NATO’s shared values are Turkey’s weak point - analyst

Turkey’s institutional links with NATO have not faded, but Western countries inside the alliance are openly saying that they no longer think Turkey shares their values, a senior fellow at the Atlantic Council told Ahval.

Aaron Stein, whose research interests include U.S.-Turkey relations, Turkish foreign policy, the Syrian conflict, non-proliferation, and the Iranian nuclear programme, also dismissed fears that Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan’s focus on nuclear energy could be linked to a desire for nuclear weapons.


Do you see any positives so far for Turkey out of its involvement in Syria?

From Ankara's perspective, absolutely. The Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF) threat to move on Al Bab was real. The Turkish government's paranoia about the SDF/People’s Protection Units (YPG) taking control of the entire border has some justifications. In retrospect, the Islamic State’s (ISIS) control over the border towns along the border was weak, so it does not take too much imagination to imagine an SDF strip of territory, spanning the entirety of the Turkish border. Thus, from this narrow, security-minded perspective, you can see how Turkey would judge the mission a success. 

Now, if you stop and zoom out a bit, you have diverging Turkish military and political goals: the military goal is to pacify an area through the building of institutions that work independently from Damascus, and are entirely dependent on Turkey. And yet, on the political side, Turkey has pledged to keep the Syrian state contiguous and united, lest it otherwise open the door for a federally run Kurdish entity. We'll see what happens in the future, but this is a policy knot that is not easily untied.

In that case, does it look as though the Turkish military has fast rebounded from the purges that occurred after last year's failed coup attempt?

The Turkish military is a black box, but from everything I can see, the purges have severely degraded the readiness of the military. The Air Force is the most obvious example, but I want to be very clear here: The performance during Euphrates Shield was not good. It showed serious problems. This may be independent of the purges, but the narrative in the Turkish press is in direct contradiction to how the battle for Al Bab unfolded.

Does it look like the military has had any significant impact on the civilian government over the course of 2017?

I would say its the opposite. The civilian government is pushing policies that are incongruent with how the Turkish military is set-up. The most obvious example is the S-400. This is a system that does not fit with the Turkish military, or how it fights wars. There is the Eurasianist argument, of course, and the narrative that a cadre of officers are pushing Turkey towards Russia. This could be true. I dont know, this is in the dark corner of the black box. But I see it as more of an Erdogan, top-down push for changes to protect himself. This shouldn't be a surprise: Erdogan has been coup-proofing since he took office. First it was with the Gülenists and now, perhaps, its with the Eurasianists. We all should also be asking just what type of information Erdogan gets before making policy.

Leaders are fallible and open to manipulation if the bureaucracy breaks down and that is exactly what has happened in Turkey.

Should the Eurasianists get (more of) their way and move Turkey further from NATO, can you see a potential basis for long-term security co-operation with Russia, or is that a pipe dream?

I think it’s a pipe dream. I don’t think Turkey wants to leave NATO, or even that the Eurasianists are that influential. Everything I am told suggests that the working relationships are still in place and people talk to each other, even if Turkish politicians continue to advance the idea that the West is trying to kill Erdoğan because dark forces are afraid of him. However, the danger is that politics override practicality and a stupid decision, like S-400, prompts a reaction from the U.S..

Keep in mind, the purpose of U.S. sanctions was to handcuff President Donald Trump and prevent him from making unilateral concessions to Russia: this was never about Turkey. And yet, Turkey may be the first test case. The outcome will be an unintended rupture.

Turkey also has a bigger problem: Western countries inside the alliance are openly saying that they don’t think Turkey shares their values. This is a big, big deal. And Ankara needs to take this seriously, or otherwise risk being adrift and without allies.

NATO has its own unique politics, but there is a unity of purpose around this idea and a renewed push to do something about it. And then you have Turkey. Which is proudly announcing that it can buy a Russian air defence system. No NATO government I’ve spoken to understands why Turkey is buying this system, or thinks it’s a good idea to allow the Russians to collect sensitive data on NATO's newest jet, the F-35. And against this backdrop, you have the post-coup fallout and all the shenanigans that have gone on: the DIB spy case in Germany, calling the Dutch Nazis, etc. etc. There is also the very real concern about the total breakdown of law and order in Turkey since July 15 (the 2016 coup attempt). And finally, the purges have decreased Turkish military readiness at a time when this is a point of emphasis for the alliance.

There are a number of factors which make an even bigger U.S.-Turkey split likely in 2018. Are any of them likely to be big enough to persuade Turkey to call time on the alliance?

Nobody is going to kick Turkey out of NATO. Turkey would have to make the choice to leave NATO. That is a choice made in Ankara, and nowhere else. I don’t think it is likely, but I can’t read Erdoğan's mind. I see warning signs. The S-400 is a massive deal. But there are others lingering out there: what happens when Turkey runs out of guided munitions and needs to purchase more from the U.S. and Congress raises hell? What happens if there is another fight in Washington or New York? Are U.S. diplomatic personnel safe in Turkey? There are so many tripwires on the pathway to recovery. The elections in Turkey aren’t until 2019. I’m worried about this trajectory because I don’t want to see it all fall apart.

Some have suggested that plans to acquire nuclear energy are part of a plan to bring Turkey closer to nuclear weapons. Do you think that likely, and if you think it possible, how many years could it be reasonably accomplished in?

I laugh when I read this. Turkey has inadvertently invented a new way to handcuff itself from building a bomb. First off, I don’t think Turkey wants the bomb. Second, if it did, and Erdoğan woke up one morning and said build me one of those, the Akkuyu model makes this impossible. The reactor will be Russian-built, owned, and operated. The fuel is made in Russia and after being burned in the reactor, will be shipped back to Russia. Turkey will get back, in time, what’s called vitrified waste that then needs to be buried deep underground for so long that no one will be around to dig them back up. If Turkey wants the bomb, it will have to build different facilities in secret and then announce to the world it violated all these agreements it willingly signed up for.

Turkey is a member of NATO. It has protection from the alliance. It participates in the NATO nuclear mission. That is a lot to throw away.