Turkey and NATO locked in failed marriage

At this week’s London summit marking the 70th anniversary of NATO, one of its oldest members seems increasingly at odds with the rest of the alliance.

In the lead-up to the summit, Turkey’s actions once again demonstrate the widening rift between it and its fellow NATO members.

Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan did not mince words last week when responding to criticism from his French counterpart, Emmanuel Macron, over the present state of NATO.

The Turkish president said Macron “should check whether (he is) brain dead.”

His choice of words came in response to a remark Macron made to The Economist in early November when he said: “What we are currently experiencing is the brain death of NATO.”

Macron is also highly critical of Turkey’s northern Syria offensive.

This spat is not the only disagreement between Turkey and its NATO allies. Turkey also doubled down on its decision to operate Russian S-400 anti-aircraft missiles by using U.S.-made F-16 and F-4 fighter jets to test the system’s radars on Nov. 25.

NATO has repeatedly warned Turkey that these Russian systems are not interoperable with alliance hardware and said Ankara should not have bought them.

Turkey has already been suspended from the programme to build and operate U.S. F-35 fighter jets over the purchase. But Erdoğan remains defiant and is even pondering buying Russian Su-35 fighter jets.

Also in November, Turkey refused to support a NATO defence plan for Poland and the Baltic states unless the alliance supported Turkey against the Kurdish-led Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF).

It may amount to another low point in relations between Turkey and the alliance that ultimately they will patch up. In response to Turkey’s 1974 invasion of northern Cyprus, NATO imposed an arms embargo on Turkey closed NATO bases on its soil. The embargo was lifted and relations repaired, and even expanded, in the 1980s.  

“Rather than Erdoğan’s spat with Macron, Turkey’s purchase and testing of Russian S-400 missile defence systems and blocking the NATO defence plan for Poland and the Baltics are two examples of the major shift in Turkey’s axis,” said Süleyman Özeren, a Turkey expert at George Mason University.

“The spat with Macron was a tactical move for Erdoğan to divert attention from this shift,” he said. “Erdoğan also aims to gain Trump’s sympathy by attacking Macron and NATO alliance ahead of the summit in London.”

While Özeren anticipates some issues may be resolved at the summit “Erdoğan will probably seek new opportunities to play the black sheep of the family in NATO.”

“Erdoğan’s quest for crisis with NATO also reflects the ideological position of the Eurasianist bureaucratic and military structure in Turkey and his alignment with (Russian President Vladimir) Putin,” he said.

Özeren said Erdoğan was tactically using his country’s NATO membership as “leverage and a bargaining chip against the rest of the alliance.”

“Conflicts rather than consensus serve to his interest domestically and to some extent internationally,” he said. “But he would not jeopardise Turkey’s membership, at least for now, because ending it could push him into uncharted waters.”

Ali Demirdas, professor of international relations and contributor to The National Interest, argued that while Turkey was often viewed as being detrimental to NATO, Macron’s “recent remarks should raise the alarm bells that the alliance is really cracking.”

“Macron urged for Russia to be removed from NATO’s list of threats,” said Demirdas. “This goes against the 2016 NATO Warsaw Summit declaration, in which Russia was declared as the biggest destabilising factor for Europe.”

Aaron Stein, director of the Middle East Program at the Foreign Policy Research Institute, pointed out that the question of Turkey was presently “the elephant in the room for a lot of Western governments”.

“It is no secret that a lot of people do not trust Erdoğan,” Stein said.

“However, inside NATO, I’d say that there is a concerted effort to wall off the broader political challenges and keep on keeping on with Turkey as a valued member.”

According to Stein, Macron’s recent comments were simply “a rehash of a long-standing intra-NATO issue: the out of area contingency.”

“NATO has a territorial definition and Syria does not qualify as an alliance issue,” he said. “Macron phrased his critique oddly, but it’s not exactly a new issue to try and distance NATO issues from events in Syria.”

“This was true in the 1950s and, now, in the 2010s.”

Stein also does not think it matters all that much whether there is any thaw in relations between Erdoğan and other NATO leaders at the summit since alliance planning has national caveats.

“Ankara can isolate itself and make a political statement, but the alliance is bigger than Turkey,” he said.

One contentious issue between Turkey and NATO Stein does not see going away anytime soon is the S-400 purchase.

“Turkey has already made the political choice to pursue S-400 over the F-35,” he said. “If Ankara wants to do more business with Moscow, perhaps for Su-35s, then the schism will grow wider.”

Demirdas argued that while Turkey had issues with NATO in the past it conformed with the spirit of the alliance.

While in the past Turkey lacked leverage in NATO, this was changing rapidly. This is because Turkey has learned from the arms embargo of the 1970s and had developed a significant domestic arms industry, allowing it to more easily bear the brunt of any future embargoes.

Erdoğan has also repeatedly threatened to allow millions of Syrian refugees into Europe if it opposes Turkey’s policies.

Demirdas also noted that U.S.-Turkey relations changed during the Syrian conflict.

“Despite numerous American threats, Turkey realised that if it stands in its ground, the U.S. would eventually acquiesce,” he said.

He pointed out that Washington has not yet imposed any measures against Turkey under the Countering America’s Adversaries Through Sanctions Act (CAATSA) for buying S-400s. Then, “as if rubbing it in”, Turkey went ahead with testing the S-400 radar using American-made F-16s.

“There is now a perception among Turks that Turkey’s resoluteness made America withdraw in Syria,” he said.

Demirdas also believes that “NATO cannot afford to lose Turkey and Turkey would rather remain in NATO to continue to impact its decision-making in its favour.”

A Turkish departure, he said, would be a death sentence for NATO and render the entire alliance obsolete.

This is because, despite Turkey’s tactical alliance with Russia in Syria, Turkey continues to host NATO military bases and controls the Bosporus straits that Moscow needs to deploy the bulk of its naval forces in the Mediterranean.

“I equate Turkey-NATO relations to a failed marriage,” Demirdas said. “Neither party has an emotional attachment, but feel compelled to stay married for various social benefits.”