Selçuk Bayraktar: Erdogan’s successor?

Konstantinos K
Konstantinos Khttps://substack.com/@polity21hq
Konstantinos is a postgraduate student, researcher, and founder of the Polity21 brand. He specializes in Greek-Turkish relations, conflict and power politics in the Aegean, and the Eastern Mediterranean. His academic and journalistic interests also include Astropolitics, Remote Warfare, and U.S. Grand Strategy.

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A Wall Street Journal report has named Selçuk Bayraktar, Recep Tayyip Erdogan’s son-in-law and head of BAYKAR, as a possible successor to the President, should he retire by 2028.

Bayraktar is the chairman and Chief Technology Officer (CTO) of BAYKAR, the Turkish defense company and manufacturer of the prolific TB2 Unmanned Combat Aerial Vehicle (UCAV). The TB2, with an export cost ranging from under $2 million to about $5 million represents a “good enough” cost-effective alternative to its American counterpart and the GWOT’s prodigal child, the MQ-1B Predator.

Its highly expendable and attritional character has proven the TB2’s worth over the skies of Nagorno-Karabakh, Libya, northern Syria and Iraq. BAYKAR boasts more than 30 international customers including Azerbaijan, Ukraine, Poland, Albania, Turkmenistan, Kyrgyzstan, the UAE, and potentially Egypt among others.

Turkey’s drone diplomacy has seemed to be paying off, breaking the monopoly on drone proliferation held by the US’s more expensive premium platforms that are often subject to stricter export restrictions.

Bayraktar’s deeply paternalistic relationship with the Turkish President has allowed generous funds to flow and a historic consolidation of the Turkish defense industry which strives for greater strategic autonomy in the face of Western export restrictions and US CAATSA sanctions.

Elevated into the limelight following the TB2’s successes against Russian-made air defense systems in Nagorno-Karabakh, Libya and Ukraine, Bayraktar had enjoyed more than just his 15 minutes of fame.

The Teknofest exhibition, “part Coachella, part air show, and part campaign rally”, has proven instrumental in constructing a folkish populist appeal for the 45-year-old CTO and the nation’s rising techno-nationalism.

Bayraktar is yet no politician but stands as a more youthful and vibrant figurehead than the ageing “Reis” who has hinted at his potential retirement by 2028.

Given the AKP’s crushing defeat at the March 31 local elections, talks and speculation over Erdogan passing the baton of the 2028 Presidential nomination to one of his “trusted brothers” are bound to grow.

The Man and his Drones

Bayraktar’s political potential is overwhelmingly dependent upon his private dealings with the Turkish government and his personal connection to the President. In short, Bayraktar’s rising stardom hasn’t yet escaped the heavy shadow of his father-in-law to whom he owes much of his company’s meteoric success at home and abroad.

Nevertheless, a younger up-and-coming, MIT-educated Islamist might just be the new face of the coming Turkish Century whose dawn Erdogan has much touted and pursued.

BAYKAR’s TB2 and its unmanned Kizilelma aircraft are much like the much-touted KAAN fighter jet at the heart of a techno-nationalist rejuvenation that seeks to realise a militarily self-sustained nation that is confident in its security at home and even more so in its aspirations abroad.

The President after all has not been particularly discreet about his vision for Turkey as a great power whose influence does not lie within its internationally-recognised territorial boundaries but the “borders of the heart”:

October 2016: “Turkey can no longer stay the same at this point. The status quo will change somehow. We will either leap with moves forward or we will be bound to shrink. I am determined to make forward moves.”

November 2016: “Turkey is bigger than Turkey. We know this. We can’t fit into 780,000 square kilometers. The borders of our heart are quite different from our physical borders.”

March 2024: “[Turkey] is the heart of a much larger geography, from the Balkans to Central Asia, from the Black Sea to North Africa, from the Aegean to South Asia.”

This latent revisionism is not lost on Bayraktar himself whose TB2 was pivotal in Azerbaijan’s decisive victory in the Second Nagorno-Karabakh War which marked a return to the Panturkist credo of Enver Pasha, one of three responsible for the Armenian Genocide and head of the “Islamic Army of the Caucasus”.

The Panturkist subtext attached to TB2 exports extends beyond the Caucasus and into Central Asia where defense cooperation is at least rhetorically founded on notions of common Turkic identity and brotherhood. More grounded admiration for Turkey’s rising homegrown defense industry has elevated it to “an example of patriotism and correct economic nationalism”, in the words of Aibek Baryssov, the head of Kazakhstan’s Association of Defense Industry Enterprises.

Kamchybek Tashiev, the head of Kyrgyzstan’s State Committee for National Security, has similarly praised Turkish defense products and boasted on social media his country’s procurement of BAYKAR’s Akinci UCAV in October 2022.

While the TB2 did not in fact win the war, as the words of Texan historian T.R. Fehrenbach and level-headed analysis would remind us, Bayraktar and his iconic TB2 stand at the crucible of Panturkism, ultranationalism, and militaristic jingoism. And all three are very much prevalent in contemporary Turkey’s political system and discourse. To engage with them might not be a prerequisite for a successful electoral campaign but staunch Turkish nationalism has historically been the common denominator of all Turkish statemen, women and their statecraft.

But more prominently, the TB2 has known unparallel recognition and admiration in its use by Ukraine against Russian forces since February 2022. While indeed the UCAV played a critical role in specific operations in the early months of the conflict and more spectacularly in the sinking of the Russian Black Fleet’s Moskva flagship and retaking of Snake Island, the TB2 is no superweapon and assessing its real performance requires peering through much war propaganda and myth-making narratives.

So What’s Next?

Nevertheless, TB2’s and Bayraktar’s growing appeal does not always necessarily lie in reality but in perception. Convoluting narratives with reality has made it harder to identify where the machine ends and the man begins. Identifying Bayraktar with his platforms’ successful record is at the heart of constructing a “Turkish success story” that has introduced a new “popular form of techno-nationalism that transcends the secular-religious divide” that defines the Republic of Turkey since its inception.

Whether his potential chance at the Turkish Presidency in the 2028 elections has already been decided remains however unknown. Speculation is rife and will continue to increase until the die is cast sometime in the 4 years leading up to the 2028 general election.