Turkey is profiting from NATO

This week’s NATO summit in London carried an air of high drama. U.S. President Donald Trump, French President Emmanuel Macron and Turkey’s President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan each did his best to ramp up expectations by trading rhetorical blows ahead of the important gathering.  

In an act of hardnosed diplomacy, Turkey blocked the revision of contingency plans drawn up by the alliance for the defence of the Baltics and Poland, threatening to prevent NATO helping eastern Europeans unless the alliance yielded to the long-standing Turkish demand to proscribe the People’s Protection Units (YPG), a Kurdish militia in northeast Syria. 

Ankara sees the YPG as an extension of the Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK), which Turkey, the EU and the United States designate as a terrorist organisation, but the Syrian Kurdish group has played a key role in the U.S.-backed fight against Islamic State. 

Erdoğan’s tough line appears to have unnerved Macron in particular. He was rather unapologetic and went as far as blaming Turkey for forging a common cause with radical groups: “I am sorry we do not have the same definition of terrorism around the table. When I look at Turkey, they now are fighting against those who fight with us, who fought with us, shoulder to shoulder, against ISIS. And sometimes they work with ISIS proxies.” 

This was not an auspicious start for a forum that was supposed to display unity of will and purpose. 

Such acrimonious exchanges are increasingly becoming the norm rather than the exception. Turkey begrudges its allies, starting with Washington, for purposefully ignoring its concerns and interests. Charges against the United States for teaming up with Kurdish separatists in Syria are reminiscent of the accusations levelled, over decades, at the European states it said had harboured the PKK.  

The United States and the Europeans also have their own list of complaints about Turkey.  Macron echoed the Pentagon and the U.S. Congress, pressing Erdoğan on his burgeoning friendship with Russian President Vladimir Putin and Turkey’s deal to buy S-400 missiles from Russia in particular. How could Turkey stay in NATO while procuring advanced weapons from an adversary and opening the door to its intelligence services? 

“Technically it is not possible,” the French president argued. 

But neither these strong words, nor Trump’s abrupt departure derailed the summit. Member states seem to have forged a compromise on Erdoğan’s demands. During the closing press conference, NATO’s Secretary General Jens Stoltenberg announced Turkey had withdrawn its veto over the revisions of the contingency plan.  

One could only speculate what Erdoğan obtained in return. The summit’s declaration states that “terrorism in all its forms and manifestations remains a persistent threat to us all,” but that is about it. In all likelihood, though, the Turks squeezed out further concessions as well. 

At any rate, convincing Trump to pull out troops from the border in northeast Syria and leave the YPG to fend for itself has largely done the job for Erdoğan, whose October military operation broke the group’s hold over areas bordering Turkey. If he has any additional worries, he should voice them with the Russians, who have now replaced the United States and its European allies as the Kurdish militants’ partners of choice.  

Turkey’s behaviour at NATO is revealing on a number of levels. Picking public quarrels with Western powers is now the staple of Turkish foreign policy. Erdoğan does not mince his words, but neither do his counterparts, many of whom are fed up with the Turkish president’s tactics. Macron’s response was symptomatic, and fights of this kind will doubtless recur in the future.

The summit also showed that, for all the talk about Turkey leaving NATO and aligning itself with Russia, such a scenario is not on the cards. Erdoğan believes he can have his cake and eat it, benefiting from the alliance’s collective defence guarantee while cosying up to Putin. 

Who can blame him?  He is certainly getting away with it so far. Trump has been doing his best to shield the Turkish president from pushback in Washington. Macron, who is advocating for a reset between the EU and Russia, is in no position to criticise the Turks for the special relationship they are developing with Moscow. Germany cannot afford to be too sanctimonious either. The TurkStream pipeline, which Putin will inaugurate during a visit to Turkey in a couple of weeks, has one-third of the capacity of the Nordstream pipelines carrying Russian gas to Germany.  

Britain, the summit’s host, is about the only power that still has credibility, but its prestige and clout have been greatly diminished by Brexit. Put differently, only the United States is capable of drawing red lines and sanctioning Ankara. It is clear who Erdoğan will be rooting for in the 2020 U.S. presidential elections.