11 December 2019

Turkey - US - NATO, a partnership in a broken mirror

Laurenţiu Sfinteş

The NATO summit in London has ended. It had to be about Turkey, but it only was collaterally. It had to be about the unfortunate statements on organization’s brain death, but it was only partially. It had to be, as always, about Russia, and it was, but not like in the old times. They had to discuss about disagreements with Turkey, in fact, with its president, but they did everything possible to avoid talking about it. Anyhow, debating on Ankara’s recent attitude, questioning the loyalty of one of Alliance’s most important members, if it ever took place, has not engendered too many effects. However, China entered the scene, even in the final declaration, as a warning. But let’s get back to Turkey. And its relation with US and NATO.

Image source: Mediafax

A partnership that should not be underestimated

Turkey always thought it does not get from the Alliance as much as it offers. Ankara’s thoughts, starting with the 8th decade of the past century, especially after 1974, once with Cyprus’ division, was even bigger, as the political elite and population were feeling that their country is less appreciated and it does not get the owed respect within the Alliance.

And the declination idea was, somehow, mutual: What shall we do with a “reactionary” state (we are not going to directly say “rogue state”)? Followed by the question: Do we have other options?

And Turkey knew, from the very beginning, that NATO does not have an alternative to its geographic position, it capacity to support Alliance’s mission with troops. Numbers were always on its side. Even the commitment in the region, especially in the Black Sea area.

US was even more interested than NATO to keep Turkey close to NATO and Washington. According to a former USAREUR commander, General Ben Hodges, the American approach could be expressed as follows: “We look at Turkey as the cork in the bottle of the Black Sea. They do not think of themselves like that at all”.

In the US, visions on Turkey are different considering the department they come from. Normally, defence and diplomacy experts and officials are more circumspect in talking bad about Ankara. For them, the costs of a broken relationship with Ankara are direct and obvious.

For example, for military men, the Incirlik base can hardly be replaced with another option. For diplomats, Turkey’s role in controlling Bosporus is essential to keep access in the Black Sea. The influence Turkey has in Middle East can hardly be counterbalanced by another US regional ally. And when this influence can negatively affect Israel, experts find it very clear that Turkey should stay close, because a change can ruin area’s equilibrium.

But experts are only making assumptions based on technical arguments. Politicians think of other things as well. Maybe as much as important, such as democratic institutions’ functioning, the regime, human’s rights. Their foreign decisions are the expression of their internal values.

On one hand, Turkey, in fact Erdogan, “a man that should never ever be underestimated”, according to an American official, has used geography in his own end, as it only happened a few times in country’s history. If we also think of the ability to resist US’s pressures on the relation with Russia, things are getting even more complicated for the bilateral relation.

On the other hand, US, in fact Trump, has addressed the bilateral relations or those with NATO in such a way that increased Turkey’s dissidence. The November 13th meeting at the White House is the perfect example to that end. “I am a fan of president Erdogan”, said president Trump before the joint press conference, which followed their discussions. But then the Turkish president came and criticized Washington’s recent decisions: the US approach in Syria, Congress’s sanctions against Turkey and the recognition of American law makers of the Armenian genocide. He also reminded the American audience US’s initial refusal to sell Turkey the “Patriot” systems, defined as “an injustice” by president Erdogan. It was the exact thing Trump’s law makers guests wanted to avoid at the meeting with Ankara’s leader. And the thing that Bob Menendez, New Jersey democrat senator, a Ranking Member of US Senate’s Foreign Relations Committee, used afterwards to also express American democrats’ complaints against Turkey, without even being at the meeting.

The questions that did not get to the Oval Office

Democrat senator Menendez has a short 10 questions list with direct remarks on Ankara’s recent decisions, but also on older Turkish regional political options. The list was read in one of Congress’s sessions. The democrat lawmaker refused president Trump’s invitation for the discussions with the Turkish president. The questions are also somehow accusing:

1. Will Turkey reverse course from Erdogan’s decision to buy and receive the S-400 air defense system from Russia?

2. Will our president sanction the activities of Halkbank, a Turkish institution that facilitated the biggest evasion of Iran sanctions in history?

3. Will our president accept the commission of war crimes in Syria by Turkish-backed forces? The war crimes that he in effect invited Turkey to commit when he greenlighted its invasion of Syria?

4. Will our president stand up to Turkish aggression against its neighbors throughout the region?

5. Will our president condemn or accept Erdogan’s warming relationship with the Russian Federation?

6. Will President Trump call out Erdogan’s assault on the democratic process in Turkey? Will he stick up for civil society groups, university professors and others who’ve been unjustly detained? Will he stick up for journalists there, even as he demonizes the free press here at home?

7. Will President Trump call out Turkey’s relationship with Hamas, the Palestinian organization that continues to terrorize Israel on a daily basis?  Will he stand by our ally Israel, or will his personal interests and affinity for strongmen win out once again?

8. Will President Trump accept efforts by Turkey to convert Hagia Sophia, which was the largest Greek Orthodox Church in the world for more than 1,000 years, into a mosque?  Will he advocate for the religious freedom of the Ecumenical Patriarch Bartholomew, who continues to work and live under pressure from the Turkish government?

9. Will President Trump ignore Erdogan’s violations of the UN arms embargo on Libya?

10. Will President Trump call out Turkey’s relationship with Hamas, the Palestinian organization that continues to terrorize Israel on a daily basis?  Will he stand by our ally Israel, or will his personal interests and affinity for strongmen win out once again?

Two dogs strive for a bone and a third takes a thrashing

Both leaders had dramatic stances changes over the Alliance, during the anniversary meeting in Great Britain. Trump has doubted, until recently, organization’s cohesion if it does not balance its defence costs allocation. Erdogan, also until very recently, conditioned the approval of allied operations plans on NATO’s eastern flank on admitting the Turkish definition of terrorist organizations.

They have both became NATO’s firm supporters at this summit. President Erdogan went to London with a large delegation and a file full of requirements for the Alliance: support for the procurement decision of Russian systems, for the military campaign in North Syria, for NATO’s recognition of the Kurdish military group as terrorist organization. He also included in the file the delimitation issue of natural gases exploitation in Eastern Mediterranean Sea and the extradition of people accused for collaborating with Gulen cleric. In no other moment, in the entire post-2016 period, when it took place the anti-Erdogan coup d’état, Turkey’s expectations on the Alliance were that huge.

The quadripartite meeting with France, Germany and Great Britain’s leaders revealed Turkish president’s approach in fixing the relations with its European allies. The final idea was that Turkey, being far from having NATO alternatives, continues to be one of its loyal supporters.

This is the exact same approach of the American president Donald Trump, including in his statements, because the facts and decisions have never doubted US’s commitment in Europe.

Furthermore, both presidents pointed their reproaches towards the French counterpart, whose medical diagnosis expression against NATO has raised a common disapproval wave. If president Macron has aimed at keeping NATO smaller, by calling on this dark perspective (according to his statements, that was his intention), the plan worked. Indeed, his image was a little bit shaken, and Erdogan has even advised him to get his medical examinations done.

With American president’s hidden support, Erdogan tried to implement his support reaffirmation strategy for the Alliance, in a way that could be defined as “NATO-fication of Turkey’s security concerns”, the conviction of Brussels partners to assume at least a part of the Turkish approaches in terms of national and regional security. The plan did not work, as I was stating above, but only partially, and the French president was, again, the one to be guilty for that, as he stated, after the summit, that they did not get to any agreement on Kurdish terrorism. In other words, the wound that hurts Turkey the most got another cut of salt made in France.

November 2020 is one step away

All in all, Turkey did not broke any bridge and it suggested that its uppermost option is keeping and strengthening the relations with the West, NATO and US. The increasing dependency on Russia in matters of security is not Turkey’s interest and it also does not seem Erdogan’s plan, except for the tactical balance moment, where its NATO partners are even more careful with their own concerns than with Turkey’s.

In terms of the US-Turkey bilateral relations, they are still in a transition period.

On one hand, in Washington, there are many approach differences between the White House and the Congress, as the lawmakers are harsher against Ankara, just like Menendez’s questions revealed. For the Middle East issue, Turkey seem to need Washington more than the other way around. In terms of the military technology equipment, Ankara realized that there is no other serious alternative to the Western weaponry and the S-400 system is just a plan for hard times.

On the other hand, Erdogan wants to keep a balance between its country’s pro-Atlantic status and the Euro-Asian ambitions of some of Turkish political elite. And it is also pretty obvious that Ankara’s Easter option would be a disaster.

But such a continuous balance policy between two contradictory options will be difficult to keep and it mostly depends on who will be Oval Office’s owner after November 2020.

Until then, maybe they will clarify also some of the political diagnoses on NATO’s condition.

Translated by Andreea Soare