Turkey and its double-dealing with India: Will 'Operation Dost' see a change of heart in Ankara?

The duplicity of Erdogan and his dream of championing Islam in South Asia emanates from his close proximity with Pakistan, his appeasement of China and his bombastic statements to gain importance in the Muslim community. For now, India must tread cautiously and be prepared for what kind of Turkish delight its "dost" now prepares to serve in the earthquake's aftermath.

Aparna Rawal Feb 14, 2023
Rescue and relief operations conducted by India in Turkey (Photo: Twitter)

Recently two large earthquakes with magnitudes of 7.8 and 7.5, hit the southeastern part of Turkey. Over 200 aftershocks followed with earthquakes of magnitude 6 and were felt in both Turkey and Syria.  Since the earthquakes, India was amongst the first nations to respond and pledge aid as a humanitarian gesture to Turkey, according to the Turkish envoy in India, Firat Sunel. 

So far seven National Disaster Response Force (NDRF) relief teams from India have been dispatched to Turkey, consisting of medical professionals, military personnel and trained dog squads, along with medical supplies, drilling machines and other equipment. Garuda Aerospace's Droni drones are also being utilized to detect victims trapped under the rubble in the affected areas while modified Kisan drones are being actively used to transport medications, food, and other supplies. 

The Indian Air Force has been airlifting the relief teams from India and transporting them to Turkey, while field hospitals are also set up in the affected areas. Due to India's quick response, Sunel thanked India and referred to India as a true “dost”(friend) in deed. Hence, the search, rescue and relief operations conducted by India in Turkey came to be known as "Operation Dost".

In 2021, Turkey too had provided India with medical supplies during the Covid crisis. While Turkey and India have cooperated to some degree at the humanitarian level, it is important to mention that Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan is seen as having a deeper interest in undermining India's sovereign principles and security objectives. While Turkey calls India a "dost" for now, would Erdogan continue to honour the friend once the earthquake disaster has been mitigated?

Turkey, Pakistan and Kashmir

In the past months, various reports of Ankara`s plan to deploy a jihadist army of mercenaries against India in Kashmir have graced credible social media platforms. According to some reports, the commander of the Syrian National Army (SNA) militia, known as Sulayman Shah Brigades, Muhammed Abu Amsha, has claimed that he would 'relocate' some of their units to the Kashmir region from the city of Şiyê near the Afrin region. Afrin is one of the three original regions of the Autonomous Administration of North and East Syria. Amsha also mentioned each recruit would be paid an initial remuneration of $2,000. Further reports of similar recruitment activity from Azaz, Jarablus, Bab and Idlib has been reported by security researchers. 

Turkey has been consistently competing with Saudi Arabia and in its attempt to expand its outreach in the Muslim world and has often conveyed its desire to exert its influence among the Muslim youth of the South Asian region that has one of the world's largest Muslim concentrations. Therefore, it should be no surprise if Erdogan would seek to further solidify its alliance with Pakistan. Both Pakistan and Turkey are attempting to kill two birds with one stone. While Pakistan in its desire to wage "Gazwa-i-Hind" seeks to destabilize India with its proxy wars in various parts of the country, Turkey's gameplan of projecting itself as a saviour of Kashmiris, out of sympathy for the "Kashmir cause", has not been well received in Indian security and strategic circles. 

The question of a positive change in Kashmir since the constitutional changes of 2019, with the introduction of rights never before seen in Kashmir, such as the Scheduled Caste and the Scheduled Tribes Act,  the Whistleblowers Protection Act, the Right of Children to Free and Compulsory Education Act and enshrinement of women's rights to property in Kashmir seem to go unnoticed by the international human rights community. 

Turkey has openly taken up Pakistan's cause on Kashmir with Erdogan himself talking about it in international forums, including the UN.  Turkey has reiterated its rhetoric on Kashmir United Nations (UN) General Assembly (UNGA) that the international community has not paid “enough attention” to the Kashmir conflict, further stating that “despite the resolutions adopted by the UN Security Council, Kashmir is still besieged and eight million people are stuck in Kashmir.”Erdogan had addressed the Pakistani parliament exactly three years ago, attended unusually by Pakistan's military high command, a measure of Turkey's importance in Pakistan's strategic thinking. 

In the past years, diplomatic and military relations between the two nations have considerably expanded. Relations with India have always been uneasy, as Turkey has consistently supported Pakistan over Kashmir.

The Pakistan factor in India ties

Erdogan`s biases towards Pakistan were reflected during his visit to India in 2017 when Erdogan decided to make gratuitous remarks about the need for a “multilateral dialogue” to resolve the Kashmir dispute. The remarks, seen as meddlesome by India, naturally did not go down well in New Delhi which saw Ankara as biased towards Islamabad's point of view.

In response, India raised the contentious Cyprus issue with Turkey. The conflict with Cyprus began in 1974 when Turkey invaded and occupied the northern part of the country as a result of a military coup on the island which was backed by the Greek government. 

The ties between Pakistan and Turkey also extend to their mutual support for Azerbaijan and at the cost of Armenia. The quid pro quo approach to recognising Azerbaijan’s claims over the disputed Nagorno-­‐Karabakh has got Islamabad Azerbaijan’s support for Pakistan’s narrative on the Kashmir issue as well.

Ankara's growing infuence in Muslim word

 Since the Syrian war, Turkey’s growing influence in the Middle East has left Pakistan in a dilemma over choosing between Turkey or Saudi Arabia. Turkey and Iran's adventurism in the internal affairs of many Arab nations has led to massive shifts in Middle Eastern geopolitics.

 Turkey’s support of the Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt as well as its conflict with the Saudis over policies in Libya and Qatar had caused a rupture in Ankara and Riyadh ties. Amidst the shifts in political sands, India`s warming relations with Saudi Arabia and the Arab world are worrying both Pakistan and Turkey

Turkey, as one the main non-Sunni nations, has joined forces with Pakistan, Iran and Malaysia to try and counter the Arab axis of Saudi Arabia, UAE, Bahrain and Egypt and their influence in the OIC. Both Russia and China support the non-Arab team-up due to their vested interest strategically and politically. With the number of sanctions placed on Russia by the Western powers, the dependency on the non-Arab alliance has forced Moscow to look for allies while Beijing has acknowledged Turkey, Iran and Pakistan as “the central corridor joining the new land and sea routes” which are deemed of strategic importance to China. These newly-formed alliances have backed one another to challenge India on the Kashmir issue.

While Erdogan exploits Pakistan`s proximity to Riyadh, it also looks to spread its own model of political Islam through Pakistan. Erdogan has remained silent on the ill-treatment of the Uighur Muslims in China so as not to antagonise Beijing while being vocal on Kashmir. Warming up to China, with a little help from Pakistan, was bound to have negative repercussions on ties with India.

Islam has become a central force in Turkish politics, more specifically the one which Erdogan wishes to export.  Erdogan’s political strategy of giving primacy to Turkey's religious leaders, scholars and institutions in civil life left Turkey less secular than it was. In order to achieve its political and strategic goals, Turkey has effectively resuscitated the armed opposition in Syria as a “viable fighting force” by slowly establishing control in the war-battered country, and backed many groups such as the Syrian National Army (SNA) and National Liberation Front (NLF). This was largely done to partner with Hey’at Tahrir al-Sham elements (HTS, a former Al-Qaeda affiliate) without exposing any direct ties. A similar plan was executed in Libya and is expected to be implemented in Kashmir.

Turkey's strategic game in South Asia

It is understood that the objective of Turkey is to obtain political influence in South Asia by providing logistical support and funding to ISI and partnering with existing actors in the region to meddle in Kashmir, which it treats as an "unresolved problem".

In a meeting held by Erdogan’s secret paramilitary group SADAT, the need to send mercenaries to Kashmir and Palestine was raised. Syed Ghulam Nabi Fai, a Kashmiri-born convicted felon who served time in US federal prison, had spoken about sending "mercenaries" to fight in Kashmir and Palestine.

Fai’s remarks were highlighted by SADAT’s front organization, the Association of Justice Defenders Strategic Studies Center (ASSAM), on November 12, 2022. Fai’s US-based organization, the Kashmiri American Council (KAC), is funded by ISI and has enjoyed relations with SADAT and its associated organizations.

Foundation for Human Rights and Freedoms and Humanitarian Relief is an NGO run by İnsan Hak ve Hürriyetleri ve İnsani Yardım Vakfı, or IHH on the Pakistani side of Kashmir. IHH is believed to have links with terror outfits such as al-Qaeda and is believed to be aligned with Erdogan. The outfit is associated with the Turkish intelligence agency MIT, led by Erdogan`s close ally Hakan Fidan. It maintained a close association with the now-banned Popular Front of India (PFI) in order to have influence in radicalizing Muslim youth in India.

The duplicity of Erdogan and his dream of championing Islam in South Asia emanates from his close proximity with Pakistan, his appeasement of China and his bombastic statements to gain importance in the Muslim community. For now, India must tread cautiously and be prepared for what kind of Turkish delight its "dost" now prepares to serve in the earthquake's aftermath.

(The writer is an Indian research analyst specializing in the AF/Pak region and counter-terrorism. Views are personal. She can be reached at aparnarawal@gmail.com)

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