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NATO’s Turkish Dilemma

By Andrew Latvis

In central Anatolia, far from the magnificence of the Hagia Sophia and the splendour of the Golden Horn, there is a Turkish heartland. In this region, President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan has formed a solid, impermeable bedrock of support. Since his rise to power nearly twenty years ago, Erdoğan has reshaped Turkey’s republic in accordance with his neo-Ottoman vision for Turkish regional dominance.

In domestic affairs, he has largely pursued a gradual shift toward Islamic authoritarianism, punctuated by moments of overt consolidation of power. Such totalitarian tendencies have been observed throughout Erdoğan’s presidency. Indicative examples include the brutal purge that followed the attempted coup of 2016 and the seizure of private assets collectively worth billions of dollars, accompanied by the dismissal of nearly 200,000 government employees due to suspected disloyalty. The approval by referendum of Erdoğan’s proposed executive presidency in 2017 has all but ensured that his government’s suppression of domestic dissent will continue. Yet, under Erdoğan’s Justice and Development Party (AKP), it is in the realm of foreign policy that the most dramatic shift has occurred.

The servile deference exhibited by the Turkish government in early 2020 to Russian-backed forces in northwestern Syria is emblematic of the swing in geopolitical orientation that the AKP has implemented. In signing the Idlib ceasefire, Erdoğan has made the perhaps wise calculation that maintenance of relations with Putin is worth the sacrifice of contested territory. Such behaviour would be utterly unremarkable if not for one simple fact, namely, that Turkey is a member of NATO. Joining the organisation in 1952, Turkey remained in opposition to the Soviet Union throughout the entirety of the Cold War.

Following the collapse of the ‘evil empire’, an inevitable thaw in Russian-Turkish relations occurred. More recently, the Turkish government has, in certain instances, demonstrated a preference toward Russia rather than a mere tolerance. Most notably, in 2017, the Turkish government purchased a $2 billion Russian S-400 anti-aircraft missile system. This equipment cannot be integrated into the NATO defence system due to the necessity of Russian involvement in its operation. Although the Western allies responded to this Turkish-Russian deal with customary stern words and threats of sanctions, Turkey remained a member of the alliance. Not only has Erdoğan’s Turkey befriended NATO’s opponents, it has also become increasingly hostile to regional Western allies such as Israel and the Kurds. Naturally, one must wonder why members of the alliance are willing to endure such blatant disregard for NATO’s mission?

In the case of the United States, the existence of its strategically located Incirlik Air Base has complicated the question of appropriate retaliation. Positioned near Turkey’s southern coast, Incirlik’s significance is derived from its housing of nuclear weapons. The U.S. officially possesses sole ownership of the weapons; however, the Turkish government has threatened to develop its own nuclear arsenal if they are returned to the U.S. This hostage-like situation perpetuated by the Turkish government was evidenced when power was cut to the base during the 2016 coup attempt. In the event of a Turkish expulsion or withdrawal from NATO, it is difficult to see how the issue of the air base could be resolved amicably.

In the case of the European allies, it is evident that Turkey’s role in the management of the ongoing migrant crisis inhibits their reaction to Turkish misbehaviour. The E.U. struggles to adequately compensate Turkey for its housing of western-bound migrants, and Erdoğan is acutely aware of the leverage provided to him by the ability to flood Europe’s frontier at will.

Relations between Turkey and Germany have particularly soured, resulting in German forces being pulled out of the Incirlik base. Collectively, the E.U. member states have limited arms sales to the Turkish military in recent years, which indicates some level of shared dissatisfaction regarding the comportment of Turkey’s government.

National and regional motivations aside, the predominant reason for begrudging acceptance of Turkish betrayal is the fear of having the guns of Ankara turned against the West. There seems to be an unspoken consensus among the major members of NATO that an unreliable ally is more favourable than a formidable foe. This calculation is certainly not without merit. Turkey wields the second largest army in the entire alliance and has dramatically increased military spending since the beginning of the last decade. It also commands some valuable real estate, offering its current allies a launchpad into conflicts in the Middle East. The West recognises that in the event of a NATO abandonment of Turkey, Erdoğan will inevitably seek greater cooperation with leaders such as Xi Jinping and Vladimir Putin.

The momentum of the current situation does not swing in NATO’s favour. Even while the growing amity of Ankara and Moscow is tempered by conflicting interests in various regional clashes, Erdoğan has remained reluctant to repair relations with his supposed allies in the West. As Turkey’s discussed entrance into the E.U. increasingly becomes a lost cause, it seems unlikely that the Turkish government will abandon the strengthening of its eastern ties. For the time being, Erdoğan is content with solidifying his country’s residence on the fence between East and West, using both sides to achieve regional dominance. Turkish involvement in the recent Nagorno-Karabakh conflict in the South Caucasus exemplifies his tendency to quickly disregard established alliances when matters of sufficient national interest are involved. As Erdoğan continues to test the boundaries of what NATO deems permissible, Western nations will ultimately be required to draw a line in the sand. If they wait too long, they risk compromising the authority of their alliance.

The Turkish dilemma represents the most extreme instantiation of the troubles plaguing NATO in the 21st century. The fall of the Soviet Union brought with it the collapse of the binary morality of the Cold War. Now, nations are once again faced with the unwelcome task of weighing up the morality of their allies, in the absence of a unifying opponent. The ultimate consequences of this challenge to NATO’s status quo are yet to be seen. The ball is certainly in Turkey’s court. Erdoğan will eventually be compelled to decide on whether his ideal vision of Turkey is compatible with an international alliance of any form. NATO may not be “brain-dead”, as Emmanuel Macron remarked last November, but it is certainly on its way to the emergency room.


Photo Credit: Arab News



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