Erdogan faces challenge of repairing ties with NATO

Erdogan’s decision to buy S-400 air defence systems from Russia has soured relations.
Sunday 08/07/2018
A NATO flag and the flags of participating countries at the Turkish Naval base of Aksaz in Turkey. (Reuters)
Rocky relations. A NATO flag and the flags of participating countries at the Turkish Naval base of Aksaz in Turkey. (Reuters)

ISTANBUL - Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan is expected to use a NATO summit — his first international conference since his re-election — to begin repairing strained relations with the United States and other allies amid Western concerns about Ankara’s close ties with Russia.

Erdogan, who won re-election as president June 24 with 52.6% of the vote, is to be sworn in as head of state on July 9. The switch to a presidential system that came into force with the June election means Erdogan will have wide-ranging executive powers, including in foreign policy matters.

Following tradition, Erdogan is to visit close partner Azerbaijan and the Turkish part of Cyprus a day after the swearing-in ceremony. The Turkish leader is to travel to Brussels to join the heads of governments of NATO’s other members for meetings July 11-12.

“Turkey is eager to improve relations in the framework of NATO,” said Serdar Erdurmaz, an associate professor for international relations at Hasan Kalyoncu University in the southern Turkish city of Gaziantep. He noted that, while some commentators in the West questioned Turkey’s membership in the alliance because of strained ties between Ankara and several Western countries, NATO governments were aware of the country’s importance for the bloc.

The NATO meeting is expected to be dominated by US President Donald Trump’s calls for higher defence spending among European alliance members. Transatlantic relations are low because of a looming trade war between the United States and Europe and because of Trump’s decision to withdraw from the international nuclear agreement with Iran.

Despite the crisis atmosphere, Turkey is hoping that it can make progress in healing bilateral relations with major NATO powers. Trump and Erdogan, in a telephone conversation after the Turkish election, agreed to improve bilateral ties, the Turkish presidency said. Turkish news reports say Ankara is expected to take a more prominent role in the Western alliance by assuming the command of a new NATO rapid reaction force in 2021.

Efforts to mend ties at the Brussels summit could be overshadowed by Turkey’s problems with the United States and European partners. Ankara has been at loggerheads with the United States over Washington’s support for the Kurdish rebel People’s Protection Units (YPG) in Syria, branded a terrorist group by Turkey. Erdogan’s decision to buy S-400 air defence systems from Russia, even though they cannot be integrated into NATO’s network of weapons systems, has also soured relations. The arrest of a US pastor in Turkey and the prison sentence handed down by a US court against a former executive of a Turkish state bank are further irritants.

Erdurmaz said Turkey’s close relations with NATO’s long-standing rival Russia, a Turkish neighbour and a major player in the Syrian conflict, were no substitute for the country’s traditionally strong Western ties.

“Turkey must turn its face towards the West and towards NATO because Russia will never be a friend,” he said. Ankara might try from time to time to use its relations with Moscow to gain leverage over Western governments concerned that Turkey might drift eastward “but I don’t believe that this will work,” Erdurmaz added.

Ankara’s partnership with Russia has rattled Western officials. During a visit to Turkey after Erdogan’s election victory, US senators said the S-400 deal could mean that Washington might cancel the sale of F-35 fighter jets to Ankara.

“We’re not going to give our most advanced fighter and let it be tested against a Soviet system, a Russian system,” Lindsey Graham, a senior Republican senator, told the Turkish state broadcaster TRT. Jeanne Shaheen, a Democratic senator from New Hampshire who travelled to Turkey with Graham, said the US Congress had the authority to block the F-35 deal with Turkey.

Graham and Shaheen also visited the northern Syrian city of Manbij, a flashpoint of US-Turkish tensions. Trump has suggested that the roughly 2,000 US soldiers deployed to support the YPG in the fight against the Islamic State could be withdrawn soon but Graham said it was crucial for Washington not to abandon the Kurds. “I will tell President Trump that it’s important we stay here to help you,” Graham told a local military council in Manbij, news reports said. “You are friends of the United States and if we leave it will be terrible.”

Washington and Ankara have endorsed a tentative deal in which the YPG would withdraw from Manbij while Turkish and US forces would jointly maintain security and stability. Turkey said its forces and the US military are carrying coordinated but separate patrols there.

Erdogan’s relations with European NATO members have also been rocky. The Turkish president accused EU politicians of employing “Nazi methods” when they banned Turkish officials from having election rallies in their countries last year. European officials expressed concern about a clampdown on free speech in Turkey and a deterioration of the rule of law.

Kati Piri, the EU parliament’s Turkey rapporteur, told the German state broadcaster DW that Turkey had crossed a “red line.” The European parliament would call for a suspension of Turkey’s EU accession talks in a report to be published this year, she said.

The Turkish president has not commented on the foreign policy goals for his new 5-year term but Western officials in Turkey say they expect the recent tough line to be replaced by a softer tone. Erdurmaz said Erdogan was likely to act to improve relations with the United States and Germany first because those two countries were especially important to Turkey.