Maybe nobody lost Turkey, NATO should stop pretending nothing is wrong

Maybe nobody lost Turkey, NATO should stop pretending nothing is wrong

Understanding Turkey’s relationship with its Western allies is challenging, at times, non-sensical. Scholars debate between whether the West actually ‘lost’ Turkey, or whether Ankara actually chose to drift away from being identified as a stalwart member of NATO, or a key strategic ally of the US Some say, it’s neither. It is simply a function of a more independent and economically assertive Turkey, seeking strategic autonomy, that does not feel obligated to tow the western line at all times. Whichever explanation one sees as correct, is less important than the long list of grievances that isolates Turkey inside of NATO and its relationship with Washington. These range from Turkey’s foot-dragging over NATO expansion, adding Finland and Sweden to the alliance, all the way to actively supporting Russia’s war effort in Ukraine. Some argue that despite lingering problems, there is no need for alarm, as many of the disagreements are not new, are managed, and as a result, Turkey and the West can continue to coast along by co-operating in areas where they agree and agreeing to disagree, where they don’t. This is unsustainable.

Under Recep Tayyip Erdogan, and particularly since 2016, Ankara is not only distancing itself from the West, but consciously working to undermine its core security interests. Above all, such strategic maneuvers cannot be written off as Ankara voicing and pursuing its national interests. The country is pursuing interests, but they are those of Erdogan’s political and ideological convictions and have little to do with national interest. NATO’s Washington summit in July, presents alliance members an opportunity to acknowledge this reality, and let its longtime ally know that fundamental changes to Ankara’s approach to being an alliance member are desperately needed. This should not be thought of as an academic exercise, but a means to avoid future crises, that could have devastating consequences.

Two possible scenarios could imperil Turkish-NATO ties. Take for instance, a crisis situation, where the United States and Iran engage in armed conflict as a result of a widening war against Hamas. How many policy analysts would feel confident declaring that Turkey would stand by its NATO ally? Since the outbreak of the Gaza conflict in October 2017, Erdogan has engaged Iran to coordinate a response to Israel’s military operations. Following Iran’s drone strikes against Israel in April 2024, analysts were naturally doubtful if Ankara would stand with its US ally, had Washington chosen to participate in military operations against Tehran, in defense of Israel. If this is too hypothetical, one can consider Turkey’s stated aim to send an aid flotilla, directly to Gaza in May 2024. The initiative proposed sending ships ‘directly’ to Gaza, and not use established aid delivery channels in place. Although the flotilla has not sailed, in the event that it did, direct delivery of aid would require breaching Israel’s naval blockade of Gaza. This would almost certainly result in a military altercation between Israel and Turkey, that could potentially draw in the US Navy, which is positioned in the eastern Mediterranean. This is not the first time that Turkey has floated such an initiative. In 2010, a flotilla of Turkish ships attempted such a feat, resulting in Israeli forces boarding the Mavi Marmara vessel, that resulted in a skirmish killing several Turkish activists. In any of these two crisis situations there is no telling how Ankara would act, and this is not normal.

Short of an immediate crisis, are festering problems that are toxic to Turkey-NATO ties. Take the issue of Hamas. Under Erdogan’s direction, Ankara has permitted this terrorist entity to lay deep roots in Turkey since 2011. It is an undeniable fact that Erdogan’s patronage of Hamas, has been instrumental in the organization’s international efforts to fundraise, recruit and likely plan terror attacks inside of Israel — possibly even those that took place on October 7. Ankara’s bizarre relationship towards and open support of Hamas is puzzling and troubling, partly because Turkey is the only NATO member to steadfastly champion it. Offering the view that Turkey is a Muslim-majority country that feels overwhelming sympathy towards Palestinians over Israel does not hold water. Muslim countries that signed the Abraham Accords unequivocally condemn Hamas and its actions-Turkey did not. While it is true that not all members of NATO designate Hamas as a terrorist organization, there is no state within NATO going out of its way to consistently present Hamas as if it were a diplomatic equivalent. Moreover, Turkey’s financial system provides a permissive environment, which helps channel hundreds of millions of dollars of international proceeds, to Hamas in Gaza. In June 2024, Shin Bet, Israel’s internal security announced it “foiled a recent attempt by Hamas to carry out a suicide bombing attack in Israel, directed by members of the terror group who were based in Turkey.” While none of this can be perceived as acceptable behavior of a NATO member, what’s more troubling is the absence of pushback. No member of the western alliance has called to hold Ankara accountable in its ongoing measures to enable a terrorist organization-especially members which designate Hamas as a terrorist entity. Instead, what we observe is silence.

Hamas is not the only issue that divides Turkey in the West. Ankara’s deepening ties with Putin’s Russia has been on public display since 2016. Accounting for Turkey’s brazen choice to acquire Russian-made S-400 missiles in 2019 is a well-covered topic. Erdogan’s choice to acquire a Russian missile defense system was rebuked by NATO members and resulted in US sanctions against Ankara, for one obvious reason: such a move threatens all of NATO’s security, cohesivity and interoperability. Erdogan’s choice also resulted in Turkey being removed from the F-35 program. What is perhaps overlooked however, is Ankara’s move is an explicit recognition that it does not care about the collective security and values of NATO. While US sanctions are still in place since 2019, NATO’s the core of problem remains: Turkey refuses to divest itself of the Russian missiles, and continues to hold onto sensitive design schematics relevant to the manufacture of F-35’s. On this, no coercive action to compel Ankara has taken place. Instead, Washington took the decision to sell F-16’s to Turkey.

In the context of the Ukraine War, Ankara has been less than forthcoming as a NATO ally. Erdogan insists that Turkey is living up to its obligations by selling combat drones to Ukraine. Often overlooked however, is Turkey’s refusal to participate in the western sanctions against Russia. Erdogan often cites Turkey’s unique economic vulnerabilities, were he to sanction Russia, suggesting that Turkey could be starved of vital natural gas supplies and the ability to export agricultural goods to Russia, vital to the livelihood of Turkish farmers. This would be understandable if Turkey did not allow Russia, like it does Hamas, the privilege of using its financial system to transfer illicit funds It would also be understandable if Turkey was not involved in the sale and transfer of dual-use technologies that help enable Russian missile technologies. These are all avoidable acts, short of implementing sanctions.

Turkey’s position towards Hamas and Russia are not projections of strategic autonomy or the pursuit of national interest; they are Erdogan’s choices to advance his own political interests. His support of Hamas is both a practical necessity and a product of his ideological convictions. In advocating for Hamas, Erdogan tried to win the electoral sympathy of Turkish voters in the March 2024 local elections, by campaigning on the war in Gaza. Unable to run on a strong economic record, Erdogan praised Hamas as a group of mujahadeen freedom fighters. In numerous campaign rallies, he attempted to convince voters that only a vote for the Justice and Development Party (AKP) could secure a free Palestine. His pragmatic reasons for championing Hamas do not detract from his formative pro-Muslim Brotherhood and anti-Israeli worldview. As for Ankara’s hedging between NATO and Russia, this is better explained in reference to Erdogan’s view that the West is in decline. For Erdogan, having a foot in both camps is a far better strategy, as opposed to unconditionally supporting NATO’s mission to defeat Putin. In doing so, Turkey remains under the collective security blanket of NATO, while being able to acquire weapons, nuclear energy technology and a robust export market in its ties to Moscow.

There is no easy way to resolve these differences, and no magic formula to encourage Erdogan into doing the right thing. There is something to be said for concerted action however. NATO, as an alliance must establish a means by which it can voice its collective voice against members which actively damage its core security interests. Regardless of what that could look like in practice, remaining silent or turning a blind eye to every transgression by Ankara, of the alliance’s collective values and interests cannot and should not be permitted to endure. The Turkey-NATO relationship has become an abusive and toxic relationship. It must be acknowledged head on.

Ahead of NATO’s annual summit in Washington DC, US lawmakers are possibly signaling their intention to get tough on Turkey. In recent years, many have questioned Turkey’s fitness for continued membership of the transatlantic alliance, but stopped the debate upon realization that there are no mechanisms for voiding a state’s membership. A bipartisan amendment proposed by the House of Representatives is arguing for Ankara’s suspension from NATO (by petitioning the North Atlantic Council), based on the premise that Turkey is “in material breach of the North Atlantic Treaty.” This is based on the Erdogan government’s material support of terrorism and Putin’s Russia. A further measure being considered pertains to increasing the number of provisions under which Turkey can be sanctioned under CAATSA for buying and holding onto the S-400 missile system(Countering of America’s Adversaries Through Sanctions Act). When first levied in 2019, CAATSA sanctions against Ankara were limited to banning the sale of military equipment. If successfully revisited, the House provisions would seek to sanction Turkish government officials to possibly include Erdogan. A final provision being considered relates to removing the basing of US strategic nuclear missiles away from Turkey to other regional allies.

In the event that any-one, or all of these measures passed and implemented by the US government, there is little doubt they would cause irreparable harm to US – Turkey and Turkey- NATO ties. This is not a call advocating for such measures to be taken, but the middle ground that relied on diplomatic spats and mediocre sanctions against Ankara seems to have been replaced by show-stopper alternatives. Such debates are a clear sign of just how disgruntled US officials have become in recent years. NATO’s Washington Summit may yield untold surprises.

Sinan Ciddi is a non-resident senior fellow at the Foundation for Defense of Democracies (FDD). 

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