish Bayraktar TB2 drones.

Tunisia received its first batch of Turkish armed drones last September, and African intelligence reported that the Rwandan army has been eyeing Turkish drones for its military operations in Northern Mozambique.

Erdoğan said in November that Niger would buy Turkey’s Bayraktar TB2 UAVs and HÜRKUŞ trainer aircraft as well as armored vehicles. Chad is another African country developing defense relations with Turkey. Erdoğan visited Angola, Togo and Nigeria in October of last year.

Turkish media reported that Angola also requested Turkey’s UAVs and unmanned combat aerial vehicles. Turkey’s defense exports are not limited to northern and western Africa as Kenya’s military has ordered 118 four-wheel-drive armed personnel carriers from Turkish manufacturer Katmerciler.

Turkey has a military base in Somalia and has now become a permanent power in Libya, making it appear that Erdoğan’s appetite for Africa is growing.

As former Turkish diplomat Yusuf Kenan Küçük, who served in Sudan, mentioned, Turkey’s UAVs exports to Africa have increased Turkey’s trade volume, but Turkey’s policy of arming Africa might create regional tensions in the long term, leading to risks to its other investments on the continent and ultimately causing a loss of credibility.

The African Union has long exerted efforts to prevent foreign interventions and coups and to secure peace on the continent.

However, Erdoğan’s regime has become a serious threat to Africa’s democratic transformation as Ankara encourages Africa’s autocratic leaders to buy advanced weapons.

Erdoğan’s family and his AKP government are not only selling arms to Africa but are also disseminating anti-Western propaganda on the continent.

French President Emmanuel Macron has already accused the Turkish government of spreading anti-French sentiment in Africa.

It seems that Erdoğan is going to benefit more from conflict, especially in western Africa and the Horn of Africa as he was calm enough to visit the continent in the middle of the Ukraine crisis, which poses a serious threat to Turkey’s own security.

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