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Turkey’s PKK Conflict Kills almost 3,000 in Two Years
Turkey’s PKK Conflict Kills almost 3,000 in Two Years
A man walks among the wreckage of vehicles as Turkish rescue workers and police inspect the blast scene following a car bomb attack on a police station in the eastern Turkish city of Elazig, on August 18 2016. Ilyas Akengin / AFP

Turkey’s PKK Conflict Kills almost 3,000 in Two Years

20 July 2017 marks the two-year anniversary of a collapsed ceasefire that previously held for two-and-a-half-years between Turkey and the Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK). Crisis Group's new analysis of open-source data reveals that the ongoing cycle of violence has now killed three times as many as the 2011-12 escalation.

On 20 July 2015, an Islamic State (ISIS) suicide bomb attack killed 33 and injured more than 100 mostly pro-Kurdish young activists in the majority Kurdish town of Suruç in south-eastern Turkey. That same day in nearby Adıyaman province, an alleged attack by the Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK) killed a Turkish corporal. This marked the breakdown of a two-and-a-half-year ceasefire between the PKK – listed as a terrorist organisation by Turkey, the U.S. and the EU – and the Turkish state. It was also the start of a violent cycle that has taken at least 2,981 lives, about three times more than during the July 2011-December 2012 escalation, when Crisis Group confirmed almost 1,000 deaths.

Among the deaths confirmed through Crisis Group’s open-source data collection, nearly half were PKK militants (1,378), followed by state security force members (976) and civilians (408). The remainder (219) were “youths of unknown affiliation”, a category created to account for confirmed urban deaths, aged 16-35, who cannot be positively identified as civilians or members of the PKK or its urban youth wing.

Since [June 2016], around 90 per cent of all deaths, as tracked by Crisis Group, occurred in rural south-eastern districts.

Violence peaked between February and May 2016 when fighting erupted in some urban districts of south-eastern Turkey for the first time in the conflict’s 33-year history. The PKK had built up an armed presence in the region during the 2012-2015 peace process. Around one third of all deaths occurred in Hakkari province’s Yüksekova district, Şırnak province’s Cizre and Silopi districts, Şırnak’s provincial centre, Mardin province’s Nusaybin district and Diyarbakır province’s Sur district. In June 2016, the conflict moved back to its traditional rural arena. Since then, around 90 per cent of all deaths, as tracked by Crisis Group, occurred in rural south-eastern districts.

The PKK or its affiliates have not carried out any major attack in the country’s urban centres and the west of Turkey since December. U.S. pressure, intense operations by the Turkish military and PKK’s strategic considerations appear to have contained its attacks. Nonetheless, Ankara is alarmed by the boost of PKK’s self-confidence especially following the U.S. decision to arm the YPG, the PKK’s Syrian affiliate, for the Raqqa offensive. Once the Raqqa offensive ends, the likelihood of military confrontation may increase if U.S. engagement wanes or if Turkey decides to strike the YPG in north-west Syria. Moreover, the Kurdistan Freedom Falcons (TAK) – a PKK offshoot widely believed to maintain links to the organisation – threatened new attacks on Turkish cities and tourist sites in a statement issued 6 June. These dynamics could herald an increase in violence in the coming months.

What follows are five main conclusions derived from the data collected over the last two years by Crisis Group. The analysis focuses on the last eight months of the conflict (December 2016-July 2017), but also looks at broader trends.

1. PKK attacks on local ruling party officials have intensified Turkish nationalist feelings

The recent killing of Justice and Development Party (AKP) political figures and civilians in the south east has heightened nationalist feelings in Turkish society. Since March 2017, when the Turkish military intensified its operations against the PKK, there have been seven attacks on political figures and civilians in the region. All are widely assumed to have been carried out by the PKK, though so far it has only taken responsibility for three of them.

Attacks claimed by the PKK:

  • On 9 June, a group of militants attacked the official car of Kozluk mayor (Batman province) Veysi Işık, killing 22-year-old music teacher Aybüke Şenay Yalçın, who was walking by.
     
  • On 16 June, Necmettin Yılmaz, a primary school teacher, was abducted while driving his car which was found burned in Tunceli province. The PKK announced that Yılmaz was “penalised” for collaborating with Turkish security forces. His body was found in a nearby river on 12 July.
     
  • On 1 July, AKP deputy head of Diyarbakır’s Lice district Orhan Mercan was shot dead in front of his house. The women’s branch of PKK’s urban youth wing, YPS-Jin (Civil Protection Units-Women), claimed responsibility, alleging Mercan was spying for the state and trying to recruit Kurdish youths as spies.

Attacks attributed to the PKK:

  • On 9 March, gunmen wounded Tayfun Ayhan, AKP head of Esendere town in Hakkari province’s Yüksekova district, and killed his brother, Murat Ayhan, while they were carrying out campaign activities for the presidential system referendum.
     
  • On 15 April, the motorcade of AKP Muradiye district head Ibrahim Vanlı was attacked in Van province. Vanlı’s nephew Adnan Vanlı, himself a village guard, was killed.
     
  • On 1 July, AKP deputy head of Van province’s Özalp district Aydın Ahi was shot dead.
     
  • On 8 July, two lorries and two cars were attacked in Hakkari’s Yüksekova district. Four civilians, Harun İbişoğlu, Dursun Doğan, Sadık Aktaş, and Hüseyin Kartal, were killed.

The PKK’s targeting of AKP political figures is probably an attempt to show the state, the AKP and its local supporters that it can still carry out dramatic attacks, despite an intense military crackdown. But this could backfire: instead of weakening the government and the president, these attacks are strengthening AKP support. Reports of slain security officials, political figures and civilians dominates the national media, justifying, in the eyes of many, harsh anti-PKK operations. Fuelling nationalist fervour over the past two years has allowed Ankara’s political leadership to consolidate support for its agenda, strengthening its alliance with the Nationalist Movement Party (MHP), which helped it win the April 2017 presidential system referendum. Meanwhile, PKK attacks also allow Ankara to justify the prosecution of some opponents by labelling them “terrorists” or “collaborators”.

As the AKP continues mobilising nationalist segments of society and banks on its alliance with the MHP, it is unlikely that the political leadership will return to a more constructive agenda addressing Kurdish demands or resuming peace talks in the medium term for two reasons:

  • Following the April referendum, the AKP still relies on its alliance with the MHP – which opposes concessions to address Kurdish aspirations – to pass new internal parliamentary regulations and other adjustment laws.
     
  • Two significant elections are scheduled for 2019: local and presidential. The AKP and the president will continue to rally nationalist constituencies to mobilise support.

2. An escalatory cycle of increased IEDs against security forces and intense Turkish military operations

Around 60 per cent of all security force fatalities since July 2015 were caused by improvised explosive devices (IEDs). During June and July of 2017, the number of IED attacks in rural areas increased, mostly along roads leading to military bases, including an attack on 17 July in Hakkari’s Yüksekova district that injured seventeen soldiers.

There are several reasons why militants use these devices:

  • IEDs are relatively cheap and easy to employ;
     
  • They can inflect greater casualties by targeting a group of security personnel with a single explosive;
     
  • Since IEDs can be detonated from a distance, militants can avoid direct armed confrontation, limiting their own risks.

This occurred amid intense military operations against the PKK in rural south-eastern districts which most recently focused on Lice district in Diyarbakır, Çukurca district in Hakkari and Başkale and Çaldıran districts in Van. The objective is both to target militants and destroy PKK ammunition depots.

Beginning in March 2017, the Turkish military carried out what it described as its most intense operations in years, deploying about 7,000 soldiers, special forces, police officers and village guards. In March, at least 79 PKK militants were killed, up from 23 in February, thirteen in January and six in December that Crisis Group could confirm.

3. Fewer PKK attacks prior to the April referendum

The number of security force members killed was relatively low in the run-up to the April referendum. While seventeen security force members were killed in PKK attacks in the two-and-a-half-month period prior to the referendum, this number almost quadrupled with 67 security force fatalities in the two-and-a-half-months after the referendum. There were no such fatalities in February 2017, the first month without security force being killed since July 2015. Aside from two urban IED attacks in Diyarbakır in January and April, the PKK or its affiliates did not carry out major, dramatic attacks in urban centres in Turkey and in the west of the country in the months prior to the referendum.

Sources close to the PKK told Crisis Group that they made the strategic decision to hold back in order to avoid generating further nationalist support for the “Yes” vote. As noted above, increased military operations by Ankara and U.S. pressure likely also played a role in curbing attacks. Regardless of the reason, this suggests the PKK has the ability to determine the timing and intensity of its attacks as well as to control its militants on the ground.

In the run-up to the referendum both the PKK and the government used the threat of violence to rally their supporters.

In the run-up to the referendum both the PKK and the government used the threat of violence to rally their supporters. Cemil Bayık, a PKK leader, warned on 9 April that if the “Yes” camp won, “the war” would intensify. AKP officials raised the spectre of PKK terrorism in their campaign for a “Yes” vote. President Erdoğan on 2 March equated voting “No” with supporting Qandil (a reference to the PKK’s headquarters in northern Iraq). Other officials said a “Yes” vote would put an end to all terrorist activity in the country whether carried out by the PKK or by what the government calls the Fetullahist Terrorist Organisation (FETÖ), allegedly led by Fethullah Gülen, an exiled cleric living in the U.S. who the government blames for masterminding the 15 July coup attempt.

Ankara saw the referendum results as vindication of its hard-line approach: it interpreted the fact that the “Yes” camp received 10 per cent more votes in the south east than the AKP got in the 2015 elections as demonstrating support for its strategy to “eradicate” the PKK. In turn, a strengthened president mobilising nationalist support made it easier for the PKK to legitimise in the eyes of its supporters resort to violence.

4. Violence more dispersed in the south east

Although security force and PKK militant deaths have remained largely concentrated in the south-eastern provinces of Hakkari, Şırnak, Mardin and Diyarbakır, violence was more dispersed in the south east over the past eight months. From December 2016 to July 2017, around 50 per cent of all confirmed fatalities occurred in these four provinces, compared to around 70 per cent in the previous sixteen months (July 2015-November 2016). Fatalities resulting from military operations rose in other south-eastern provinces, in particular Tunceli (28 confirmed militant deaths in February) and Bitlis (38 confirmed militant fatalities in May and June). Crisis Group also confirmed 29 militant fatalities in northern Iraq in March and April as a result of cross-border airstrikes by the Turkish military.

Confirmed fatalities in Tunceli, Bitlis and northern Iraq resulted from the military’s decision last spring to intensify its efforts to track down militants in mountainous areas and conduct cross-border operations in northern Iraq. At the same time, the military has been winding down operations in urban districts (such as Cizre, Sur, Silopi, Nusaybin, Yüksekova) located mostly in the provinces of Hakkari, Şırnak, Mardin and Diyarbakır, another factor possibly explaining the extension of deaths to other provinces.

5. Kurdish village guard deaths have increased since April 2017

Fifteen members of the state-funded Kurdish Village Guard were killed between April and July 2017, a slight increase compared to the first four months of the year. Ankara has ramped up recruitment for these paramilitary forces since January 2017 when it retired 18,000 guards over the age of 45 in a force that totals about 50,000. It plans to recruit 25,000 new paid guards, between 22 and 30 years old. Turkish media outlets reported that the newly-hired guards would be equipped with heavy weapons and take part in operations against the PKK.

Civilians interviewed by Crisis Group in Nusaybin in early 2017 confirmed that Kurdish-speaking security personnel – most likely village guards – participated in anti-PKK operations. Guards receive two weeks of basic military training immediately after joining plus supplementary training once a month.

Fifteen members of the state-funded Kurdish Village Guard were killed between April and July 2017

The government recently revitalised its system of “neighbourhood guards” in urban areas, probably in response to the PKK's urban tactic last year. The government plans to place neighbourhood guards in urban stations around the country to assist police and the military in maintaining “public order”. The nationwide recruitment process continues: about 280 guards were recruited in January 2017 to operate in several majority-Kurdish urban neighbourhoods (69 in Diyarbakır, 40 in Hakkari, 49 in Mardin, one in Şanlıurfa, 121 in Şırnak). As Crisis Group previously warned, these urban and rural guards sometimes use their state-backed authority to advance personal interests. The system could thus ignite tensions and clashes between Kurdish clans and large families in the south east, a situation that the PKK could easily exploit.

Looking Ahead: A Grim Picture

Violence is unlikely to diminish in the near future. Instead, there is a risk of greater conflict as Ankara steps up military efforts to eradicate the PKK (including through cross-border military actions), limit YPG gains in northern Syria and marginalise the domestic, legal Kurdish movement. As for the PKK, it remains focused on gains in northern Syria and may be further emboldened by the direct military support its affiliate, the YPG, now receives from the U.S. for the Raqqa offensive. The U.S. appears to temporarily have helped curb risks of escalation by pressuring the PKK to rein-in attacks in Turkey’s densely-populated urban centres including in the west of the country and by remaining closely engaged with the YPG (including in some instances by co-locating its special forces). However, violence could escalate once the Raqqa offensive ends, if US engagement falters, or if Ankara further intensifies military operations against the YPG around Afrin, in north-western Syria.

There is a risk of greater conflict as Ankara steps up military efforts to eradicate the PKK

Domestically, the government’s crackdown on the Kurdish political movement continues. Avenues for constructive engagement and political channels remain closed. As Crisis Group argued in its latest report, the marginalisation of the legal Kurdish political movement could have long-term consequences, legitimising resort to violent means and driving up PKK recruitment. A resumption of talks appears unlikely in the foreseeable future but remains the only viable path to resolving this deadly conflict.

Muslims living in Mali's Segou village, receive aid packages prepared with the donations of Turkish people and distributed by Turkey Diyanet Foundation (TDV), in Segou region, Mali on 13 April 2021. Mehmet Kaman/Anadolu Agency via AFP
Commentary / Africa

Turkey in the Sahel

Ankara is strengthening ties with Sahelian capitals, building mosques and hospitals and opening up export markets. Its defence pact with Niamey has led rivals to suspect its intentions. Turkey and other outside powers should do what they can to avoid unnecessary additional competition in the region.

Since labelling 2005 the “year of Africa”, Turkey has built political and economic ties across the continent through aid and trade, part of an agenda to extend its reach around the globe. Spearheading this push, Recep Tayyip Erdoğan, first as Turkish prime minister until 2014 and since then as president, cultivated relations with African leaders, helped Turkish companies gain access to new markets and bankrolled projects casting Turkey as a custodian of Islamic culture in heavily Muslim African countries. In its attempts to gain influence in Africa, Ankara is jockeying with not just Western but also Arab states. The latter competition has transposed the rivalry between Egypt, Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates (UAE), on one side, and Turkey and Qatar, on the other, onto conflict-prone regions like the Horn of Africa, often worsening instability. But it is Turkey’s overtures to another region – the Sahel – that have recently rattled Western and Gulf Arab governments, which fear that Turkey’s presence might threaten their geopolitical interests in a place many view as a crucial battleground in the war with jihadist insurgents.

Already the military-heavy French-led approach in the Sahel is faltering. As Crisis Group has written previously, communal killings, Islamist militancy and popular frustration with governments seen as ill equipped to quell the violence and protect citizens are on the rise. Jihadist attacks have increased fivefold since 2016 and intercommunal conflict has surged. The three central Sahelian states – Mali, Burkina Faso and Niger – struggle to hold territory, let alone assert state authority, in areas contested by militants. Meanwhile, jihadists are entrenching themselves, mounting rural insurgencies, tapping local grievances to recruit fighters and expanding their operations. Disappointment with the failure to stem insecurity has given rise to anti-French sentiment in Sahelian capitals. A big push by Turkey, which has a fraught relationship with France, to present itself as an alternate security partner could aggravate tensions. In November 2020, French President Emmanuel Macron accused Turkey of undercutting France’s West African ties by playing on “post-colonial resentment”. (Separately, in June 2021, he announced plans to halve the number of France’s 5,100 troops in the Sahel by 2023.)

Turkey’s forays into the Sahel have so far been mainly an exercise in soft-power projection.

In reality, Turkey’s forays into the Sahel have so far been mainly an exercise in soft-power projection. Ankara’s activities in the region are mostly focused on development support and commercial engagement. True, it has signed a defence accord with Niamey. It is also the case that in Somalia, Turkish aid and business subsequently led to more military engagement, though for the most part Turkish involvement there has been constructive and not in conflict with Western aims. Sahelian states and external powers would be better served by taking the best of what Turkey has to offer rather than seeing it as an inherent threat – especially as Macron and Erdoğan, who held a private discussion on the sidelines of the NATO summit in June, appear to be mending ties. Recent efforts to quell tensions between Turkey and Egypt and between sparring Gulf states suggest a broader rapprochement may be on the cards. Instead of competing in the Sahel, external powers should find ways of cooperating for the troubled region’s benefit. 

Soft Power 

Turkey’s motives in the Sahel thus far appear primarily economic. Indeed, according to Ankara, expanding trade is its main priority in the region. But some observers look at Turkey’s role in Somalia and in the wider Horn of Africa, and wonder how far its engagement in the Sahel might go.

Turkey’s rivals often cast its growing presence in Muslim African countries like Somalia and Sudan as motivated by ideology – in particular the goal of boosting prospects for the Muslim Brotherhood or other Islamists – or by desire to increase its geopolitical heft. This perception is not wholly inaccurate. Ankara’s extensive support for Somalis facing a devastating famine in 2011 earned Turkey enormous good-will. It then used this clout to bolster the interests of local allies, sometimes drawn from the Muslim Brotherhood. In 2017, Ankara opened a military base in Mogadishu, the biggest training base of its kind outside Turkey. It has also established a firm foothold in a Mogadishu seaport it views as critical to its strategy of projecting military power across key nodes of the Red Sea and Indian Ocean. Turkey is now one of Somalia’s most influential foreign actors, a role many Somalis view in a positive light. It does not coordinate its activities with the Somali security forces, for example, with Western powers, but neither is it at loggerheads with them.

Still, focusing on those angles alone risks overlooking what seems to be a key part of Ankara’s engagement in the Sahel to date – capitalising on shared religious identity to advance its economic interests. True, such engagement could also lead to further bilateral security cooperation, as it has in Somalia, and fuel competition with Turkey’s Gulf rivals. But, for now, Ankara’s main focus seems to be pursuing projects and investments in the Sahel that won public support, paving the way for Turkish exporters in a new market.

As it opened embassies in Bamako (2010), Ouagadougou (2012) and Niamey (2012), Ankara set out to woo religious and political elites as well as appeal to the needs of struggling populations. In Mali, for instance, it built a mosque in an upscale neighbourhood of the capital for the High Islamic Council of Mali, the country’s most powerful religious association, and rehabilitated another in former President Ibrahim Boubacar Keïta’s hometown. In Niger’s northern city of Agadez, it restored the Grand Mosque and the Sultan of Aïr’s palace. This allowed it to stress Turkey’s historical links with the region’s sultans, the first of whom oral histories say was born in Istanbul in the 1400s. At the same time, Turkey rolled out much-needed assistance in health care, water and education. It built hospitals in Bamako (completed in 2018) and Niamey (in 2019) and dispatched mobile clinics to provincial Malian towns such as Koulikoro and Sikasso. The Turkish International Cooperation and Development Agency (TIKA), Turkish charities and NGOs also stepped in to improve rural dwellers’ access to religious schooling and water.

As they have elsewhere in Africa, locals welcomed the projects, helping to open up markets for Turkish consumer goods and boosting Ankara’s efforts to secure contracts for Turkish construction, energy and mining companies. While Turkish trade with the Sahel is still small compared to the hundreds of millions of dollars in Chinese and French exports to the region annually, it has grown substantially over the last decade. Trade between Mali and Turkey, for instance, increased more than tenfold, from just $5 million in 2003 to $57 million in 2019. Crucial to boosting commerce was the launch of direct Turkish Airlines flights from Istanbul to Bamako, Niamey and Ouagadougou, which opened new trade routes for Sahelian entrepreneurs deterred by Europe’s increasingly strict border policies. Meanwhile, a direct Turkish Airlines flight from Bamako to Jeddah has proven popular with African pilgrims.

Some Turkish projects have done less to win hearts and minds. In 2017, following the coup attempt in Ankara that the Turkish government blamed on the followers of Fethullah Gülen, a Turkish Islamic preacher self-exiled in the U.S. since 1999, Turkey’s Maarif Foundation signed an agreement with Mali’s education minister enabling it to take control of a network of eighteen Gülenist Horizon schools in Bamako. The heavy-handedness of the takeover alienated some alumni, and the schools’ reputation has suffered.

As elsewhere in sub-Saharan Africa, Turkish construction in the Sahel typically focuses on infrastructure. In Niger, Turkish companies delivered a range of projects that were key to Niamey’s hosting of the June 2019 African Union summit, including a new international airport and a five-star hotel. With Mali, it signed a tentative agreement for a metrobus system in Bamako.                           

Hard Power

Turkish officials say they see military power as necessary to protect their investments.

As Ankara pursues commercial opportunities in the Sahel, Turkish officials say they see military power as necessary to protect their investments. Turkey first adopted a cooperative approach to security in the region. This approach included providing diplomatic support to multilateral efforts such as Mali’s Algiers peace agreement, signed by the government, a coalition of pro-government armed groups and an alliance of rebel groups in 2015. Ankara also gave $5 million to the G5 Sahel force, a regional coalition which in 2018 began deploying troops from Burkina Faso, Chad, Mali, Mauritania and Niger largely to fight Islamist militants in the tri-border area conjoining Burkina Faso, Mali and Niger. A more controversial form of military assistance came in July 2020, when Ankara and Niamey signed a defence pact that could – the text remains secret – lay the groundwork for direct operational support from Turkey to Niger in the future. The deal was concluded only a year after reports emerged that France would mothball its Madama base near the Libyan border in Niger’s far north and potentially hand it over to the UAE (any talk of the Emiratis taking over the base has now ended). The Turkey-Niger pact set off alarm bells in Paris and Abu Dhabi. Both capitals saw it as a potential means of extending Turkish influence in neighbouring Libya and a sign that Turkey hopes to establish a base in Niger, as it has done in Somalia.

The Turkey-Niger deal led to a flood of rumours of Turkish regional meddling, all of which Ankara denies and which indeed various sources deem baseless. An August 2020 Emirati policy paper, for example, warned that Ankara was arming militants in the Sahel and West Africa to seize control of natural resources and spread political Islam. The same month, Turkish Foreign Minister Mevlüt Çavuşoğlu became the first senior foreign official to meet with leaders of the 18 August coup in Mali, fuelling speculation among some observers that Turkey had been involved in the Keïta government’s ouster. In early 2021, after months of tensions between Turkey and France in Libya and the eastern Mediterranean, French politicians and commentators hinted that Turkish-deployed jihadists might be behind an uptick in improvised explosive device attacks on French soldiers in Mali. According to various senior Malian officials, northern Malian armed groups and Western diplomats in the region, such rumours reflect growing anxiety over the scope of Ankara’s regional ambitions. One Turkish official in the region complained that the tensions in the Mediterranean have already made many of the Sahel’s European partners reluctant to cooperate with Turkey.

The Turkey-Niger defence agreement reportedly contains plans for Turkish troops to train and support Nigerien forces fighting the various splinters of the Islamist Boko Haram insurgency and to help them secure the country’s borders with Mali and Burkina Faso. Niger’s tense presidential election – the country’s first-ever democratic transition of power that took place despite violent protests, police repression and voting irregularities – appears to have delayed these plans’ implementation. Senior military officials in Niamey have told Crisis Group that the pact will come into full effect at the discretion of President Mohamed Bazoum’s cabinet following his inauguration in April.

In Mali, for years the epicentre of the Sahel’s conflicts, Turkey’s military footprint is limited to a few security assistance programs in the capital. In 2018, Ankara began hosting Malian officers for training in Turkey and supplying Mali’s army with light weapons and ammunition. There are signs that the UAE and Qatar – the latter a close Turkish ally – are vying for influence. A senior political official told Crisis Group that a January 2020 deal with the UAE to sell Mali 30 Typhoon armoured vehicles was intended to sideline a project that would entail Qatar purchasing French helicopters for the Malian military. More Emirati deals, if they are made, might lead Turkey to up its involvement.

Competition or Cooperation?

Although many Sahelians have cheered Ankara’s rapid push into the region, some Gulf Arab and Western states have reacted negatively. Perceptions that Ankara is seeking to extend its military influence could become a self-fulfilling prophecy if they prompt Abu Dhabi to scale up its own military presence. For now, however, there is little evidence that Ankara is preparing to be anything other than a bit player in the region’s conflicts.

Western partners ... regard warily Turkey’s newly assertive posture in the already heavily militarised region.

As for Western partners, they worry about Turkey as an economic competitor and regard warily Turkey’s newly assertive posture in the already heavily militarised region. Western diplomats tend to both exaggerate and downplay Turkish influence. One European diplomat, for example, labels Turkey’s activities in the Sahel as an “offensive”. At the same time, this very diplomat notes that Ankara’s interventions have so far been opportunistic rather than part of a bigger strategic plan. In reality, Turkish aid and investments pale in comparison to the substantial sums Western powers with deeper pockets have splashed out. While the European Union and its member states have pumped more than $8 billion into the central Sahel since 2014 in development cooperation alone, TIKA data show that it barely spent $61 million between 2014 and 2019. Another Western diplomat contends that it is too early to say whether Turkey building schools and hospitals as a sweetener for developing export markets indicates modest, primarily economic ambitions, or a broader geopolitical agenda – one that might later entail sending troops or mercenaries or promoting Islamist governance in the region.

Many [Sahelians] have welcomed Turkey as a powerful international actor.

Among Sahelians, on the other hand, Turkey has amassed good-will. Many have welcomed Turkey as a powerful international actor with whom they have more in common than Europe, Russia or China and from whom they may have much to gain. They tend to see Turkey as less overbearing than the European Union or France, and as a partner with similar interests. Turkey, for example, is not bent on curbing migrant flows like Europe. Islam is a common bond. Many Sahelian policymakers and businessmen chafe at the region’s reliance on European aid and French military support and say they are interested in diversifying alliances. “Western countries are too visible in our conflicts. We would like to see Arab or Muslim countries like Turkey play a more active conflict resolution role”, a Western-educated Malian academic noted. Niger, for its part, is optimistic about the prospect of Turkey’s defence cooperation. “The intelligence sharing, capacity building and military training that Turkey is offering in the framework of the defence agreement will be of great help in improving security,” a senior Nigerien defence official told Crisis Group.

While Turkey’s push into the Sahel, given its limits, seems for now unlikely to upset regional dynamics, it is critical to avoid another layer of geopolitical competition in the region.

The chief danger is that Ankara continues expanding its presence, thus motivating Gulf actors like the UAE, whose regional engagement has been relatively limited so far, to further enter the fray. The recent rapprochement between Turkey and Egypt, and between sparring Gulf states, is still in its early days; it is unclear how far it will go in dialling down the competition among those states that has often played out with destabilising impact across North Africa and the Horn. All sides would be better off avoiding opening up a new arena in the Sahel. Ideally, especially given France’s planned downscaling of bilateral military cooperation, Turkey would continue supporting multilateral efforts in the Sahel and restrict any bilateral military cooperation to security forces training, which would go some way to dispelling rumours about its intentions.

For their part, European partners should overcome their reluctance to collaborate with Turkey. Ankara can contribute to infrastructure, development projects and the multilateral initiatives that Europe supports. Turkey’s regional ambitions may not yet be fully developed, and the defence pact with Niger is understandably seen – by Ankara’s rivals but also more broadly – as a potentially risky new form of regional militarisation. For now, though, European capitals should consider the potential benefits of cooperating in the Sahel with a country whose goals in the region – which thus far entail mostly dispatching aid and trade to support fragile states – largely align with Europe’s own.