Judy Asks: Is Turkey Damaging NATO?
by Judy Dempsey (feat. Julian Lindley-French)
January 24, 2018
A selection of experts answer a new question from Judy Dempsey on the foreign and security policy challenges shaping Europe’s role in the world.
Yes, it is.
In Afrin, Turkish forces have launched a ground offensive against U.S.-backed Syrian-Kurdish militia. In other words, Turkey is indirectly attacking its main NATO ally. It is doing so with Russian support, as Moscow controls the skies in the area—the last act in the rapprochement between the two countries since the 2015 crisis.
Western powers have timidly pleaded with Ankara to show restraint. At an emergency meeting of the UN Security Council called by France, ambassadors met behind closed doors. They did not publically condemn Turkey for its actions. Nor there has been enough condemnation by Western allies of the repeated human rights violations by Turkey over the last few years.
Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan has essentially been given the all-clear to do what he wants, knowing that Ankara’s NATO allies (not to mention the EU) will look the other way. The problem with such irresponsible behavior is that it is not only damaging NATO, it is undermining the whole Western community—and its values system. The respect of fundamental rights is what the West has used to justify the last two decades of wars; the damage is soon going to be irreparable.
Turkey is causing an increasing amount of damage to NATO. Ankara has reason for concern about U.S. support for the Kurdish YPG fighters in Syria, given the YPG’s link to the PKK terrorist group inside Turkey; but allied security will not benefit from Turkey attacking one of the only forces in Syria that can consistently fight and win against the so-called Islamic State. Only Bashar al Assad and IS would gain from the defeat of the YPG. And if Turkey’s action in Syria is at least explicable, what was Erdoğan thinking when he decided to buy a long-range air defense system from Russia rather than from a NATO ally?
The alliance will end up with a significant gap in coverage on its south-eastern flank. But Turkey’s drift away from democracy and the rule of law damages the alliance more fundamentally than any individual action. After more than a decade of rating Turkey as “partly free,” Freedom House downgraded the country to “not free” this year.
During the Cold War, NATO held its nose and tolerated authoritarian regimes in allied countries (including Turkey). These days, shared democratic values glue NATO together. Turkey’s behavior puts that unity at risk.
Turkey’s recent brinkmanship policies have definitely damaged the cohesion of NATO and the current Afrin incursion has the potential to widen the gap. However unwise Turkey’s latest move might be, it does not come as a surprise.
It is not enough that the United States recognized Turkey’s legitimate security concerns along the northern Syrian border only after the Afrin offensive. Make no mistake: there are many things that Turkey is to blame for—including, in large part, for not peacefully resolving the Kurdish question. A solution might have allowed Turkey to agree to some sort of face-saving agreement with the Kurdish YPG in Syria. But if there is one thing that Washington and Ankara have in common, it’s a miscalculated Syria policy—and the current situation is the direct outcome of that.
Both the United States and Turkey now face a larger question: are their long-term goals in Syria attainable? For the Turks, the incursion not only creates security risks at home (PKK terror attacks in major Turkish cities had stopped since 2016, but may very well return); it also risks serving Moscow’s agenda to drive a wedge into NATO.
President Erdoğan’s agenda may be fuelled by strong survival instincts and paranoia, but even outside his circles suspicion against NATO runs deep. It does not take much to make the case for alternative alliances. Turkey has reached a point where the government might be willing to risk damaging NATO for what it sees as preserving Turkey’s sovereignty, even if this may come at a high price.
Any NATO member that purposefully diminishes its democratic principles and institutions damages the alliance. Every NATO member is a signatory to the alliance’s founding document, the 1949 Washington Treaty, and its preamble states that all members are “… determined to safeguard the freedom, common heritage and civilization of their peoples, founded on the principles of democracy, individual liberty and the rule of law.”
Although we associate NATO solely with its military operations, NATO is a political-military alliance with democratic principles at its core. Turkey has so greatly diminished its democracy over the past several years that an independent U.S. organization, Freedom House, has recently declared the country “not free.” Unfortunately, Turkey is not a NATO outlier in this regard but is part of a growing trend. Poland, Hungary, and Romania are also actively diminishing judicial independence, institutional transparency, and the ability to express political opposition; the very essence of democracy. These countries also damage the credibility of this crucial political alliance.
But as a critical NATO member, Turkey’s military interventions in the Middle East—whether it is the shooting down of a Russian military aircraft or repeated unilateral military interventions in Iraq and Syria—increasingly place Turkey’s national security at risk, which places NATO at risk of becoming involved in the broader regional conflict. Thus, Turkey inflicts ongoing damage to NATO politically and militarily.
It depends on what understanding of NATO as a political-military institution you have. Turkey is not damaging NATO in the narrow, military sense of the institution, as Ankara (at least so far) still rhetorically adheres to NATO’s collective defense clause. The Turkish government has not interrupted military cooperation with the allies, continues to contribute to NATO operations, and provides an important military infrastructure on Turkish soil.
However, the Erdoğan government has seriously undermined the political cohesion of the alliance: first, by multilateralizing bilateral conflicts (for example, with the German and Dutch governments), thereby deeply antagonizing these countries as well as putting solidarity at risk; second, by prioritizing national interests over multilateral policy coordination (like in cases of Syria and Iran), which has prohibited developing unified Western positions; and finally, by diversifying its policies, turning away from the West and pivoting more toward Moscow and Tehran.
If the Turkish government continues these policies, it will contribute to the perception of NATO as being obsolete and a group of strange bedfellows. It’s sad to say, but it seems that if Erdoğan were to one day announce Turkey’s withdrawal from NATO, not many governments would shed tears.
Is Turkey damaging NATO? The Kurds are again being crushed between forces. That has, and may always be, their tragedy. Turkey’s latest anti-Kurdish incursion into Syria under the guise of fighting “terrorists” is as much about domestic stability as regional geopolitics. Ankara will never permit the creation of an autonomous Kurdish state along its southern border—autonomous, de facto, or de jure. And yet the anti-ISIS alliance in Syria between the United States and the Kurdish YPG held out the implicit hope that finally the Kurds would be “rewarded” with some form of “state” recognition. The rigours of geopolitics suggest otherwise.
At a time when NATO’s Turkey dallies with Putin’s Russia, blind eyes will be turned by a West that turns so many blind eyes these days. The tragedy of the Kurds is the tragedy of a people in the wrong place, at the wrong time, and seemingly forever.
Is Turkey damaging NATO? Wrong question. Turkey is too important to NATO to damage it. No, it is snowflake Europe that is again looking the other way by refusing to help Kurds and Turks find some form of peace. Sadly, “Europe” only likes its crises small and/or theoretical.
Right now, the Americans are facing Turkey’s “war after the war” in Syria against elements of the Syrian Kurds, groups which have also been partners in defeating IS.
Combined with Erdoğan’s strongman tendencies wrecking Turkey internally, questions abound about the viability of Turkey as a Western ally in NATO.
Yet pushing Turkey too hard might also estrange it from the West completely. Russia is ready to provide an alternative. Moscow gave the green light to Turkey’s ongoing intervention in Syria and stands ready to sell Ankara an air defense system. If Turkey were to see this as its best option to keep moving closer to Russia, it would really weaken NATO’s Southern flank.
Now, the tough-nut question for Western policymakers is how not to lose Turkey completely in NATO and beyond while applying the right dose of pressure to dent the worst of the country’s current excesses.
I don’t believe that Turkey is actively working to damage NATO. Folks inside NATO report that the Turkish mission and Turkey’s permanent representative show few signs of disrupting the alliance’s efforts to project stability and enhance deterrence, at least in broad terms. But there’s no question that a number of Turkish policies are having a detrimental impact on NATO unity, interoperability, and resolve.
For example, Turkey’s recent decision to acquire S-400 missiles from Russia issued a major blow to NATO interoperability and undermined NATO’s efforts to isolate Moscow in the face of its continued aggression. Turkey’s policies at home have also damaged NATO. Since the 2016 attempted coup against the Turkish government, Erdoğan has detained hundreds of Turkish journalists and purged the judiciary, undermining the values (freedom of the press, human rights, and rule of law) that sit at the core of NATO unity.
Finally, the Turkish incursion into Afrin, a Kurdish enclave in Syria, has put two NATO allies—Turkey and the United States—at odds. America has relied on Kurdish fighters in the fight against the Islamic State, but Turkey considers them terrorists, creating unhelpful friction at a time when NATO desperately needs an agreed-upon way forward in Syria.
Turkey and its NATO allies have managed to create a firewall between the political and military sides of the alliance. On the political side, by all accounts, it’s mostly business as usual. However, the ancillary troubles that Turkey has with the United States, Germany, and the Netherlands do bleed over.
On the military side, things are far more complicated. There is no doubt within the alliance that Turkish military readiness has been negatively affected by the purges following the failed coup attempt last year, which is most visible in the air force. Ankara has also adopted a radically different approach to Russia. It’s one thing to advocate a balanced relationship with Moscow. It is another thing entirely to buy a Russian air defense system that can collect data on the alliance’s next generation fighter, the F-35.
Turkey feels slighted by U.S. support for the YPG and Washington’s broader policy in Syria but has oddly questioned what NATO is for over the YPG issue, which NATO has nothing to do with. This rhetoric from Ankara is for domestic political consumption and is not easy on the alliance. Ankara is willing to play fast and loose with its relationships with Western allies in ways that it never has before.
NATO is actually focused and doing well as a whole. Turkey is an outlier, but a noisy outlier intent on making things difficult. The dynamics aren’t favorable for rapprochement in the short term.
It is clear that Erdoğan is damaging NATO. The question is how deep the damage will be, whether it is irreversible, and what sort of Turkey will emerge after the Erdoğan era is over.
The Erdoğan government has moved closer to Russia and China, forced the removal of Germany from its base in İncirlik, and is undermining U.S. efforts in Syria. On the other hand, Turkey has provided a home to nearly 3.5 million refugees from Syria and has helped to stabilize the refugee situation in Europe. In strategy, geography always matters and Turkey’s location makes it an important player in a volatile region in which the United States has key military bases.
NATO needs Turkey and cannot afford to push it further into Russia’s arms. Erdoğan also needs NATO. He has overplayed his hand in Syria and in his struggle with the Kurds, and is isolated in the EU. His relationship with Moscow is problematic and he does not want to face Putin without NATO membership. This is an alliance that remains based on real strategic interests and that will continue long after Erdoğan is gone.