Since the beginning of this year, Turkey has seen a notable rise in the number of its troops killed in action across the multiple fronts where its armed forces are deployed.
A case-by-case evaluation of recent events in these conflict zones – Syria, Libya, and Iraqi Kurdistan – reveals some noteworthy patterns and indicates just how much military risk Turkey is willing to take to achieve its objectives.
Given Turkey’s demonstrated aversion to combat losses, the death toll could lead to greater domestic opposition to Ankara’s increasingly risky forays beyond its own borders.
In late February and early March, Turkey and the Syrian regime engaged in an unprecedented series of clashes in Syria’s northwestern Idlib province, where Turkey has a dozen army observation posts and several units deployed.
Over the course of a few weeks, Turkey lost more than 60 soldiers, including 34 in a single airstrike on February 27.
With outcry in Ankara, the Turkish military swiftly launched Operation Spring Shield against Syrian regime forces, destroying hundreds of tanks, artillery guns, and other pieces of military hardware, killing scores of Syrian troops and pro-regime militiamen in the process.
The situation only calmed after Turkey brokered a ceasefire deal with regime-backer Russia.
The February 27 incident highlighted the precarious position of Turkish troops in Idlib. Furthermore, despite Turkey’s support and training for tens-of-thousands of Syrian proxy militiamen, their combat readiness was also found wanting.
For example, during the latest clashes, despite receiving air support from Turkey’s armed drones, these Syrian proxies still lost the strategically-important city of Saraqeb to the regime offensive.
Since it first began fielding proxy militias in Syria in its 2016-17 Euphrates Shield campaign against the Islamic State (ISIS), Turkey has routinely encountered this problem.
Near the end of that campaign, during the urban battle for the city of Al-Bab, the Syrian militiamen failed to protect Turkish tanks (an essential requirement for even the most basic of infantry). Several of Turkey’s modern German-made Leopard II tanks were lost to ISIS fire.
Turkey also had to reinforce these militias to the extent that the number of Turkish troops on the Al-Bab front was equivalent to the number of proxy fighters.
Despite several programs aimed at training and modernizing its militia proxies, serious shortcomings are still evident. Consequently, Turkish troops will likely be deployed in their place in future Syrian operations.
Turkey’s military involvement in Libya increased in early 2020. Ankara deployed troops to assist and coordinate operations with its ally, the Government of National Accord (GNA), in the capital Tripoli.
Turkey is supporting the GNA against General Khalifa Haftar’s Libyan National Army (LNA), which has launched a succession of sieges against Tripoli since April 2019 in a bid to take full control of the war-torn North African state. Ankara had previously supplied the GNA with armoured vehicles as well as armed Turkish Bayraktar TB2 drones.
As with its operations in Syria, Turkey relies heavily on proxies for manpower in Libya. It recently began recruiting militiamen from parts of Syria it controls and sending them to Libya to fight alongside the GNA. These fighters have already suffered more than 100 casualties and some have even fled the Libyan battlefield to seek sanctuary in Europe.
Although Turkish troops in Libya do not appear to be engaged in direct combat, Turkey, nevertheless, suffered its first casualties in Libya in late February. Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan confirmed, without going into detail, that Turkey lost “two martyrs in Libya”.
The LNA, meanwhile, claimed its forces had killed 16 Turkish troops.
If fighting once again flares up, Turkey might have to deploy additional troops, possibly for combat, especially if its Syrian proxies and GNA allies prove incapable of combating the LNA – a distinct possibility.
Such a development would result in Ankara wading deeper into the Libyan quagmire and putting its troops in further danger.
Unlike the above cases, Turkey is not using proxy militias in its ongoing campaign against the Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK) in Iraqi Kurdistan. It is, therefore, inevitable that its troops will suffer some casualties throughout that campaign.
That being said, its campaign has not – to date – resulted in a large Turkish body count.
Since 2018, the Turkish military has expanded and lengthened its offensives against the PKK in the Kurdistan Region, even establishing forward operating bases (FOBs) in Erbil province for the first time.
Operation Claw, which began in late May 2019, has become the longest continuous anti-PKK campaign the Turkish military launched into Kurdistan to date – since it began launching its intermittent cross-border incursions into the region against the group in the 1990s.
As part of Operation Claw, Turkey began launching commando raids to attack PKK caves and hideouts deep in the mountains and destroyed many of the group’s arms stockpiles. Furthermore, its use of drones armed with precision-guided munitions has enabled it to assassinate an unprecedented number of senior PKK figures over the last two years.
Nevertheless, it has suffered casualties in close quarters combat with PKK fighters. In March, two Turkish soldiers were confirmed killed by PKK mortar fire.
Since Operation Claw began, Turkey has lost at least 16 soldiers – a small number compared to the scores of PKK fighters Turkey is purported to have “neutralized” in this period – the Turkish military’s term for enemy combats wounded, captured, or killed.
The longer the Turkish Army retains FOBs deep inside the Kurdistan Region, the more vulnerable its troops will be to hit-and-run and other asymmetrical attacks, especially as Ankara tries to rout the PKK from its deepest sanctuaries in Kurdistan’s mountains.
Taken together, these case studies demonstrate how Turkey is increasingly putting its troops in harm’s way in conflicts increasingly far from its own borders.
This, coupled with the demonstrated shortcomings of its proxy fighters in both Syria and Libya, indicates that Turkey will have to accept more combat losses in these areas in the near future.
Consequently, Ankara may find it increasingly difficult to secure the continued support of the Turkish public for these foreign campaigns – mindful of the growing number of flag-draped coffins arriving home.