Turkey is the ‘elephant in the room’ at NATO, officials say

Turkey’s gradual distancing from Western values and aggression towards fellow NATO allies has not been addressed within the military alliance, diplomats and officials told the New York Times in an article published on Monday.

Turkey – which is acting in an increasingly authoritarian, ambitious and assertive manner – has become “the elephant in the room” for NATO that few within the alliance want to discuss, the NYT said, which cited European diplomats.

Turkey has stoked friction with the United States and the European Union on various issues. It has ignored U.S. opposition to purchasing Russian S-400 air defence systems, confronted a French frigate on a NATO mission enforcing a U.N. arms embargo on Libya in June and risked armed conflict with Greece over territorial rights and offshore resources in the Eastern Mediterranean.

Every time Russia is discussed within NATO, “everyone thinks of the S-400 and no one says anything”, one European diplomat said, according to the NYT.

The S-400 missiles would put Russian engineers inside a NATO air defence system should they be activated, giving them valuable insight into the alliance’s strengths while threatening to diminish the capability of the U.S.-produced, fifth-generation F-35 fighter jet, the NYT said.

The assumption is that Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan wants to be able to shoot down U.S. and Israeli warplanes, which are the same jets as members of his own air force used in a failed military coup attempt in 2016, the newspaper said.

“It’s a major breach in NATO air defence, and it’s not even discussed,” said the diplomat, who spoke on the condition of anonymity.

NATO assumes that the United States and Turkey will somehow resolve the issue of the Russian missiles, according to the NYT. However, U.S. politicians who want to impose sanctions on Turkey differ with U.S. President Donald Trump, who has amicable relations with Erdoğan.

The European Union and the United Nations also have no clear cut policy on Turkey or Libya, said Amanda Sloat, a former U.S. State Department official who dealt with Turkey during the Obama administration.

Turkey now represents an open challenge to the alliance’s democratic values and its collective defence, but is too big, powerful and strategically important to allow an open confrontation, NATO officials told the NYT.

While other alliance members such as Hungary and Poland also fall short in terms of democratic values, only Turkey blocks key alliance business, Nicholas Burns, an international affairs professor at Harvard and a former NATO ambassador, told the NYT.

Since NATO operates by consensus, vetoes by Turkey can stall nearly any policy, a NATO official told the newspaper.

Turkey has blocked NATO partnerships for countries it dislikes, such as Israel, Armenia, Egypt and the United Arab Emirates, and for many months vetoed the alliance’s defence plans for Poland and the Baltic states.

The Turkish government also wanted NATO to designate armed Kurdish groups, including those fighting jihadist militant groups such as the Islamic State (ISIS) and Al-Qaeda in Syria, as terrorist organisations, something the alliance was unwilling to do, the NYT said.