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[OPINION] Is NATO sidelining Turkey?

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Turkey has been an important North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO) member since Ankara joined the Western alliance in 1952 after entering the Korean War. Turkey assumed the responsibility of protecting the southeastern border of the alliance during the Cold War period. Among NATO allies Turkey has the second largest army, and since Russia invaded Ukraine, the country has become a security actor in the Black Sea region. Turkey’s key NATO status notwithstanding, other NATO leaders have not hesitated to warn Turkish leader Recep Tayyip Erdoğan in the strongest terms about his military actions, especially in Syria.

The United States imposed sanctions on Turkey’s top defense procurement and military-industrial arm due to the decision of the Erdoğan government to buy the Russian-made S-400 air defense system. France, Germany, Norway and Finland suspended the sale of military equipment to Turkey following Turkey’s operation against armed Kurdish groups in Syria.

French President Emmanuel Macron, former German Chancellor Angela Merkel, former British Prime Minister Boris Johnson and former US President Donald Trump expressed serious concerns at the time, calling for an immediate end to Turkey’s military operations against the Kurds. Moreover, in 2019 US Senator Lindsey Graham, Congressman Eliot L. Engel, the then-chairman of the House Foreign Affairs Committee, and then-Defense Secretary Mark Esper all expressed anger and suggested that the US should consider kicking Turkey out of NATO if the Turkish army continued to target the Kurdish forces that had assisted the US in the destruction of the Islamic State in Iraq and the Levant (ISIL) caliphate, Just Security reported.

Erdoğan no longer views NATO as a reliable organization since it withdrew its Patriot missile batteries from Turkey in 2015 despite Turkey’s concerns regarding the threat of Russia emanating from Syria.

There is a growing perception among the Turkish public that NATO has started seeing Kurds and Greeks as better allies than Turks. The leaders of NATO members who warned Erdoğan over Turkey’s military operation in Syria targeting Kurds in October 2019 may indicate that Western countries consider the Kurds a better ally than the Turks against ISIL. An increase in the defense cooperation between the US and Greece has also been a source of some degree of panic for Turkey, which remains in a dispute with Greece over the Aegean islands.

Key NATO ally the United States has expanded its military cooperation with Greece, thereby directly undermining Turkey’s power in the Aegean Sea. The Turkish Defense Ministry announced in August that Turkish jets carrying out missions over the Aegean and Eastern Mediterranean were harassed by a Greek S-300 air defense system. Greek lawmaker Kleon Grigoriadis accused the government of Prime Minister Kyriakos Mitsotakis of turning the country into a “huge US base,” accusing Washington of expanding its access to military zones across the European country, Radio Rebelde reported in June. Erdoğan also complained that America’s military bases in Greece are a threat to Turkey but not to Russia. “[On Sweden and Finland’s NATO bids] we don’t want to experience what we experienced with Greece and France. When we ask who are the nine American bases in Greece against, the answer we get is ‘against Russia’; we don’t buy it,” TRT World reported on June 8.

Turkey celebrated the 70th anniversary of it joining NATO in February of this year and remains an influential ally since Ankara opposed Finland and Sweden’s NATO membership. The Ankara government accuses these Nordic countries of hosting members of the outlawed Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK) as well as the Gülen movement, accused by the Turkish government of masterminding a failed coup in 2016 despite a denial from the movement.

The PKK, which has waged a war against the Turkish state since 1984 for the establishment of an autonomous or independent Kurdish state within Turkey, is listed as a terrorist organization by Turkey and much of the international community, including the EU and the US. Erdoğan, together with members of his government, has repeatedly expressed frustration with the US and other NATO members for undermining Turkey’s security concerns by supporting the PKK-affiliated Kurdish group the Democratic Union Party (PYD) in Syria.

Turkey’s populist leader Erdoğan purchased the Russian S-400 missile system despite warnings from NATO allies, especially the US. He has also established a close relationship with Russian leader Vladimir Putin. Erdoğan’s Justice and Development Party (AKP) has not joined the Western sanctions imposed on Russia since the launch of the war on Ukraine, and Erdoğan now faces accusations of being “Putin’s Trojan horse in NATO.”

Erdoğan is known as a political guru who has the ability to take advantage of any situation. He is willing to side with any country or bloc as he formulates Turkey’s foreign policy to fit his own family interests rather than Turkey’s national interests. Erdoğan’s opportunism is causing a serious security threat to NATO countries, but the question is whether powerful NATO members will take this seriously.

Turkey is recognized as a middle-power country in international politics, but Erdoğan has been pursuing an expansionist foreign policy over the last 10 years to re-establish Turkish power in the Middle East and North Africa (MENA) region, where Ottoman Turks ruled for centuries. Erdoğan is confident about his power and no longer has any concerns about pleasing NATO as evidenced by the fact that he fired hundreds of senior military staff, including some of the Turkish Armed Forces’ best-trained officers, serving at NATO in Europe and the United States following the coup attempt on July 15, 2016. Erdoğan accuses these military officers of involvement in the abortive putsch, and his purges have allowed pro-Russian military officers to take over key posts in the Turkish military. Hence the Turkish military is no longer willing to work with NATO.

The Associated Press reported on June 29 that the US will significantly expand its military presence in Europe to prevent possible aggression from Russia. AP said a US garrison will become permanent in Poland and that the US would send two additional squadrons of F-35 fighter jets to the United Kingdom and more air defenses and other capabilities to Germany and Italy, while NATO plans to increase the size of its rapid reaction force from 40,000 to 300,000 troops by next year.

Russia’s Ukraine invasion gives Washington a great opportunity to increase its military presence in Europe to counter Russia without depending on disruptive NATO member Turkey. Unlike during the Cold War, Turkey no longer serves as the most important outpost of NATO against the threat of Russia.

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