Turkish exit from NATO possible after U.S. sanctions - analyst

A split in the NATO alliance is possible as a result of the United States imposing sanctions on Turkey for buying the Russian-made S-400 missile system, defence analyst Alex Gatopoulos said on Friday in an article for Al Jazeera.

The recent decision to impose sanctions on leading members of Turkey’s defence industry “indicate the crack in diplomatic relations is now in danger of becoming a rift as Turkey’s strategic needs diverge with those of the U.S.”, Gatopoulos said.

In response to the sanctions, Turkey’s Presidential spokesperson İbrahim Kalın said Turkey was prepared to work with other nations to supply its defence industry.

“With positions rapidly hardening between Washington and Ankara the potential for a Turkish exit from NATO is now a possibility,” according to Gatopoulos.

NATO’s founding principle was the containment of the Soviet Union during the Cold War, and the alliance has sought to renew its mission after the Cold War ended. Meanwhile, Russia has continued efforts to weaken the alliance. 

“The world is a very different place from when Turkey joined (NATO) in 1952 and as the threat of a vast Russian invasion of the West recedes, Turkey increasingly looks to its own strategic needs and concerns,” Gatopoulos said.

Turkey and the U.S. have fallen out over American support for the Kurdish-led Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF) forces in northern Syria, which are ideologically linked to the outlawed Kurdistan Workers’ Party, a militant group that has been in conflict with the Turkish state since the 1980s.

The U.S. and Turkey traded criticism in 2019 after U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo told NATO allies that Turkey “must choose” whether it wants to “remain a critical partner in the most successful military alliance in history, or does it want to risk the security of that partnership by making such reckless decisions that undermine our alliance?”.

Turkish Vice-President Fuat Oktay responded by saying that the U.S. must also choose whether to “remain Turkey’s ally or risk our friendship by joining forces with terrorists to undermine its NATO ally’s defence against its enemies?”.

The alliance has also been tested over renewed tensions between Greece and Turkey in the eastern Mediterranean, where there have been discoveries of gas deposits which make competing claims to Exclusive Economic Zones more pressing. 

The U.S. has criticised the “calculated provocation” of Turkey’s exploration for further deposits, but they have made little effort to mediate between the two NATO allies or help to find a solution which both sides can accept. 

Under Donald Trump, the U.S. became more isolationist, refusing to play its usual leading role in international affairs, which led to other nations, such as Turkey, flexing their military muscles within their region.

Gatopoulos said  Turkey’s military logic for buying the S-400 Russian missiles was rational as they are more flexible than the rival U.S. Patriot missile system, cheaper, and with a longer range. India has also recently purchased them, he said. 

But U.S. sanctions “could push Turkey to form cooperation initiatives with other high-tech defence powers, relying less and less on American-made military equipment, diversifying who supplies its armed forces and boosting its own domestic weapons production,” according to the analyst.