Erdogan raises stakes with NATO but to no avail

Sunday 02/07/2017

Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan seems keen on keeping tensions with Turkey’s allies at a constant high.

He was recently heard raising the stakes further, apparently to the delight of Russia. Speaking June 25 at a conference, he indicated that if push came to shove, his country would question its partnership with NATO.

“At one side, we will be together in NATO but on the other side you will act together with terror organisations. All of these moves are against NATO. In this case, the NATO treaty should be revised,” he said about the US-led coalition’s support to the Kurdish People’s Protection Units (YPG), which Turkey considers terrorists.

US Defence Secretary James Mattis has said there will be continued delivery of weapons to Syrian Kurdish fighters even after the combat to oust Islamic State (ISIS) militants from Raqqa, Syria, is over.

Such indirect duels of words make clear how deep the conflict between Ankara and NATO goes, with increasing risks involved. Not parting ways, necessarily, but to a point that Moscow has been involved in its sophisticated geostrategic calculations: Every move to grow the gap between NATO and its key ally, a front state in its eastern flank, brings Turkey closer to the league of Turkic states in the Caucasus and Central Asia under the influence of a stronger Russia.

Ingredients for such a steady, albeit slow-motion, glide are obvious: Turkey under the oppressive micromanagement of Erdogan has practically lost all perspectives for a membership with the European Union; it is at odds with the United States and Germany over the issues that link to battle plans in Syria and military bases and the defection of more than 100 senior Turkish officers after the failed coup to NATO countries. Erdogan and the top echelons of his Justice and Development Party (AKP) say, despite blaming Gulenists for last summer’s uprising, that NATO and Washington were behind the attempt to topple them.

The Qatari crisis did more than cause further bleeding. Driven by a perception that the isolation of Turkey’s only remaining ally in the region is meant to finish off the last-standing government with the brand Muslim Brotherhood written over it, namely the AKP, Erdogan sent more than 100 cargo planes of supplies to Doha and reiterated that military cooperation with Qatar will be stronger than before. Turkish presence has increased in the Gulf emirate, in defiance of the Trump administration’s allies in the region.

If Erdogan launches more powerful overtures to Tehran, Ankara will consolidate its position as the most volatile and unpredictable player, a move that might serve Russian, Iranian and even Syrian interests. Ankara’s engagement is based on having its troops in the designated “de-con­flicting zones” prevent a Kurdish corridor along its border by utilising the competition between Russia and the United States to establish a position to negotiate in the post-ISIS period.

A retired military prosecutor, former Colonel Ahmet Zeki Ucok, on June 28, said there were at least 50,000 Gulenists in the Turkish Army while the Defence Ministry’s media adviser, Ertan Omeroglu, claimed that 95% of the students and personnel at military schools were linked to the group. This likely means that in the next moves of the Supreme Military Council (YAS) in a month, the army will undergo its most radical reshuffling.

This, the defecting officers in NATO countries see as the Islami­sation, even Salafisation, of an institution that founded the secular republic. If they are right, much deeper mistrust is awaiting at NATO headquarters.

Nearly half of Turkey’s generals are in jail and more than 400 military staff have been removed from their NATO posts. “There is real concern that basically they have emptied the Turkish military of its upper commanding level, so you have a military that is very weakened,” Fabrice Pothier, a non-resident senior fellow at the Atlantic Council, a think-tank in Washington, told the Financial Times.

The replacements are seen with some suspicion, due to Turkish ambiguities with Russia, so a likely result is that Turkish officers would be kept at arm’s length from some confidential meetings, as has started to happen in NATO circles. A prospect of ending Turkish membership is not on the agenda because there are far too many issues that bind Turkey and NATO.

Erdogan knows this and seems ready to accept that his country will be treated as an alienated ally within the organisation and it will not help hide the fact that being adrift in a turbulent region will not be long-lasting, particularly if you lose the dimension of military deterrence.