To put it mildly, Turkey has been substantially involved in Syria since the eruption of the Arab Spring in 2011. After Turkish F-16s recently downed a Su-24 Russian tactical bomber over the region where Turkmen anti-Assad groups are based, Turkish President Erdogan tacitly confirmed Turkey’s covert support for Syrian rebels fighting against Damascus, stating that “anyone who bombs that area attacks our brothers and sisters — Turkmen.” Beyond setting up a serious confrontation with Russia, Turkish covert action has also caused a standoff between Ankara and Washington.
Turkish covert action carries the risk of diplomatic isolation from both its traditional Western allies and neighboring countries. More worryingly, it risks direct military conflict, as we have seen recently with Russia. However, this is not the first time that Turkey has grappled with such issues. Declassified documents in Western archives and the now-open communist-era Bulgarian archives show that Turkey has long conducted covert and clandestine operations in neighboring countries. Many of today’s issues — including migration flows, weapons proliferation, and proxy war — appear in these documents, albeit with a Cold War flavor.
In the 1950s, Bulgaria, Turkey’s northwest neighbor, was a prominent target for Turkish intelligence and an area of great interest to Turkey’s Western friends. Animosity between Turkey and Bulgaria stretched back the better part of a century. Since Bulgaria shook off Ottoman authority in the late 19th century, it was viewed by the Sublime Porte and later Ankara as a serious military threat. After Bulgaria gained independence from the Ottoman Empire in 1878, its ethnic Turkish minority began to immigrate to Anatolia. This decrease in the Turkish population climaxed during first and second Balkan Wars between 1912 and 1913 when the Balkan League, led by Bulgaria, waged war against the Ottomans to seize remaining territory in the Balkans. As a result of the wars, hundreds of thousands Turks from Bulgaria migrated to Anatolia.
Read the Remainder at War on the Rocks