In recent years, many Americans (and other nationalities for that matter) have asked the question of why Turkey is allowed to stay in the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO). Created during the Cold War to balance power against the Warsaw Pact nations of the Soviet Union, NATO consists of America, Canada, and 26 European nations excluding a few such as Finland and Sweden.
For the most part, NATO members work within defined legal systems, promote democracy within their borders, and conform to international norms of what is considered proper behavior. Turkey has stood in stark contrast to other NATO nations as the Erdogan-led government pursues what some have called “neo-Ottoman” ambitions. Within Turkey, the government has been downright repressive, crushing dissent and arresting political rivals to Erdogan’s agenda. At home and abroad, Turkey has supported international terrorism. The links between Turkey and ISIS are well documented at this point as are the links between other Turkish proxies like Ahrar al-Sham. How can a member of NATO also be a supporter of not just Islamism but also of international terrorism?
With this in mind, how can a country like Turkey possibly be a NATO member? Furthermore, why is Turkey permitted to remain in NATO? This is especially interesting as after the United States enacted Article 5 in the NATO charter after 9/11 which states that an attack against one NATO nation is an attack against all, yet Turkey continues to provide material support to terrorists.
First, Turkey has the most powerful military in NATO aside from the United States. With about one million troops divided between active duty and reserves, the Turkish military plays an especially important role in their country’s politics and culture. In Turkey the military is often described as being the “guardians of the republic.”
Second, Turkey is the only Muslim majority nation in NATO except for Albania. This is important as NATO deploys military forces to Afghanistan and NATO members states are currently fighting ISIS in Iraq, Syria, Jordan, and from Turkey itself. Without Turkey, the Jihadist propaganda line (that Islam is facing a Christian crusade) could gain increased momentum in the Middle East. With Turkey on board, it demonstrates that Muslims are also included in the fight against radicalism.
Third, Turkey’s geo-political position on the map is critically important. Sitting between Eastern and Western worlds, Turkey controls access to the Black Sea and sits on borders with countries such as Syria, Iraq, and Iran. Furthermore, the United States has placed strategic nuclear weapons at Incirlik airbase in Turkey.
Despite Turkey having the largest standing military in NATO after the United States, Erdogan has provided only 1,700 troops to the campaign in Afghanistan and none of those troops can be placed into combat. While NATO wants Turkey to give Western-led military operations a Muslim face, Turkey will not seriously participate in warfare against or within a Muslim nation. Erdogan’s strategy has been to ride the coattails of Islamism that have been growing in the Middle East over the last four decades.
Meanwhile, Turkey is additionally seeking to become a member of the European Union. Previously, this has been blocked by the island nation of Cyprus which is occupied by both Turkey and Greece. Today, the issue of Islamism is at the forefront in a way it wasn’t in the 1970’s and 80’s when the Cold War still threatened to go hot. Massive influxes of Muslim immigrants into Europe have deeply concerned EU citizens who see their cultures and economies as being under attack.
Some of these fears are legitimate, while others are the product of hysteria and xenophobia, but the fact remains that Islamic terrorism is a vexing issue in Europe that security services have been unable to cope with. If Turkey receives permission to join the EU, as they perceive their country as being European, it means that Turks (nearly all of whom are Muslim) would have EU passports and would be able to travel and work freely across Europe.
Turkey is a diverse and complicated country and the geo-strategic dynamics surrounding it cannot be summed up in a few hundred words but in short, NATO needs to ask itself a question: Is Turkey too big to fail? In other words, does NATO have to hold on to Turkey despite the many drawbacks involved in order to play a larger strategic game that hedges against a resurgent Russia, a economically powerful China, and as a Muslim front for future NATO campaigns in the Middle East?
It seems increasingly clear that Turkey will not commit combat troops to NATO campaigns in the Middle East, although tiny nations like Holland and Denmark will. It is also clear that Erdogan is attempting to install himself as a dictator for life in Turkey. This will reduce NATO’s moral legitimacy and soft power over time. You can’t claim to be fighting for democracy in places like Iraq and Syria while tolerating a character like Erdogan in your own ranks. Unfortunately, he now seems inseparable from the Turkish state, which of course is just the way he likes it.
Should NATO hold its nose with Turkey, overlooking their many human rights abuses, terrorist sponsorship, and repressive tactics in order to balance power against Russia and China? The great fear has always been that without Turkey inside NATO (and maybe the EU) that the country would begin to look East instead of West, allying with countries that are undemocratic and antagonistic towards the western world.
With a rift opening between Turkey and Russia caused by a previous shooting down of a Russian fighter jet over Syria and the recent assassination of the Russian ambassador to Turkey, now would seem to be a good time to put pressure on the Turkish government. One thing is for sure, if one of the terrorist organizations supported by Turkey, like Ahrar al-Sham, turns around and attacks the continental United States then it will already be too late and any alliance between the US, NATO, and EU with Turkey will go up in smoke.
Image courtesy of Daily Mail