It's Time for NATO to Call Turkey's Bluff

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By FPI Board Member Eric Edelman and Merve Tahiroglu

Thursday's NATO Summit provides an opportunity for the alliance to get tough on its putative Turkish ally. Under President Recep Tayyip Erdogan, Turkey's destabilizing policies in Europe and the Middle East have made it appear less an ally and more a Russian Trojan horse. To keep Turkey on track, NATO has been appeasing Erdogan, to no avail. Turkey's recent "Eurasianist turn" and Erdogan's now-constitutionalized one-man rule have only complicated the relationship. It is time for NATO to remind Erdogan that he needs the alliance just as much as NATO needs Turkey.

Turkey's crucial position astride Europe, Russia and the Middle East, as well as its strategically located Incirlik airbase, mean that Turkey holds the keys to a number of Western security concerns. This is why the alliance stood by Turkey as Erdogan pursued adventurous foreign policies, including its support for sectarian Sunni Islamists after the Arab Spring. Even as those policies failed, most glaringly on the Syrian front, NATO continued to back Turkey as an indispensable ally whose Western orientation had to be maintained.

Yet the relationship is now more strained than ever, especially following last summer's failed coup. Widespread purges have depleted Turkey's bureaucracy, and the military, cleansed of pro-Western elements, is now dominated by a Eurasianist vision prioritizing Turkey's alliance with the East over the West. Moreover, Erdogan has grown even more tyrannical at home and destructive abroad. His military incursion into Syria last August was meant as a show of force—and he has promised more. His invective intended to animate Turkish voters in Europe ahead of an April referendum, meanwhile, wrought havoc in Germany, Austria and the Netherlands—emboldening the very nativist factions that Europe's centrist leaders are taking pains to assuage. Washington itself got a taste of this last week, when Erdogan unleashed his thuggish security detail on protesters during his visit to the U.S. capital. The clashes left nine wounded—and the American public stunned.

Western leaders are losing patience with Erdogan. Last week, Angela Merkel threatened to pull German troops out of Turkey's Incirlik airbase—where they are stationed as part of the anti-Islamic State campaign in Syria—signaling the limits of European appeasement of Erdogan. Ankara responded with haughty indifference, effectively escalating the spat.

There is a better way for NATO to manage its relationship with Turkey, requiring neither sustained appeasement nor abrupt divorce. Erdogan's outspoken protests against the West notwithstanding, Turkey cannot afford to break with NATO for the simple reason that its own security rests on the alliance's ability to counter shared threats. On Thursday, Brussels should remind Ankara those threats—led by an expansionist Russia, hostile Iran and a failed Syrian state across Turkey's longest land border—remain shared.

Erdogan's long-held quest to free Turkey from its perceived dependence on the West and pursue an independent course has failed. Instead, Turkey now sits uncomfortably between NATO and a Russia-Iran axis that has no desire or ability to transform Turkey into the regional power of Erdogan's reveries. Russia is also Turkey's chief historical adversary, and the two sides are at loggerheads on most regional issues—including Russian policies toward Armenia and Crimea. As Russian zones of influence expand, Turkey finds itself increasingly surrounded and outmaneuvered. Nowhere is this more apparent than in Syria, where Russian support for the Bashar al-Assad regime weakens the Turkey-backed opposition.

More important, Moscow's dealings with the Kurdish People's Democratic Party (PYD), which Turkey considers its most urgent security threat, far outweigh the level of tactical cooperation that the U.S. has cultivated with the group: the PYD opened a diplomatic mission in Moscow last year, and Russian forces reportedly operate a training base for the group's military wing in Syria's PYD-held Afrin. Despite mounting animosity, Ankara's concerns about the PYD still elicit sympathy among its Western partners; in Moscow, they ring hollow.

Turkey also needs NATO for technical reasons. The country's existing security infrastructure cannot accommodate non-NATO defense equipment—including the Russian S-400 air defense missiles that Ankara has recently been toying with purchasing. Ankara wants to build parts of the missile defense system domestically, and maintains the S-400 option primarily to show NATO it has alternatives. But the Russian radar would be of little use to Turkey, as it would not interoperate with the NATO system. It may even compromise the country's existing missile defense capability. Meanwhile Turkey's defense is still contingent on NATO equipment: Ankara is part of Lockheed Martin's F-35 Lightening II program—a technology that Turkey will likely use for decades to come, and for which Turkish companies are already building components.

Over the last six decades, Turkey's NATO membership has not only supplied the country with advanced defense technology, it also provided rigorous professional training and discipline that has allowed the Turkish military to operate well beyond international standards. If Turkey's post-coup military operation "Euphrates Shield" in Syria, which produced 71 Turkish casualties over seven months, is any measure, Erdogan's purge of the military's most NATO-experienced cadres does not bode well for the country's military capability.

With myriad security threats to Turkey from Syria and with a revisionist Russia on the move in the region, Turkey and NATO should embrace each other now more than ever. As long as Erdogan remains on the fence about the alliance, however, he will only destabilize NATO from within—and the Kremlin will be the only beneficiary. It's time for Ankara to end its charade of anti-Western rhetoric and increasingly disruptive politics, lest it become pawn to Russian designs from which it must protect itself. Despite the façade of defiance, Turkey still needs NATO to do that. Brussels must urgently remind Turkey of that fact.

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The Foreign Policy Initiative seeks to promote an active U.S. foreign policy committed to robust support for democratic allies, human rights, a strong American military equipped to meet the challenges of the 21st century, and strengthening America’s global economic competitiveness.
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