Will U.S. and NATO deliver Patriot missiles to Turkey?
The second volume of Winston Churchill’s The Second World War is titled “Alone”. Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan seems intent on preparing to apply that title to a volume in the series recording Turkey’s position in the ongoing Syrian war, now several years longer than WWII.
Over the last few years, he struck out on an ambitious program to expand Turkey’s and his influence to entanglements in foreign lands - Qatar, Somalia, Sudan, Libya, and Syria most of all. Now he finds his nation facing a vengeful Syrian leader undeterred in his drive to restore control over every square foot of Syrian land. Unlike his Syrian rival, Erdoğan does not enjoy unrestricted support for his military endeavours from a powerful third state.
To his dismay, he is learning too late that Russia’s President Vladimir Putin was happy to encourage Turkey’s distancing itself from the West and its accompanying increased dependency on Russia as it serves Putin’s interests, but not Turkey’s. Both the distancing and dependency will prove difficult to undo.
Recent press accounts quote Turkish Defence Minister Hulusi Akar as suggesting Turkey will turn to the United States and other NATO countries to secure the deployment of Patriot missile defence batteries near its border with Syria. Some officials and pundits of western countries see in this suggestion an opportunity to foster a rapprochement between Turkey and the other NATO members and pull Erdoğan’s Turkey away from Russia.
But, would Putin let Turkey simply walk away? Would members of the U.S. Congress back providing support for Ankara given the presence of Islamist militants in the Turkish-backed Syrian rebels? Recent Twitter comments by Senator Bob Menendez reveal a strong reluctance to re-engage with Turkey as if Erdoğan’s anti-U.S. and anti-West rhetoric had never happened.
Which leaves the U.S. initiative to support Erdoğan in the hands of President Donald Trump. Not likely - the Turkish President has disappointed Trump too many times.
Erdoğan told Trump that Turkey could handle the Islamic State (ISIS) in Syria so U.S. troops could leave. Trump touted this guarantee when he announced the withdrawal of U.S. forces. Erdoğan then attacked the Kurds, erstwhile U.S. battlefield allies, more than the remnants of the ISIS. In some cases, Turkey used irregular fighters under its control that many others considered being Islamist militants affiliated with al Qaeda or other radical Sunni terrorist groups. Though Trump is unlikely to admit it, he was forced to back-pedal on his decision to remove all U.S. forces from Syria. One wonders if any of Trump’s advisors had the courage to tell him that Erdoğan had misled him. Perhaps Trump remains convinced that he can still rely on Erdoğan - more likely not.
One suspects from the brief non-committal Feb. 18 readout from the tarmac of a recent conversation between the two leaders that Trump has little use for Erdoğan and even less motivation to help him. In the past, the U.S. President could be expected to stand apart from the anti-Erdoğan (and by extension anti-Turkey) rhetoric coming from pundits and politicians in Washington. But with Erdoğan being at best unhelpful in Libya, contentious in the Eastern Mediterranean over rich hydrocarbon resources, strongly denouncing the U.S. Middle East peace plan for Israel and Palestine, and presuming incorrectly that the United States needs Turkey more than vice versa, it’s hard to see Trump set aside his “America First” stance to save Erdoğan from the dilemma he has put himself in.
Might Erdoğan be able to blackmail European countries in possession of Patriots to lend those to defend Turkey or provide other assistance to his forces in Syria? Would veiled threats of unleashing a tsunami of migrants from Turkey into Europe motivate the European leaders to help Erdoğan in his Syria deployment? Not likely.
The anti-immigrant sentiments in European politics have increased dramatically in the last few years. Centrist politicians know their political careers would be ruined by allowing millions of migrants, regardless of humanitarian needs, into Europe. The more likely response among more sophisticated commentators would be a stiffening of the borders, and a hardening of attitudes against Turkey, or at least against Erdoğan.
Thus, at least in Syria, Erdoğan and Turkey are on their own. Putin will restrain Assad only as much as Putin deems it necessary to maintain the appearance of being an honest broker between Erdoğan and Assad. Also, he will restrain Assad from attacking Turkish forces in Turkey, which could lead to a collective NATO response under Article 5 of the Alliance Treaty (Article 5 does not apply to a Syrian attack on Turkish forces operating in Syria, see Article 6 of the Treaty.)
This is another reason why the deployment of Patriots to Turkey is unnecessary. The previous deployments of Patriots were needed to defend against an inadvertent or poorly aimed missile impacting Turkey. Very few considered it a serious possibility that Assad would deliberately target Turkey, for doing so would have called forth a collective NATO response. And now, Assad’s forces are using helicopters and aircraft to bomb the opposition in Syria, not launching SCUDs or similar rockets against those near the border with Turkey, further undermining the supposed need for Patriots. Turkey does not need U.S.-made batteries to defend itself from Syrian missiles - its soldiers need re-deployment out of the path of the Assad’s forces committed to conquering all Syrian territory regardless of who stands in their way.
In sum, Erdoğan stands alone, but not as the leader of a nation united against threatened foreign invasion and fighting for its survival, but as the director of efforts to extend his influence while distracting the nation from its internal discord.
© Ahval English
The views expressed in this column are the author’s and do not necessarily reflect those of Ahval.