Would NATO be better off without Turkey? Ankara is now having a furious row with America and its other military allies.
It has denounced its European partners. It has bought arms from Russia. And President Erdogan now accuses Donald Trump of stabbing him in the back. Is there still any value in NATO’s links with Ankara?
The clamour to expel Turkey from NATO is growing. But there is no way that the alliance can suspend or exclude a member from the alliance. And if NATO were to do so, Erdogan would promptly turn to Russia and China, forming a new alliance that could be devastating for Western security.
In the past year Erdogan seems almost deliberately to have antagonised his military allies. He has supported Islamist movements across the Middle East. He is said to have allowed clandestine arms supplies to cross the Turkish border to arm Islamist militants. He has sent Turkish forces into Syria to fight against America’s allies, the Kurdish groups who have opposed Islamic State terrorists.
In addition, he has cultivated relations with Russia, despite NATO’s suspicion of Russia’s military intentions. Last year he signed a deal with Moscow to buy 400 S-400 anti-aircraft missiles, and then joined Russia and Iran in proposing a settlement in Syria. He has announced solidarity with Iran in response to the new US sanctions and says he will continue to trade with Iran – a provocative move intended to snub President Trump.
Most recently Erdogan has got into a personal quarrel with Trump. For the past year the US has demanded the release of Turkish officials working for the US embassy who were arrested on charges of spying. More recently, Trump has demanded the release of Andrew Brunson, an American pastor arrested on charges of terrorism and supporting the abortive military coup again Erdogan in 2016. The arrest seems to be in reprisal for America’s refusal to extradite Fethullah Gulen, the Muslim cleric and bitter foe of Erdogan, now living in exile in America, whom Erdogan accuses of masterminding the failed coup.
For Trump, the issue of the pastor is of key electoral importance, as Trump has strong support in the “Bible belt” of southern US states. He has refused to sell Turkey new F-35 aircraft and recently raised the tariffs on Turkish steel and aluminium exports to America from 20 to 50 per cent, as a direct result of Turkey’s refusal to release the pastor. In response, Erdogan slapped new tariffs on a range of US imports.
The escalating row has infuriated Turkey’s autocratic leader. He accused America of trying to humiliate Turkey and bring the country to its knees. “We are together in NATO and then you stab your strategic partner in the back,” he told Trump at a recent rally. He also accused America and the West of helping to engineer the dramatic fall in the value of the Turkish lira, which western economists blame mainly on Erdogan’s refusal to raise interest rates despite the advice of Turkish economists.
The collapse of the Turkish economy could trigger a gobal economic downturn. But the lira has since rallied a little, largely thanks to a massive $15 billion loan from Qatar.
Turkey has also quarrelled just as bitterly with his European NATO allies. He accused Germany and the Netherlands of behaving like the Nazis last year, when they refused to allow Turkish ministers to campaign there among the Turkish minorities in the run-up to the constitutional referendum. Ankara and The Hague withdrew ambassadors from each other’s countries – an almost unprecedented sign of anger between NATO allies.
Erdogan has also threatened to tear up the recent agreement with the European Union to prevent asylum seekers crossing from Turkey into Greece. He has threatened to allow migrants now held in Turkey to storm the land and sea borders into Greece – a move that would infuriate the EU, especially Germany.
All this has led to calls in American papers for the expulsion of Turkey from NATO. But this is more difficult than it seems – there is no precedent for such an action, and it could drive Turkey directly into the arms of Russia, which has long been eager to weaken Turkey’s links with America and the West.
No NATO member has ever left the 29-nation alliance, although France pulled out of the unified military command in 1966 and did not return for 43 years. But although Paris effectively excluded itself from the alliance’s primary purpose – to deter Soviet expansionism – it remained in NATO’s political structure, keeping cordial relations with other members.
There is no appetite at NATO headquarters in Brussels to see Turkey leave. The country was admitted, together with Greece, in 1952 to join the 12 nations that founded the alliance in 1949. It has since occupied a vital strategic position on NATO’s south-east flank. It also has the second largest army in NATO.
For years Turkey played a key role in containing the Soviet Union. In 1955 it was one of the founding members of Cento – or the Baghdad Pact, as it was known –together with Iran, Iran, Pakistan and Britain. With its headquarters in Ankara, the Pact was modelled on NATO and intended to block Soviet expansionism into Asia. Without US membership, however, it was not effective. The first blow came after Iraq left in 1963. After the 1979 revolution in Iran the Pact was dissolved.
Turkey also allowed the US to station missiles on its soil in 1961, directed at the USSR, prompting Russia to place Soviet missiles in Cuba and leading to the 1962 Cuba crisis.
Turkey is still vital for NATO’s forward defences, especially the huge air base at Incirlik in southern Turkey. This base was used by the US to help Kurds fleeing Saddam Hussein after the first Gulf War and in operations against Islamic State. Turkey has restricted its use by NATO but there are still 5,000 US airmen stationed there as well as many tactical nuclear weapons.
NATO originally did not lay down criteria on democracy and human rights for membership. When Turkey joined, Portugal, a founder member, was still a fascist dictatorship. New criteria on human rights were not laid down until 1999 with the accession of former communist states. Turkey would not meet those criteria today, if it were to apply to join now. Several military coups suspended democracy in Turkey, but NATO membership was never in question.
Nevertheless, Turkey has come close to open warfare with Greece, a fellow NATO member, over sovereignty and rights in the Aegean. Turkey’s invasion of Cyprus in 1974, following the Greek-sponsored coup on the island, also provoked a crisis in relations with Greece and other NATO members.
These tensions were always contained in the interest of solidarity against the Soviet Union. That ideological underpinning has now gone. Turkey has developed strong economic and political relations with Moscow – despite the shooting down of a Russian fighter jet in 2015.
NATO insisted last August that “Turkey’s membership is not in question” – a statement issued at a time when Erdogan was having talks with Putin in Moscow. But there is a growing suspicion that Erdogan has now pivoted decisively away from the West and is seeking to replace his NATO links with closer ties to Russia and China.
His quarrel with NATO is largely personal. He was furious at what he saw as a lack of support during the failed coup. He believes NATO wants to block Turkey’s support for Islamism in the Middle East. He also is angry that a number of Turkish officers stationed at NATO headquarters have applied for asylum, together with several who fled to Greece after the coup.
The Turkish military retains strong bonds with NATO. They, and western governments, are hoping that NATO membership will survive Erdogan’s policies. But as NATO officials may be saying, “With allies like Turkey, who needs enemies?”