Despite NATO rift, Turkey and Europe will muddle through

Turkey and its European allies will likely ride out tensions over Russian missiles and Syria, despite the damage done to NATO.

As NATO leaders gathered in London on Tuesday, French President Emmanuel Macron pointed out what he saw as Turkey’s two major offenses against the alliance. The first is buying Russian S-400 missile defences, a move that goes against NATO’s founding ideals and which U.S. and NATO officials have said could undermine NATO security. 

Dimitar Bechev, research fellow at the Atlantic Council, said Turkey’s S-400 purchase signalled that it is pursuing an independent foreign policy, which put a smile on the face of Russian President Vladimir Putin. 

“He’s having a ball, that’s for sure,” Bechev told Ahval in a podcast. “Turkey is a major member of NATO, and having this rift between Turkey and the U.S. and also western European allies is the best he could hope for.”

The good news, he said, was that Turkey was not leaving NATO anytime soon. “The bad news is that all this talk about NATO as a community of values, of democracy and liberal principles, doesn’t match the facts anymore,” said Bechev. “Certainly from the Turkish perspective it’s a transactional relationship based on a partial overlap of interests.”  

Turkey’s second offence, according to Macron, was viewing the Kurdish-led Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF) and its affiliate the People’s Protection Units (YPG) as terrorist groups, despite them playing a key role in defeating Islamic State (ISIS), and demanding that its NATO allies do the same. 

Turkey launched its offensive in northeast Syria, which has been described by many watchdog groups and prominent officials as ethnic cleansing, in an effort to clear the SDF from the area and resettle some 2 million of the Syrian refugees currently in Turkey. 

To pressure its Western allies to label the SDF a terrorist outfit, Turkey last week blocked NATO’s new defence plan for Poland and the Baltic states - though President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan relented on Wednesday. This week Erdoğan’s adviser warned that Turkey might invoke NATO’s Article 5, which calls all members to defend a fellow member under attack, in regards to the YPG threat. 

NATO acknowledges that one of the toughest challenges it faces is maintaining political cohesion when member states have different views of asymmetric threats. Turkey, for instance, not only sees the U.S.-allied YPG as a terrorist outfit, but also views Turkish preacher Fethullah Gülen, who has been living in the United States for 20 years, as the mastermind of a failed 2016 coup and head of a global terror organisation with a significant presence across Europe. 

“Now there’s a realisation that NATO has to work on multiple fronts,” said Bechev, pointing to various terrorist groups, rogue actors and to cyber warfare, in addition to the Russian threat. “As NATO is developing, Turkey is trying to mould it into its own image, trying to use it as a tool.”

Bechev pointed out that Article 5 had only been invoked once, after the attacks of Sept. 11, 2001, and did not sense much appetite to accommodate Turkey on this issue, particularly with another threat looming. 

“The war against ISIS, despite all assertions to the country, is not over. A resurgence is very likely,” he said. “Why close all doors to the YPG when tomorrow they might be needed again?” 

Alexander Clarkson, lecturer for German and European Studies at King’s College London, thinks Erdoğan has pushed the YPG issue too far, and that it could lead to further breakdowns of trust and dialogue. 

Turkey and its European allies have been disagreeing for some 40 years, he explained, mainly over border management, security and customs structures. He said that in the past Europeans had been willing to compromise. 

That changed after Erdoğan threatened Europe with a flood of refugees, campaigned across Europe for his 2017 presidential referendum, and embraced a radical Turkish nationalist narrative over Syria, the YPG and the outlawed Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK).  

“The level of tolerance on the European side for Turkish concerns over the YPG or PKK has plummeted,” Clarkson told Ahval in a podcast, adding that the United States under President Donald Trump had become more unpredictable and was unable to mediate in a crisis. 

“We used to have a situation where either the Americans or the Europeans would come across the table and try to negotiate deals with Ankara, now neither side is willing to do so,” he said. 

İbrahim Karagül, a Turkish columnist known for his extreme pro-government views, wrote this week that NATO was Turkey’s greatest threat, and foresaw a NATO intervention. Yet the analysts said Turkey has no real alternative to its NATO allies. Clarkson sees China and Russia as unrealistic partners for Turkey, with differing agendas. 

“The idea that Russia would take any risks to save Turkey over any issue is a deeply misguided point of view,” he said. “I think that will be a big shock to the Turks when the chips are down.” 

Bechev pointed out that Russia has a significant presence in Syria, in Crimea and in Armenia, and NATO offers protection. “If you’re sitting in Ankara you see yourself surrounded by Russian deployment,” he said. “NATO is good news for Turkey because it allows it to even the playing field without sticking your neck out.”

Ankara also knows it cannot trust Moscow. Turkey is working against Russian interests not only with the Trans-Anatolian Natural Gas Pipeline (TANAP), launched last week, but also in Libya, where the two back opposing sides. 

“It’s not really an alliance, it’s a mixture of competition and cooperation,” said Bechev. “Turkey has its reasons to work with Moscow, but also to fear the Russians.”

The reality is that Turkey’s most enduring ties are with Europe. “What’s remarkable to my mind is how resilient is the relationship,” he said. 

“You can imagine a scenario where there’s a complete break-up with the U.S., but I don’t see the same thing happening with the EU,” he said, pointing to economic dependence, the Turkish diaspora and security issues. “The parties in the relationship might be unhappy with one another, but I don’t think there’s a way out. So politicians have to muddle through and find a way to manage those tensions.” 

© Ahval English

The views expressed in this column are the author’s and do not necessarily reflect those of Ahval.