Turkey’s place in a 70 year old NATO

As a heated NATO summit concludes in London, Turkey’s place in the 70-year-old organization has become a matter of international debate. The issue frequently pops up in discussions since the country is at loggerheads with several other member states of NATO over issues related to security.

Why is Turkey in NATO?

Turkey joined NATO in the year 1952 as the organization was expanding in membership and influence. It provided an opportunity for Turkey to extend its security expectations and make meaningful contributions in transatlantic initiatives. 

Turkish and US soldiers take part in a joint exercise
Turkish and US soldiers take part in a joint exercise

NATO was formed when the Cold War was still brewing and a considerable threat of conflict between the communist and the capitalist blocs prevailed. To safeguard the southeastern border of the capitalists, Turkey joined in to play an instrumental role. 

Later in the post Cold War era, Turkey progressed NATO’s interests in Bosnia-Herzegovina, Kosovo and Afghanistan and made significant contributions with the formation of the NATO Response Force (NRF)

Today Turkey acts as the bridge between the primarily west-oriented NATO with the eastern and the Muslim world. In post 9/11 years when religious misconceptions have led the world into a number of wars, this bridge is extremely important. Turkey’s influence can be pivotal to the efforts of de-radicalization in parts of the world where its leadership is viewed with respect. 

The Kurdish Bone of Contention

Many of the Kurdish people living in parts of Syria and Turkey have long aspired for a separate country for themselves. When the formal boundaries of Syria and Iraq became blurry with the events leading to the rise of ISIS and the resulting independent multinational operations, Kurdish factions like the Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK) and People’s Protection Units (YPG) sprang to an organized defense.

The Kurdish YPG group in Syria
The Kurdish YPG group in Syria

Turkey, in very clear terms, regards these factions as terrorists groups that harm its security interests and intend to undermine its sovereignty. Rest of the NATO countries, however, do not share this view. 

A Unilateral Offensive in Syria

Faced with a growing population of Syrian refugees at home and a threat of Kurdish fighters on the border, Turkey decided to establish a safe zone in Syria along its border to settle Syrian refugees that have become a divisive issue in Turkey’s politics and society. 

Not finding support for the initiative, Turkey continued to raise its concerns until the United States, one of the main backers of the Kurdish fighting groups, gave way. Green-lighting Turkey for its offensive into Syria, the US pulled back its forces from the Syrian border with Turkey and literally abandoned the Kurds. 

Turkish military vehicles drive into Syria
Turkish military vehicles drive into Syria

The US move came after a one-on-one phone interaction between Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan and US President Donald Trump, leaving other NATO allies flabbergasted. NATO countries saw the initial resistance shown by the US in retreating from the border areas of Syria as its unwillingness to agree with the Turkish plan in the absence of consultations with other alliance members. 

But with the Turkish military’s offensive into Syria, cracks in NATO were out in the open.

NATO’s Baltic Defense Plan and Turkey’s Threat to its Blockage

Turkey still expects NATO to regard the threats it perceives from the Kurdish fighting groups. It has been asking the organization to recognize the YPG as “terrorists”. Most members are not just hesitant in doing so but are even actively collaborating with YPG in the fight against ISIS. 

If NATO fails to regard them as terrorists, Turkey has threatened to use its veto to block NATO’s plan for the defense of Baltic states. Russian actions in Crimea and Ukraine have forced the alliance to secure Eastern Europe where the Nordic and Baltic states are increasingly becoming dependent on the West for security. 

US troops in Poland as part of NATO deployment
US troops in Poland as part of NATO deployment

The events culminating in the impeachment process of President Trump, too, have their origins in this region. Since Ukraine is banking on the US and NATO against the posturing by Russia, Trump’s attempt to hold military aid for Ukraine proved counterproductive which, after Turkey’s threat to block the Baltic defense plan, has further heightened fears of a conflict. 

Then there is the question of Poland facing the brunt of Russian warnings over the presence of US troops on its territory. How exactly might Turkey respond to an actual build-up of a Russian threat for Poland cannot be ascertained with surety. 

The ‘Brain Death’ of NATO and that of Macron

The war in Syria has divided allies like none other. French President Emmanuel Macron has been especially vocal against Turkish unilateral operation in Syria. Commenting on the lack of coordination over the offensive among member states of NATO, he declared the organization “brain dead“. 

President Erdoğan took an exception to the remark. Slamming the French President, he said that it was, in fact, Macron who was suffering brain death. Happening days before the 70th-anniversary summit of NATO, the spat spent clear signals that the event was not going to sail smooth. 

File Photo: Harsh exchange of statements ensued between France and Turkey days before NATO's 70th anniversary summit
Harsh exchange of statements ensued between France and Turkey days before NATO’s 70th anniversary summit (File Photo)

And just as it was predicted, President Trump joined the foray in the midst of the summit, standing alongside NATO Secretary-General Jens Stoltenberg, and called President Emmanuel’s remarks “very, very nasty“. Perhaps Turkey had not conducted the Syria operation without coordinating with at least one other NATO member. 

Turkey’s Spat with Another NATO Member – Greece

Ever since NATO ousted Muammar Gaddafi, Libya’s ruler of 42 years, the country hasn’t had a respectable form of stability. Eight years later, Turkey signed a maritime demarcation agreement with Libya to retain economic rights in the eastern Mediterranean Sea. 

What followed was a complaint from Greece accusing Turkey of encroaching on its sovereignty under the deal with Libya. The energy-rich eastern Mediterranean has been a source of contention between Turkey and Greece where the former does not recognize Cyprus as a state. Greece brought the Turkey-Libya deal to the summit with hopes of reaching a middle ground. 

Turkey has signed a maritime demarcation agreement with Libya for rights in the eastern Mediterranean Sea
Turkey has signed a maritime demarcation agreement with Libya for rights in the eastern Mediterranean Sea

Purchase of Russian Military Hardware

The complex conflict in the Middle East that has pitched allies against allies has severely affected NATO. With diverging interests, heated debates and public outcries against each other were very much expected at the summit. The US, supporting Turkey over its latest Syrian offensive, is at odds with Turkey’s decision to purchase Russian S-400 missiles

Expelling it from the F-35 stealth fighter jet program, the US is giving stern warnings to Turkey if it continues to move ahead with the purchase of Russian military hardware that the US deems incompatible with NATO equipment. 

Russian S-400 missile launcher at a military parade in Moscow
Russian S-400 missile launcher at a military parade in Moscow

Meanwhile, the use of Russian equipment by Turkey is making other NATO members uncomfortable in countering the threat they are teaming up against. Turkey presently faces the threat of US sanctions on completion of the multi-billion dollar deal with Russia, if it does not lock up its already delivered pack of S-400 systems and allow US technicians to frequently inspect them. 

Will Turkey Stay in NATO?

The NATO charter mentions guidelines on including new members but it is quiet on expelling existing ones. So the calls to kick Turkey out of NATO may find ears to land on but they will not find a vehicle to execute such a move. 

Turkey itself would never intend to leave NATO. It terms NATO a part of its global identity. It is a means for Turkey to project its soft power in regions where the alliance operates. Whereas, NATO needs Turkey to extend its influence where western nations traditionally find it hard to. Despite their growing differences, the common grounds are far overshadowing. So in the near future, there is no chance of NATO and Turkey parting ways.