Protecting Europe against any further expansion of the Soviet Union’s area of influence and interference was the main argument for expanding NATO membership to Turkey in 1952. Joining the Atlantic Alliance anchored the Turkish Republic in the West. It allowed for the military presence of the United States in Turkey with conventional and nuclear forces. NATO’s southeastern flank stood firm against the Soviet threat as well as against potential spill-over effects from instability and conflicts in the Middle East. Allied strategic interests always dominated the Turkey-NATO relationship, both during and after the Cold War. They prevailed, even in one of the most dramatic periods of intra-Alliance tensions following Turkey’s military invasion of Cyprus in 1974.
How different the situation is today. Relations between Ankara and Washington are at a low point, despite the prospects of a meeting between President Erdogan and President Trump in the course of 2019. As it is impossible to isolate tensions between Turkey and the US, the Turkey-NATO relationship is also in troubled waters. Ankara’s interference in Syria, including through negotiated deals with Iran and Russia, has raised eyebrows in Washington. The continued American refusal to release Fethullah Gülen to Turkey and the detainment of US pastor Brunson by the Turkish authorities in 2018 led to a further deterioration of the bilateral relations. The acquisition of S-400 air defence missiles from Moscow has provoked US sanctions against Turkey. In August 2018 Erdogan threatened to leave NATO if the US would not reverse its policies on Turkey. Although the words of the Turkish President sound like a Trumpian-style public provocation, not reflected by real measures, the Turkey-NATO relationship has nevertheless reached a critical level.
This Clingendael Crisis Alert focuses on the current issue of Turkey’s position in the Alliance, which to a large extent is the product of the state of US-Turkey relations. First, the author will take a closer look at Erdogan’s Turkey and how the internal situation has impacted on the country’s NATO membership. The same section also addresses the consequences of Turkey’s external policies on relations with the West. Next, attention will be paid to Turkey’s importance to NATO, today and in the near future. The following section provides an analysis of NATO’s importance to Turkey and how this differs from the past. The last section draws conclusions on the way forward in the Turkey-NATO relationship.
Since the electoral success of the Adalet ve Kalkinma Partisi (AKP) in 2002 Turkey has undergone a development from initially pragmatic and moderate Islamist rule to “the reassertion of statism, nationalism and authoritarianism under the cloak of the party’s revived religious conservatism.” During this process the Turkish military have been removed from their decade-long role as (in)formal guardians of the Kemalist state. In the two years after the failed coup in 2016, blamed by Erdogan on both the Gülenist movement and the military, at least 160,000 people have been arrested and 170,000 public servants have been dismissed, amongst them almost 9,000 police and 6,152 military. Of the Army generals 87 of a total of 198 have been dismissed since the coup. For the Navy top brass the number is 31 (of a total of 54) and for the Air Force 32 (of 74). The Turkish Air Force, allegedly considered as the main military actor supporting the coup, has been particularly hit. More than 300 pilots were dismissed from the armed forces. As a consequence, Turkey had to take measures to compensate for a pilot shortage by introducing the ‘reserve pilot’ concept which depends on harvesting flying personnel from the nation’s commercial airlines for dual employment. Turkey’s military in the NATO command structure – a total of approximately 900 officers – were ordered to return to the home country. Some 300 to 400 military officers followed the call and were arrested upon their arrival. They have been labelled “Atlanticists”. Their arrest warrants remained valid after the state of emergency came to an end in July 2018. It is very unlikely that these military officers will return to appropriate positions in the Turkish armed forces. The remaining 500-600 Turkish military in the NATO command structure have applied for asylum in the Allied countries where they were based. The result is a drastic ‘de-NATO-isation’ of the Turkish armed forces. Knowledge about NATO’s purpose, structures and functioning is lost. If this process continues and loyalty to the APK government becomes a key selection criterion for career development, the result might be a Turkish military “that is against NATO ideologically and more supportive of cooperating with Russia, and perhaps more conservative in outlook, in contrast with the more secular military of previous decades.”
The preamble to the 1949 NATO Treaty states that the members of the Alliance “are determined to safeguard the freedom, common heritage and civilisation of their peoples, founded on the principles of democracy, individual liberty and the rule of law.” However, NATO does not express opinions on the state of democracy, individual liberty and the rule of law within its member states. This applies to Turkey as well as to other ‘illiberal democracies’ within the Alliance. As in the past, the dominating interest of NATO is to keep the club together, not to create unrest and disturb Allied cohesion. NATO member states, nevertheless, are very worried about the changes taking place in Erdogan’s Turkey. Bilateral relations between several NATO countries and Turkey have deteriorated in recent years. Germany, the Netherlands and the United States are the most prominent examples. Clearly, this is also impacting upon their NATO policies and their willingness to assist Turkey. One may wonder if today Germany and the Netherlands would be still willing, politically speaking, to station Patriot air defence missiles on Turkish soil as they have done in the past.
For a long time, Turkey functioned as the bridge between Europe and the Middle East; it was a regional role model and acted as a conflict mediator. This changed at the start of the Syrian conflict. Ankara became party to the conflict by openly supporting armed groups opposing the Assad regime and covertly allowing the Islamic State to recruit foreign fighters through the “Turkey route”. The situation changed as the Syrian war progressed. Firstly, Russia’s involvement tipped the balance towards Assad. With Russian military support, Assad’s forces were able to reconquer territory controlled by opposition groups. The Kremlin’s active support for Assad created difficulties for Ankara. The Turkish objective – removing Assad from power – became less realistic and the country refocused its involvement on restraining the Syrian Kurds. The military involvement of Russia and Iran left Turkey with no other choice than to deal with the crisis on their terms. Turkey, Iran and Russia became the three dominant countries able to influence the Syrian crisis, politically and militarily. On the ground, practical arrangements had to be put in place when Turkish and Syrian forces, backed up by Russian military, came close to clashing. In September 2018, Ankara and Moscow struck a bilateral deal to prevent a military confrontation in the Idlib area. An armistice was announced. Turkish and Russian military observers started to monitor the ceasefire on both sides of a demilitarized zone. Secondly, Ankara became increasingly worried about the expansion of the area controlled by the Kurdish Syrians along the border with Turkey. With US support the Kurdish YPG forces successfully pushed IS back to the far corner along the Syrian-Iraqi border. Contrary to the Obama administration, President Trump allowed for the delivery of American arms to the YPG. At the instigation of the US military the Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF) were created in order to incorporate the YPG in a wider coalition. However, Arab militias form only a small part of the SDF which is dominated by the YPG fighters. Ankara considers the Kurdish autonomous area of Rojava, stretching along the Turkish border, as a threat to its own security. Turkey labels the YPG a terrorist organisation, just like the PKK on its own soil. Though the US lists the PKK a terrorist organisation, US support for the Syrian Kurdish forces remains a disturbing factor in the relations with Turkey. On 19 December 2019 Trump delivered an early Christmas present to Erdogan by publicly announcing the withdrawal of American troops from Syria. Secretary of Defence Jim Mattis resigned. President Macron questioned the American solidarity with allies and Republican Senator Lindsey Graham stated that Russia, Iran, Assad and ISIS were the big winners. Erdogan reacted positively and invited President Trump to visit Turkey in 2019. The Turkish President might consider himself to be ‘a winner’ as Trump’s announcement could offer him a free hand to intervene in the Kurdish-controlled area in Northern Syria. In January 2018 the Turkish Army occupied the Afrin area to prevent the expansion of the Syrian Kurdish-controlled area towards the Mediterranean coast. On several occasions Erdogan has threatened to expand its operations further eastwards. In October Turkish artillery fired at Kobane, a town to the east of the Euphrates River which the YPG had liberated from IS occupation after heavy fighting in early 2015. However, the new situation – created by the White House decision to withdraw American forces from Syria – might bring Ankara into a different game. The Syrian Kurds have already struck a deal for the Assad regime to take control of Manbij, a town west of the Euphrates river the Kurds held so far. A Turkish offensive into Syria east of the Euphrates – perhaps with the aim to create a safety zone against YPG operations in support of the PKK – might lead to another deal between the Syrian Kurds and Assad: the return of the Syrian Army, backed up by Russian military power, to control the border. Erdogan would be left with little or no choice than to accept Assad’s forces close to Turkish territory. Another option is a delay of the withdrawal of US forces, pending on a deal between Ankara and Washington with regard to the security of the Kurdish area in Northern Syria.
Turkey’s December 2017 announcement that it will purchase a S-400 air defence missile unit from Russia further worsened relations with NATO and with the US in particular. The Countering America’s Adversaries Through Sanctions Act (2017) results in the imposition of sanctions against any country buying military equipment from Russia. Furthermore, the 2019 National Defense Authorization Act, adopted on 13 August 2018, stopped the delivery of F35 fighter aircraft to Turkey until the Secretary of Defense has reported to Congress on the state of US-Turkish relations, including on the consequences of the S-400 purchase and the potential impact of Turkish participation in the F35 project. Turkey is moving ahead with the S-400 purchase, worth $ 2.5 billion. On 25 October 2018 the Turkish defence minister announced that the deployment of the S-400 architecture will begin in the autumn of 2019. Perhaps as a last move to prevent the S-400 purchase the US has formally made an offer to Turkey for the sale of the Patriot air defence system for an estimated total of $ 3.5 billion. Turkey has responded positively to the sale, but not on the condition of dropping the S-400 purchase from Russia. If the latter takes place, it only seems to be a matter of time before the US will impose sanctions on Turkey which, no doubt, will lead to a negative reaction by Ankara.
Other issues also disturb the US-Turkey relationship. Ankara is worried about the impact of American secondary sanctions against firms that continue to do business with Iran. Turkey imports oil from Iran, amounting to 55 percent of crude oil supplies and 27 percent of the country’s total energy imports in the first four months of 2018. Erdogan has already warned “Who will heat my country throughout the winter?”. The American investigation into the Turkish Halkbank is another problem. Halkbank faces major US fines for allegedly violating US sanctions against Iran. Ankara offered a deal: the US would halt the investigation in exchange for the release of Andrew Brunson, an American pastor accused of spying and trying to overthrow the government after the failed coup in 2016. Washington refused the deal. In October 2018 a Turkish court ordered the release of pastor Brunson. The US welcomed the decision, but the Halkbank investigation case has not been withdrawn. Another issue arose about the killing of journalist Jamal Khashoggi in the Saudi Consulate in Ankara. Contrary to Erdogan the White House showed no willingness to accuse Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman of having ordered the killing. Naturally, the main obstacle for real improvement in US-Turkey relations is still the release of Fethullah Gülen by the US authorities to Turkey. The handover of Gülen, repeatedly portrayed by Erdogan as the organizer of the 2015 military coup, remains the key to turn the tide in the Turkey-US relationship. So far, the US request for proof of Gülen’s involvement in the coup has gone unanswered by Ankara. After the release of pastor Brunson, Washington also remained completely silent on handing over Gülen to the Turkish authorities.
Turkish-US relations have sunk to a historic low point. In 2017, 72 percent of the Turkish population considered the US as a threat to the country compared to 44 percent in 2013. The US was seen a bigger threat to Turkish security than Russia or China. At the same time the US Congress is very critical of Turkey, in particular concerning the acquisition of the Russian S-400 missiles and the Ankara-Moscow connections in general. Relations between Turkey and the US will remain tense. As a result also NATO might need “to buckle up for the bumpy road ahead”.
American influence in the Middle East has diminished in recent years as a result of Washington’s own decisions such as its reduced military presence after the peak around 2010. In the meantime, Russia’s role in the region has grown. The power struggle for regional hegemony between Iran and Saudi Arabia, a long-time US ally, has also altered the situation. President Trump’s unequivocal support for Israel and the decision to move the location of the American Embassy from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem in particular, have weakened the US position in the Middle East and it is certainly no longer the honest broker, if indeed it ever was. On the other hand, Turkey now plays a military role in the region, but the question is whether that role serves NATO’s interests. It has brought Turkey into a situation of dealing with Russia, which is pushing the US – and thus NATO – further into a corner. Erdogan’s Turkey is primarily following its own interests and not necessarily those of the West. Syria may serve as an example. Turkey has undermined the West’s approach to the conflict by (a) tolerating IS foreign fighters using Turkish territory for entering the Caliphate, (b) campaigning against the Syrian Kurdish YPG, a major partner of the US in the anti-IS coalition, and (c) teaming up with Russia diplomatically and even militarily in the Idlib armistice. Turkey is definitely no longer an ally in the sense of supporting US and Allied interests.
Militarily, the geographic location of Turkey remains of primary interest to the Alliance. After the annexation of the Crimea, the Russian Black Sea Fleet, based in Sebastopol, has become more active. Turkey’s control of the Bosphorus and the Dardanelles is of key importance for the Russian Navy’s access to the Mediterranean. On the other hand, Turkey’s improved relations with Russia could be jeopardised by too much sabre rattling in the Black Sea. Its new interests are not served with an increased NATO presence in the region. The Russian interception of Ukrainian navy vessels when attempting to enter the Sea of Azov, end November 2018, has underlined the growing tensions in the Black Sea. Turkey could easily been drawn into a crisis, if NATO were to step up its naval presence in the Black Sea (as Ukraine has requested).
Alliance military infrastructure in Eastern Turkey is of primary importance to the US and NATO. The Inçirlik air base has served as an important facility for the US air campaign against IS. Closing the base for the US and NATO would have severe consequences, not only because of its forward strategic location. It also offers logistics and training facilities, a communication mode, an intelligence gathering centre and an international air transport hub. Surveillance operations could be seriously disrupted if international activities at Inçirlik were to cease. Not only the US but also NATO operations in the Eastern Mediterranean, the Middle East and Central Asia would be severely impeded. The US military presence in Turkey amounts to 2,000 personnel. Dozens of air and radar assets in the country support operations of the US armed forces. In the US view “Turkey remains a productive military power in many areas, particularly for basing and access, as well a key contributor to NATO missions.”
Finally, Turkey’s own military contribution to NATO should not be underestimated. In terms of military personnel the country is the largest contributor after the US. The Turkish armed forces are about 700,000 strong. In 2018 Turkey will spend $ 15.2 billion on defence or 1.68 percent of its GDP. It is supposed to reach $15.8 billion by 2023 and Ankara has announced that it will reach the NATO two percent GDP target by 2024. The country actively participates in NATO missions from Afghanistan to Kosovo. Over 500 Turkish military operate with other Allied troops in the Resolute Support Mission in Afghanistan. Turkey leads the Train, Advise & Assist Command in Kabul and will likely send a deputy commander to NATO’s training mission in Iraq, along with the contribution of trainers. Ankara has contributed $ 55 million to the Afghan National Army Trust Fund, set up by NATO to finance Afghanistan’s security forces and institutions. This is more than the UK contribution and the same as the Japanese share. While currently the Turkish contribution to the Alliance’s forward Enhanced Presence in the Baltic States and Poland is negligible, Turkey will assume command of NATO’s Very High Readiness Joint Task Force (VJTF) in 2021.
While President Erdogan has openly questioned the future of Turkey’s NATO membership, the official line as stated on the website of the Ministry of Foreign Affairs is crystal clear. The Alliance plays “a central role in Turkey’s security”, is of the “utmost importance” and is “the most successful military alliance in history”. Turkey will continue to host the Force Command in Istanbul and within the new NATO command structure the Air Command in Izmir will be replaced by a land command. Furthermore, Turkey hosts the Partnership for Peace Training Centre, created in 1998, within the Turkish General Staff. The deployment to Eastern Turkey of Patriot air defence missiles, launched in 2013 as an Allied contribution to protect the Turkish population and territory, continues. Not only in words but also in practice, Turkey remains clearly embedded in NATO, including in the military command structure.
The Alliance, despite its overall troubled state since President Trump has entered the White House, is the only international framework offering Turkey military assistance in case the country would come under attack. That reassurance - even if a scenario of an armed attack against Turkey is unlikely – is an important reason for continued Turkish NATO membership. In the past, President Erdogan has suggested that Turkey could join the Shanghai Cooperation Organisation, but primarily as an alternative for EU membership. There is simply no alternative to NATO available. Furthermore, President Erdogan’s camaraderie with Putin has its ups and downs. It is desirable when serving Turkish interests such as enhancing Ankara’s role as a regional power and for deconflicting military operations in Syria. The flirtation with Moscow also offers Erdogan a bargaining chip to be used against Western partners. But Russia is not a reliable ally. Its support for the Assad regime and Moscow’s increased military role in the region do not serve Turkish interests. The poor economic and financial prospects of Turkey also set limits on seeking alternatives to the West. The country conducts most of its trade with Europe. Also in economic-financial terms Russia offers no alternative. Some argue that Turkey, lacking a credible source of alternative military and financial backing, will have to make a deal with the US sooner or later.
The North Atlantic Alliance has faced many crises in its almost 70 years of existence. Today, it is challenged by a complex set of challenges and threats from the outside but equally by a lack of internal cohesion. Erdogan’s Turkey is not the only source, but certainly a major one for generating tensions within NATO. For the Alliance, the degradation of democracy, individual liberty and the rule of law in Turkey is not the main concern. There are other Allies with a dubious record concerning these values and norms. Publicly, NATO will remain silent on the matter as the overall strategic interest of keeping all its member states together in one political-military family is more important. Turkey’s geographical location and the country’s valuable contribution to the Alliance are key factors arguing for continued membership. Thus, it is very unlikely that NATO Allies – even those with the most troubled relationship with Ankara – will argue for a NATO without Turkey. For the near future, Turkey will remain a NATO member state. Its strategic-military and its economic-financial interests are certainly better served by linking up to the West than gambling on a permanent connection to Russia. However, the relations between Washington and Ankara as well as between Turkey and several European countries will continue to erode the security and defence relationship. A further ‘Erdoganisation’ of the Turkish armed forces will speed up that process. For the medium to longer term, the prospects of the Turkey-NATO relationship are rather gloomy.
What should be done? NATO itself has very little room for manoeuvre: any interference in Turkey’s affairs will be counterproductive and damage relations with Ankara. The wisest approach for the Alliance is to be silent publicly and to strengthen ties with Turkish officials and military, both in Ankara and inside the NATO organisation. In itself this will not solve the NATO-Turkey crisis. A breakthrough has to come from a turn in the US-Turkey relationship. For the moment, this still seems to be out of reach as both sides are sharpening the knives: Ankara by taking the next steps in purchasing the Russian S-400 air defence missiles and Washington, most probably, by imposing sanctions. A Trump-Erdogan meeting in the course of 2019 might result in a turn of the tide, although cautiousness is justified. The announcement of the American troop withdrawal from YPG-controlled territory along the Syrian-Turkish border might have been helpful to reopen the dialogue between Washington and Ankara, but a well-functioning bilateral relationship will require bold steps from both sides which currently look rather out of reach.
For the near future, it seems that NATO is too important for Turkey to seriously consider an opt-out. It would damage the country’s interest more than it could provide benefits. In that sense President Erdogan’s alarming statement about the alternative “to start looking for new friends and allies” is predominantly of a tactical nature and a grandstanding for domestic political purposes. Turkey’s security and economic interests are best served by staying connected to the West. On the other hand, the automaticity of Turkey’s membership of NATO mirroring its own national security interests is no longer there. The country’s interests deviate considerably from the days of the Kemalist Turkish Republic. NATO ultimately offers Turkey security in military terms, but politically the relationship is in troubled waters. A divorce is not imminent, but Turkey and NATO are already living apart together.
About the author
Dick Zandee is Head of the Security Unit and Senior Research Fellow at the Clingendael Institute.
The author is grateful to Rem Korteweg en Erwin van Veen for their review and comments. Naturally, the content of the report is the responsibility of the author.