On the centenary of a crime against humanity on the Mediterranean shores of Asia Minor, the statue of Turkish General Mustafa Kemal Ataturk on horseback facing and pointing West inscribed with the quotation “Armies, your first target is the Mediterranean Sea. Forward,” stands taller and prouder than ever on the shore of the Turkish city of Izmir. Once known as Smyrna, more than 150,000 Greek and Armenian inhabitants of the city were slaughtered and more than 750,000 made refugees by Turkish forces during the burning of Smyrna in September 1922.
In reining in rogue ally Turkey, the European Union and United States have failed to address one of the greatest enduring threats to peace and stability in Europe, the Eastern Mediterranean, North Africa, the Middle East and Central Asia. Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan’s neo-Ottoman, Muslim Brotherhood ambitions cannot be dismissed as “local election political posturing,” but are a clear and present danger that extends beyond Turkey’s borders. While the United States has returned to a “lead from behind” foreign policy posture, France has taken a greater leadership role in Europe as Germany and the United Kingdom continue to avoid exercising sound judgment and taking serious action in European security matters. But, the dangerous absence of Western leadership and unity emboldens adversaries across the globe.
Erdogan commands the second largest military force in NATO. His military force of more than 435,000 is one-third the size of the United States’ 1.3 million-strong force and twice the size of the next largest NATO ally, France, with its 208,000-strong force. The Turkish “allied” force, however, continues to demonstrate it is an adversary with access to NATO’s secrets, codes, communications, tactics and defense plans.
Erdogan is emboldened by the enduring myth of Turkey’s geostrategic importance, greatly diminished since the end of the Cold War, and the decades-long failure of the EU, US and NATO to seriously address Turkish aggression. Turkey’s decades-long unreliability as an ally, its role as a gateway for foreign jihadi fighters between Europe, the Middle East and North Africa, and flirtation with China and Russia in advanced weapons procurements – such as the Russian S-400 missiles – affirm Turkey cannot be trusted as a NATO ally.
Failure to rein in Erdogan has destroyed the credibility of NATO, the EU and the US. In addition to EU and key NATO member-states’ indifference to security matters and the botched US withdrawal from Afghanistan, failure to rein in a fellow NATO ally’s own aggression and end its decades-long occupation of an EU member-state is another factor that emboldened Vladimir Putin to invade Ukraine. The United States and fellow NATO nations have been inept at ending Erdogan’s continued assaults on the EU’s borders in Greece and the Aegean, the Turkish military occupation of an EU sovereign state, Cyprus, Turkish claims to EU economic zone hydrocarbon resources in the Eastern Mediterranean, the desecration of Christian UNESCO World Heritage monuments, attempts to derail the unification of Cyprus, strengthening of economic ties with Russia during the Ukraine conflict, and Iran as it pursues its nuclear ambitions.
Erdogan’s hostile acts embody and represent the types of threats the NATO Alliance and United States are committed to deterring and defeating. From the desecration of Christian United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO) World Heritage sites in the conversion of Hagia Sophia and the 1,000-year-old Byzantine Church of the Holy Savior in Chora into mosques, support for the human trafficking of migrants into Europe, violent attacks and oppression of Kurds in Turkey and Syria, to diplomatic security force attacks on US citizens in Washington, DC, support for Islamic terrorists and militias in Syria, northern Iraq and Libya, the issuing of Turkish passports and sanctuary to Hamas officials, violations of EU air space and territorial waters, illegal exploration for oil and gas in the exclusive economic zones (EEZ) of Greece, Cyprus and Israel, illegal claims of sovereignty in the Eastern Mediterranean, the purchase of advanced Russian S-400 weapons systems, the imprisonment of political opponents and journalists, the enduring illegal military occupation of the northern part of EU member Cyprus, and support for Azerbaijan’s genocidal attack on Armenian Christians in Nagorno-Karabakh, Erdogan’s nationalist neo-Ottoman ambitions are the greatest long-term threat to Western civilization, peace and stability since the rise of communism and the expansionist aims of the Soviet Empire during the Cold War.
Erdogan’s neo-Ottoman, Muslim Brotherhood ambitions are a clear and present danger that extends beyond Turkey’s borders
Despite the US Congress and Senate’s passing of the Eastern Mediterranean Security and Energy Partnership Act of 2019, and US-imposed sanctions under the Countering America’s Adversaries Through Sanctions Act (CAATSA) in December of 2020 for Turkey’s July 2019 acquisition of an S-400 surface-to-air defense system from Russia, Erdogan remains more defiant than ever, which should raise even greater concern as Turkey’s economy struggles with 80 percent inflation.
Erdogan condemned the sanctions as a “blatant attack” on Turkish sovereign efforts to establish an independent defense industry. And political parties representing a large majority of Turkey’s Parliament have issued a joint declaration opposing the US decision. Turkey’s Foreign Ministry has stated Turkey “will retaliate in a manner and timing it deems appropriate.”
Erdogan’s moves declaring support for a two-state solution in Cyprus and stating that if Greece declares its borders in the Aegean, per the UN Convention on the Law of the Sea (UNCLOS), it would be considered a casus belli, affirm Erdogan is committed to continuing his aggression. His rhetoric and actions demand an immediate, clear and united response.
Turkey’s rogue behavior must be addressed decisively and immediately with actions, not just words. Robust sanctions are needed combined with coordinated US, EU and partner nation “Freedom of Navigation” air and maritime operations to remind Turkey, as other adversaries are reminded, where Turkey’s sovereignty ends and responsibility to defend international rule of law as a nation-state and NATO ally begins.
Commander Demetries Grimes is a combat decorated former US naval officer, aviator and diplomat. He has served as naval attache to Greece and Israel, deputy commander of the US base in Crete, and adviser to NATO’s Maritime Commander in London, UK.