Mujahed Alsumaidaie, an intelligence researcher at the European Center for Counterterrorism and Intelligence Studies
The Central Asian republics—Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Tajikistan, Turkmenistan, and Uzbekistan—were significantly influenced by Turkey during the time of the Soviet Union, and that influence has increased since 1991 when they gained their independence. The attempts were not only about filling in the gaps which had been left by the collapse of the Soviet Union. As Ankara has turned away from its republican-era policy of isolation, and returned to the East, one of the areas it has been keen to explore is Central Asia, where ethno-linguistic ties run deep. Turkey has also been keen to explore the economic opportunities of a zone rich in oil and gas reserves. With the European Union’s imposition of sanctions on Russia, the great historic rival to Turkey, after the 2014 theft of Crimea, it has provided the Turkish government with even more space to fill in Central Asia.
Turkey was the main throughway for jihadists who came from Central Asia and Europe to join the Islamic State (ISIS) in Syria and Iraq. There has been much criticism of the Turkish government for failing to shut down the foreign fighter flow into Syria much sooner than it did, and a number of accusations that Turkey’s involvement went further than neglect. Ostensible ISIS leaders have claimed in captivity that they received logistical and medical support from Turkey. Highly partisan Kurdish sources have claimed that ISIS operatives were provided with training by Turkey during the fighting in Kobani and other Syrian cities. Various media reports over the years have made claims of official Turkish support to ISIS, and there was a clumsy remark from U.S. vice-president Joe Biden in 2014 that “our allies”—Turkey, Saudi Arabia, and the United Arab Emirates—were “our largest problem in Syria”. Biden soon apologized for this remark. Still, it is undoubtedly true that Turkey’s policies in the early years of the Syrian war allowed ISIS to get stronger than it would otherwise have been.
In the case of Central Asia—and the Uyghurs from Xinjiang in eastern China—the jihadists had a special advantage because of Turkey’s visa program with respect to these areas. It made travel to Syria via Turkey easier than from even nearby Europe. And once in Syria, the Russian speakers found a robust infrastructure of jihadists from the earliest days. One of the most notorious ISIS commanders, Abu Omar al-Shishani, was also one of the earliest foreign jihadists to go to Syria, moving there from Turkey in early 2012.
Turkey’s desire under President Recep Tayyip Erdogan to become a major power has not been hidden. Erdogan has many times said, “The new century will be a Turkish century”. In the territory stretching from the Mediterranean Sea all the way to China, Erdogan has ambitions to spread Turkish influence and integrate the zone culturally and economically as far as possible. 
There are many factors which make Central Asia important for Turkey. First of all, the Central Asian states form a geographical buffer between Russia and China, and occupy a space between China, Russia, and Iran—all competitors to varying degrees with Turkey. All of the Central Asia countries have access to the Caspian Sea, which is extremely rich in oil and gas; it represents the second-largest oil reserve in the world. The large area covered by Central Asia, around 4 million km2, makes it larger than all of the European countries put together. There are many languages spoken there and it is inhabited by many different ethnic groups, but Turkic groups are strong and provide Turkey with natural inroads. Turkish soft power has successfully exploited this with a number of popular Turkish-language television series, university partnerships, and Islamic proselytising. All of these strategies have increased Turkey’s popularity at both an elite and mass level in Central Asia, and given the geostrategic importance of Central Asia this has paid dividends for Turkish foreign policy.
The Economic Situation
Despite the fact that Turkey does not share a direct border with Central Asia, it was the first country to recognise the independence declarations of all of the Central Asian countries. Ankara attempted to build on this by increasing the number of official and diplomatic exchanges, announcing potential trade deals, promising free capital flows, and pursuing a general deepening of economic cooperation. Turkey offered the countries in Central Asia the opportunity to join the Economic Cooperation Organisation (ECO), founded before the Soviet collapse, in 1985, by Turkey, Iran, and Pakistan. The Turkish offer consisted of financial capital, technological know-how and ports available at the Mediterranean Sea. The purpose of Turkey trying to bring the Central Asian states into ECO was to gain access to the regional market of approximately 70 million people. Furthermore, Turkey wanted to secure a role for itself in the Caspian energy power game and also to become an energy hub.
Turkey is a major investor in Kazakhstan, a top economic region, and the investments are particularly focused on construction, textiles and services. Turkey and Russia are the two major commercial partners of Azerbaijan, a country that operates as a bridge between Europe and Central Asia. The BTC pipeline carries crude oil from Baku to the Mediterranean ports of Ceyhan and Tanap and transports Azeri gas into Turkey.
As well as the sanctions that have weakened Russia, Turkey has taken advantage of the hostile domestic discourse within Russia towards Central Asians. The Russians have taken instances where labour migrants from Central Asia have joined ISIS and turned it into a xenophobic narrative where these immigrants represent a threat. There have been many arrests of Central Asian workers inside Russia accused of conspiring in acts of terrorism; the evidence is thin and/or hidden in all these cases, and many Central Asians suspect the cases are fabricated as part of the effort to scapegoat their community. This is particularly true of the ongoing court case related to the 2017 Metro bombing in Saint Petersburg.
As a result, Turkey offered them free visas and work permits and removed them from Russia. This measure caused the Central Asian labourers to be among the top-five labourers in Turkey. This would translate into an increase in the number of foreign fighters flowing from Turkey to ISIS and in time would redound against Turkey itself. A terrorist attack consisting of shootings and suicide bombings was carried out at Ataturk Airport in Istanbul in 2016 by three gunmen from Russia, Uzbekistan, and Kyrgyzstan. The attackers and 45 other people were killed and more than 230 people were injured.
Turkey wished to gain economic sway over Central Asia, even at a cost to itself. The foreign labourers were coming to work in Turkey when the country had 3.8 million unemployed people and 20% youth unemployment. Nonetheless, Turkey accepted 3,000 migrants from Uzbekistan, one-third of them illegally.
The Political Situation
Though Turkey is primarily economically engaged in Central Asia, it does have political aspirations. True, Turkey does not interfere in the internal affairs of these states at anything like the level that Russia does, but the Turks still engage in sectional competition with the Russians. And since Russia has become a pariah in the West, Turkey believes that the countries in Central Asia need it as a bridge to Europe and America and seeks to rest its political engagement on this concept. Turkey has tried to promote participatory and representative politics in these highly-centralized states, but Turkey is pragmatic about the situation in Central Asia, hence its greater emphasis on commercial matters, where it can have much more effect.
As Russia’s influence has been weakened by E.U. sanctions, Turkey stepped forward using NATO to provide training for officers and many peacekeepers in Central Asia. Such programs gave Turkey access to these countries’ in a security sense and enabled it to be more influential, though it is unclear what tangible benefits Turkey gained from such security cooperation. Turkey has been a more or less neutral arbiter: establishing functional political ties with these countries through prioritization of the bilateral relationships, while concentrating on preserving their independence and staying neutral in the conflicts among and between them. Because Turkey’s focus is on access to the Caspian and the oil and gas therein, it has no need to take sides.
Since the countries in Central Asia gained their independence, there has been a surge of Turkish influence in the area, and an increase in Turkey’s influence as against Russia, especially since Moscow was put under strain by Western sanctions. The fight over the natural resources in this region have long made it politically and socially unstable. Alongside economic engagement, Turkey has brought military programs to countries like Kazakhstan and Kyrgyzstan under the NATO flag, training their security forces and expanding Ankara’s influence into the bargain. Much of this is received positively locally. But key challenges that face this area, particularly the increase in terrorism, flow from Turkish policies, too, notably the negligence as Central Asians traversed Turkey to join ISIS. These fighters can now return home after gaining battlefield experience.
European Eye on Radicalization aims to publish a diversity of perspectives and as such does not endorse the opinions expressed by contributors. The views expressed in this article represent the author alone.
 Fredrik Settman, “Turkish ambitions in Central Asia”, Eastwest64, 23 February 2019.
 Harut Sassounion, “Turkey’s support of terrorists in Syria exposed in secret wiretaps”, The Armenian Weekly, 12 February 2019.
 David Philipe, “Research Paper: ISIS-Turkey Links”, Institute for the Study of Human Rights, Columbia University, New York, USA.
 “Vice President Biden Speaks to the John F. Kennedy Jr. Forum,” The White House YouTube feed, 2 October 2014.
 Fredrik Settman, “Turkish ambitions in Central Asia”.
 Muhammad bin Sulayman al-Tayee, ‘Central Asia: A Zone of Conflict and International Competition’, Al-Watan Newspaper (Sultanate of Oman), 12/09/2015
 Khamza Sharifzada, “To Russia or Turkey? A Central Asia migrant worker’s big choice”, The Diplomat, 2 January 2019.
 Kyle Orton and Oved Lobel, “Did Moscow Fake a Suicide Bombing?”, Haaretz, 14 July 2019.
 Thomas Wheeler, “Turkey’s role and interest in Central Asia”, Saferworld, October 2013, p 7.
 Ibid., p. 8.