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Türkiye’s growing arms industry: tensions emerge with the West amid domestic ambitions and international commitments

Türkiye, arms industry, Bayraktar TB2 drone, Arms Trade Treaty, international relations, NATO, military technology, arms export, geopolitical tensions, Western alliances, defense sector, Turkish foreign policy, global arms market.

Executive Summary: Türkiye’s arms industry has achieved substantial growth, with a significant decrease in foreign military reliance from 80% in 2004 to approximately 20% in 2022, concurrently becoming the 11th largest arms exporter. This progress, symbolized by the widespread export of its Bayraktar TB2 drones, clashes with the country’s non-ratification of the Arms Trade Treaty (ATT), a crucial international agreement aimed at regulating arms exports to prevent human rights abuses. Türkiye’s distribution of military technology to conflict zones where recipients are accused of war crimes raises questions about its commitment to the ATT’s principles. Meanwhile, Türkiye’s NATO alliance is tested by its military operations, the controversial purchase of Russia’s S-400 missile system, and recent diplomatic frictions, especially regarding Sweden’s NATO bid and criticism of Western allies. These factors point to a growing divergence from Western policies and suggest a complex future for Türkiye’s international commitments and domestic arms trade ambitions.

The Republic of Türkiye has, as a member of NATO since 1952, consistently been viewed as a crucial Western ally. This is a perception the Turkish government has sought to maintain, particularly concerning international efforts to implement greater controls on arms exports. For example, Türkiye has repeatedly submitted reports to the Organization for Security and Co-operation in Europe (OSCE) in which it reiterated its “policy on arms exports is to serve the international norms set forth by the United Nations and other international organizations as well as by a number of international treaties and regimes.”

Furthermore, Türkiye’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs affirmed that it has joined several key export control regimes such as the Wassenaar Arrangement (WA) in 1996. However, of all the treaties it has committed itself to it is the Arms Trade Treaty (ATT), which Türkiye signed in 2013 before it came into force under the UN in 2014, that deserves the greatest scrutiny, and for three key reasons.

Having been ratified by 112 countries and signed by an additional 29, the ATT has received substantial global recognition and influence. Secondly, its scope is unparalleled, covering all major weapon systems including battle tanks, armed personnel carriers, artillery, fighter jets, attack helicopters, warships, missiles, small arms and light weapons, and more. Thirdly, the ATT is considered by the UN to be the first “legally-binding multilateral agreement that prohibits states from exporting conventional weapons to countries when they know those weapons will be used for genocide, crimes against humanity or war crimes.”

However, the Turkish government has not ratified the ATT despite its claim of being “a country best placed to appreciate what the Arms Trade Treaty offers in terms of transparency and curbing illicit transfers of arms”. Compared with the ten major global arms exporters in 2022 Türkiye’s stance on arms exports and ATT ratification is not surprising. For instance,only six of these countries (France, Italy, Germany, the United Kingdom, Spain, and Poland) have ratified the treaty, while the United States and Israel have signed but not ratified it, and Russia and China haven not joined the treaty at all. 

Türkiye’s inaction concerning the ATT is troubling in light of two recent developments and serves as the central focus of this report.

Türkiye’s growing arms industry
In 2022, President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan announced Türkiye’s record-breaking $4.4 billion in arms exports which, according to data from the Stockholm International Peace Research Institute(SIPRI), made Türkiye the 11th largest arms exporter globally that year. Driving this growth are President Erdoğan’s personnel goals which, in 2015, consisted of increasing nationalist support for his regime, restoring Türkiye’s status as a major power, and diminishing its reliance on foreign military imports by 2023. Growing Türkiye’s arms industry has also become a political tool to divert attention away from Türkiye’s ongoing economic crisis.

Not only has Türkiye lessened its reliance on foreign military imports from roughly 80% in 2004 to 20% in 2022, but it has gained notable attention for its Bayraktar TB2 combat drone which has been sent to over 20 countries. In doing so, these arms exports have significantly impacted regional stability and local power dynamics, particularly in the Caucasus. 

In 2020, Türkiye supplied Azerbaijan with 12 Bayraktar TB2 drones. A move that reportedly strengthened Azerbaijan’s military capabilities, leading to its victory over Armenia and ending a long-standing regional dispute.According to the Middle East Monitor, Azerbaijan’s victory also served Türkiye’s strategic interests to establish regional dominance in a region of ethnic Turks and expand its influence towards Central and South Asia. 

Türkiye’s arms exports have also impacted other regions. For instance, in sub-Saharan Africa, the Guardian reported in 2021 that the Ethiopian government signed a military agreement with Türkiye to acquire the Bayraktar TB2 to help in its fight against rebel groups in the Tigray region. According to SIPRI data, 4 Bayraktar TB2 drones were delivered that same year. The result, according to the New York Times, was a “stunning reversal” in the conflict’s trajectory in favor of the Ethiopian government.

Similarly, in North Africa in 2019, Libya received 12 Bayraktar TB2 drones to support the UN-backed Tripoli governmentagainst the opposing government in Benghazi. A move that violated a long-standing UN arms embargo but was considered crucial in securing a military victory for Triopli, according to the Washington Institute for Near East Policy.

However, all three countries are facing allegations of human rights abuses and war crimes. For instance, during the conflict, both Azerbaijan and Armenia were accused by Amnesty International of committing war crimes, such as beheading captives and desecrating enemy soldiers’ bodies. A 2021 Human Rights Watch report also documented significant human rights issues in Azerbaijan, including POW and civilian mistreatment, political repression, gender-based violence, activist surveillance, and systemic torture in prisons.

The conflict between Ethiopia and Tigrayan rebels in 2021 saw widespread atrocities and human rights violations, including mass killings and the use of rape as a weapon of war, according to the Center for Preventive Action (CPA). The region’s stability was also at risk as “millions” fled to Sudan amid border tensions and clashes. In Libya, before Türkiye’s drone shipment in 2017, the Tripoli government and its allied armed groups faced allegations of human rights abuses and potential war crimes, including summary executions, arbitrary detentions, attacks on journalists and activists, enforced disappearances, and mistreatment of migrants and asylum seekers.

In light of these alleged transgressions Türkiye’s arms transfers to these countries appear to contradict the ATT’s principles and therefore cast doubt on its adherence to international norms and human rights standards. In fact, according to experts interviewed by the Middle East Eye in 2022, the reason why many African countries are purchasing Turkish arms is because no “human rights strings” are attached.

Türkiye’s relationship with the West
While Türkiye’s arms industry has enjoyed remarkable success, this growth has been marred by an increasingly challenging relationship with the West in recent years. Notably, in 2019, the EU restricted arms sales to Türkiye following its military operation against the West’s Kurdish allies in Northern Syria. In 2020, the EU also imposed sanctions on a Turkish shipping company accused of breaking the UN arms embargo on Libya. A move that later was condemned by Türkiye’s foreign ministry. Furthermore, relations with Türkiye and the EU became heated on November 9th, 2023, following the European Commission’s annual report on its EU membership bid which highlighted a growing decline in democratic norms, legal principles, human rights, and judicial independence.

Meanwhile, Türkiye’s relationship with the US has also suffered. For example, in 2019 Türkiye supposedly “broke” its longstanding NATO alliance according to the Center for Strategic & International Studies(CSIS) following its purchase of the Russian S-400 missile defense system. The US reacted by excluding Türkiye from the 35 Joint Strike Fighter program. Furthermore, in 2021 the US ‘took issue’ with Türkiye over its transfer of drones to Ethiopia due to humanitarian concerns. 

Türkiye’s relations with NATO became more complex in January 2023 as during the Ukraine-Russia conflict, Türkiye threatened to deny Sweden’s NATO membership bid over a Quran-burning protest in Stockholm. Yet, despite resolving tensions with Sweden on October 23, 2023, Türkiye’s relations with the West worsened following the renewed Hamas-Israel conflict since October 7th and President Erdogan’s strong criticism of Israel and Western support for it. This increasingly turbulent relationship suggests that Western policies are clashing with Türkiye’s interests.

To conclude, Türkiye’s expanding arms industry and its delayed ratification of the ATT present concerning developments. As a significant global arms exporter, Türkiye has supplied arms to countries embroiled in conflicts and human rights controversies, raising questions about its commitment to international norms and human rights standards.

Türkiye’s increasingly strained relations with Western nations, evident in its military operations, arms purchases from Russia, and diplomatic tensions, suggest a growing divergence from Western policies. This divergence, coupled with its internal strategic and geopolitical interests, suggests that its ratification of the ATT is increasingly unlikely.

“As Türkiye’s arms industry surges ahead, the tension between its domestic growth and international treaty obligations becomes increasingly pronounced,” notes Dr. Iain Overton, Executive Director of AOAV. “The non-ratification of the Arms Trade Treaty, despite Türkiye’s significant role in global arms export, especially with its Bayraktar drones, raises important questions about its commitment to upholding international standards designed to prevent human rights abuses.”