Turkey’s relations with NATO in jeopardy

Sunday 26/03/2017

The gap between Turkey and its allies within NATO has reached alarming levels, threatening a rupture with far-reaching consequences.

More than anything, it involves the apparent and growing disagreement between Ankara and some Western capitals about the nature of the coup attempt in Turkey last July. A Der Spiegel interview with Bruno Kahl, the head of the German intelligence service, added fuel to the fire. It followed the spat between Turkey and Germany over the ban on Turkish politicians conducting rallies on German soil.

Kahl was asked whether he believed Fethullah Gulen, a Turk­ish cleric in Pennsylvania, was behind the coup. “Turkey has tried to convince us on a number of different levels,” he said, “but they haven’t yet been success­ful.”

“The coup attempt wasn’t staged by the state,” he went on. “Even before July 15th, the government had launched a large wave of purges. That is why elements within the military thought they should quickly launch a coup, before they, too, were purged, but it was too late and they were purged as well…

“The consequences of the putsch that we have seen would have happened anyway, if perhaps not as deep and radical. The coup was likely just a welcome pretext.”

Karl also asked: “Will the country remain a partner in the security alliance?”

Almost simultaneously others across the Atlantic were making similar remarks. US Representa­tive Devin Nunes, R-California and chairman of the House Permanent Select Committee on Intelligence, questioned the files presented by the Turkish govern­ment to the US Department of Justice alleging that Gulen was the mastermind behind the putsch.

Interviewed on Fox TV, Nunes said: “I find it hard to believe… I saw no evidence (in there) about Gulen’s involvement in the coup.”

“Turkey as a NATO partner has been for long a strong ally of ours but [the Turks] are becoming more and more worrisome in terms of being a reliable ally,” Nunes added.

Such statements, more public and louder than ever, shatter the mood in Ankara. While some pro-Erdogan pundits were developing conspiracy theories, top sources of the ruling Justice and Development Party (AKP) were accusing the intelligence structures of being used or infiltrated by Gulenists. Turkish Defence Minister Fikri Isik accused Kahl of “being ignorant of the facts”, questioning whether German Intelligence was behind the coup. “Where are you (Germany) in all this?” Isik asked.

The gap seemed wider with warnings from the European Commission. EU Commissioner for Enlargement Johannes Hahn said in a newspaper interview that the prospect of Turkey joining the European Union becomes increasingly “unrealis­tic”. Hahn indicated that after Turkey’s April 16th referendum on presidential powers, Turkish membership negotiations could be shelved altogether — a notion that has been circulated even more loudly by the European Parliament.

Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan seems not to object. Constantly talking about reinstating the death penalty should his side win the referen­dum vote does not endear him to the European Union. Nor did his saying: “Everything, including the refugee agreement, will be put on the table. It’s all over.”

There is a tacit understanding that Turkish-EU relations are on life support, doomed to fail. However, it is clear that the NATO dimension is seen as far more crucial in defining Turkey’s future role, even its existence, in the military alliance.

A sign of crack was seen when Süddeutsche Zeitung reported that the German government had since early 2016 rejected Turkish requests on arms sales — light weapons and ammunition — 11 times on the basis that they could be used on the civilian popula­tion, meaning Kurds and political opponents.

There have been reports that four high-ranking Turkish officers and the military attaché in Oslo have been granted asylum in Norway. More than 150 Turkish Army members defected to Germany and Belgium. Officers from one NATO member seeking asylum and their claims being treated as legitimate in another is unprecedented, underlining the historically important dimension of the stand-off. Sources within the AKP say Germany could use the defectors and a couple top-level prosecutors and diplomats also seeking refugee status in clan­destine activities against Turkey.

A long series of trials related to the coup attempt under way adds to the puzzle. What the suspects, especially those at the top of the command chain, tell the courts might confirm suspicions or raise new ones about who was behind the coup.

A majority of them deny any affiliation or cooperation with Gulen and his followers, main­taining that they are Kemalists, staunchly loyal to the principles of Turkey’s founder.

A witness statement by Zekai Aksakallı, commander of special operations forces, stirred even more suspicion. “A state of alarm within our army leads automati­cally to a top-level order on the entire staff not to leave their bases and barracks,” he said, “but this basic rule, always applied, was not implemented July 15th when the reports have been received. If that was done, the coup would be totally exposed from the first moment.”

On March 22nd, the chargé d’affaires of the German embassy was summoned to the Turkish Foreign Ministry to be told its intelligence services’ statements were unacceptable. This rift adds to the elements that threaten Turkey’s role and trustworthi­ness in NATO and intelligence structures and in the coalition combating jihadists in Syria and Iraq.