Small Wars Journal

NATO-Turkey: An Ambiguous Relationship in an Unpredictable Security Domain

Wed, 11/10/2021 - 4:09am

NATO-Turkey: An Ambiguous Relationship in an Unpredictable Security Domain

By Cüneyt Gürer & Mehmet Alper Sozer

The NATO and Turkey relationship has a history of almost 70 years, and it has not always gone smoothly and in harmony, rather this alliance can be described most of the time problematic at best. It does not necessarily mean that each side mutually has not benefited from one another. Historically, the most obvious, Turkey obtained security protection against Soviet aggression, considerable military support along with economic ease within the margins of the Marshall Plan, and entry of Turkish workers into Western Europe and Germany in particular. Besides, for a new-born Republic being in the alliance, at least symbolically, meant that the direction of the country was towards Westernization. The NATO, in return, deployed troops, established military bases and intelligence-gathering platforms, controlled Soviet Access to the Mediterranean, moderated and managed long-lasting Aegean disputes between Greece and Turkey.

Turkey, with its majority Muslim population and Ottoman heritage, has always held naturally differing political and cultural values which have potential to create dissonance within the alliance. The tension between Greece and Turkey is the prominent and long-lasting one which, by and large, has been mediated by the U.S. However, there was a time when the tension between the two countries caused fractures in the alliance. Amid disputes over Cyprus sovereignty and persecution of Turkish Cypriots, Turkey intervened in Cyprus by sending troops and capturing a significant chunk of the north of the island, which in return, the U.S. opposed the Turkish operation and imposed an embargo on military support and arms sales to Turkey between 1975-1978.

During the Cold War, Turkey acted as a reliable and capable partner of the alliance against Soviet expansion and spread of revolution in Iran. NATO has constantly changed priorities based on the developments at the global level, but this has never necessarily meant that Turkey lost its significance in the region. Nevertheless, many in Turkey believe that NATO does not address legitimate security concerns of the country, despite Turkey’s commitment to the overall strategy of the partnership. Contemporary issues create more fragmentation in the relations between the two. The continuous dispute over Cyprus and recent tensions in the Eastern Mediterranean are still viewed as vital obstacles to inter-institutional cooperation between NATO and the EU, the Republic of Cyprus as a non-NATO EU member state, and Turkey as a non-EU NATO ally. Turkey’s cooperation with Russia, in the advantage of Russia in many cases, also limits NATO’s overall strategy countering Russia’s military threat. From Turkey’s perspective, all these issues creating a departure from the alliance are related to sovereign rights of the country and for that very reason NATO should respect to Turkey’s policy choices and support its priorities in the region. However, the main reason for Turkey to depart from Western block in security affairs cannot be explained only with Western disregard of Turkey’s priorities.

Cleavages in the Alliance

During Erdogan's era, Turkey's stance has constantly changed towards NATO and the West; with the beginning of the Arab uprising, it has become more complicated and has worsened which led to a constant discussion about whether Turkey continues to be a part of NATO.  When Erdogan came to power in 2002, he did not even have any consolidated power in his own Justice and Development Party (AKP), which at the time was more of a coalition of former conservative, moderate nationalist, and centralists. It was not, as it is today, a party inspired by Neo-Ottoman sentiments hardened by an ultra-nationalist worldview and blended with pragmatism. Taking off his Islamist shirt in his debut, Erdogan received a strong back wind from the West due to his pro-EU discourse and intention to overthrow anti-democratic military tutelage over the country's politics. Although his party denied granting the U.S. to use Turkey’s land to invade Iraq in 2003, he personally supported the idea and declared himself as a co-chair of the "Greater Middle East Project."

In the wake of the Arab Uprising, power shifts, political turmoil, and new emerging threats in both North Africa and the Middle East along with Erdogan’s passion and his accompanying unorthodox policies created significant damage to Turkey's relations with the Western world. NATO could not act through a unified strategy since each country had its security priorities and interests, and to this respect, Turkey is not the only country having a distinct stance. Washington, way before the military intervention of a multi-state NATO-led coalition in Libya, declared that its strategic focus had shifted towards the Pacific, and it had left the leading role of allies within NATO in regions under the influence of the Arab Uprising, and embraced a "lead from behind" strategy, especially in Libya and in Syria. The U.S. security strategy shift not only placed an economic and political burden on NATO allies, but also gave the green light to countries such as Russia, France, and Turkey, which desire to increase influence and to pursue assertive policies.

After the start of Syrian conflict in 2011, the direction of Turkey’s foreign policy in the region was drastically changed. Turkey abandoned its diplomatic efforts quickly after realizing the Assad regime's reluctance to consider Turkey’s options for a peaceful solution. Many scholars and professionals claim that divergence between Turkey and the West in Syria stems from different political and security priorities on each side, asserting that Turkey does not want the Syrian Kurdish Democratic Union Party (PYD) and its militia force People's Protection Units (YPG) gains territory and increase its influence on Northern Syria, whereas the U.S. and its allies in NATO viewed YPG a loyal partner, and empowered it militarily at all aspects to defeat ISIS. This argument is not wrong, but incomplete.

In the early stages of the Syrian conflict, on the grounds of risking an ongoing Kurdish opening, Erdogan resisted the idea that Turkey must intercept the activity of PYD, opined by high members of the security bureaucracy of the time, many of whom are currently purged and/or imprisoned. Erdogan desired to see Kurds in line with his ambition to topple Assad and expected their support. According to the strategy, Erdogan hosted Salih Muslim, leader of PYD, twice in 2013 and 2014; amid harsh criticism of Bahçeli, the leader of Nationalist Movement Party (MHP), who is currently a strong supporter of Erdogan and current coalition partner. Erdogan’s insistence in supporting political and armed opposition groups created tensions among domestic security institutions and paved the way towards involvement in irregular warfare. Due to the lack of consistent American policy in ousting Assad from power, Turkey was left to unavoidable rapprochement with dominant Russia and Iran backing Assad, which was also a significant breaking point for Turkey to deviate from priorities of its NATO allies.

In Libya, after the downfall of Gaddafi, Turkey has started to gradually increase its presence in Libya’s battle ground. Turkey backs the Government of National Accordance’s (GNA) led by Fayez al-Sarraj in compliance with the UN and the U.S. through using its hard-power despite French and Russian support for its rival Gen. Haftar. After signing an agreement on the maritime border with GNA in November 2019, Turkey geared up its military presence in the field and deployed its own military force fueled with national-made TB2 drones. Turkey’s last maneuver changed the equilibrium in favor of GNA, and as a result two international conferences were held: one in Moscow, between Turkey and Russia in the aftermath of Turkish gains in the battlefield, and another in Berlin to secure concerns of the EU. NATO member EU states, France, and Germany, in their effort to enforce an arm blockade to Libya, however, intercepted Turkish freighters that escalated already high tensions among these countries. In addition, despite its game changer last military operation that hit hard Libyan Arab Armed Forces (LAAF), Turkey was absent at the table when a breakthrough UN moderated deal was announced at the peace talks held in Tunis where warring sides agreed to hold free, fair, and inclusive elections. Turkey steers its own course expanding its footprint in Libya, employing relative assurances that NATO membership provides; otherwise, conflicting stakes in Libya could easily turn into a major conflict.

Initial phase of the accompanying S-400 dispute could be interpreted as Turkey's attempt to draw the attention of NATO to its needs, along with an alert that signals "not to leave me alone with Russia," rather than a drastic paradigm shift. In the later stages, things got worse, and the gap widened. The U.S. put pressure on Turkey by expelling it from the F-35 joint strike fighter program, and Turkey responded with a firing test missile, knowing the possible risk of facing Countering America’s Adversaries through Sanctions Act (CAATSA). Turkey spends roughly $ 2.5 billion dollars for the S-400 air defense system amid currency crisis and worsening economic conditions. In the meantime, the country lost, at least for now, any chance of possession and co-production privilege of F 35 aircraft. At the NATO Ministerial Meeting in December 2020, former US Secretary of State, Michael Pompeo, strongly criticized Turkey over purchasing Russian weapons systems and its eastern Mediterranean policies creating a gas resources dispute with Greece. And immediately after that, former US President Trump agreed to impose CAATSA sanctions on Turkey.  It seems that Turkey gains almost nothing in terms of its national interest, and in the upcoming years, S-400 will continue to be a nuisance. Although Erdogan giving more positive signals to the West and stating the desire to normalize relations, previous commitments, including S-400 deal, narrow his option to take dramatic actions to reach a satisfactory level of normalization.       

Some analysts argue that Turkey’s actions in the region balance Russia and current Turkish-Russian relationship is good for the West, assuming that Turkey has a potential to represent Western interests in its relations with Russia. However, this analysis misses important points and overlooks the conditions favoring Russia’s interest in its relations with Turkey. Russia also developed significant advantage and influence over Turkey knowing how Turkish political elite involved and connected to non-state actors and irregular activities in Syria. Russia also became a role model for Turkey to consolidate power in the presidential system, which reduced the functions of key security institutions and the level of democracy in the country. Russia has always had the advantage in this relationship due to Turkey’s non-strategic approach to regional policies. Russia experts in Turkey argue that in the relationship “if Russia gives one to Turkey always get ten back” meaning Russia’s advantages in the relationship is much bigger that what Turkey gets. 

Erdogan’s personal design of Turkey's national interest provides a great advantage for Russia. Even after clear victory for Azerbaijan with the support of Turkey on the ground, Russia became the real winner after the recent conflict in the Caucasus. After almost a decade of intervention in Syria, using direct military involvement, supporting opposition, and re-organizing armed groups, Turkey’s Syrian policy did not produce much success for Turkey. Russia increased its presence in the region and the Assad regime in Syria became stronger despite Turkey’s earlier objective of removing Assad from power. In short, as a response to the argument of Turkey balancing Russia, Turkey neither has interest to balance Russia on behalf of NATO or the Western bloc, nor has a better diplomatic capacity to counter Russian’s expansion in the region.

A fast drift from democracy, pressure on the opposition and re-construction of the state based on non-democratic principles, using judicial system as a tool against political and social opponents create institutional, structural, and value-based divergence from the Western world. Although Turkey’s recent tendencies towards more authoritarian regime casted a shadow over democratic values of the West, the U.S. and the EU continued to work with Erdogan government because the relationship was constructed more on mutual interests rather than common values. The refugee deal between Turkey and the EU, which has been harshly criticized on the accounts of violating basic rights of refugees, is a lucid example of the relation of a mutual interest.  Erdogan has never hesitated to use the deal as leverage against EU, and so far, EU has constantly tolerated such a quid pro quo for Erdogan’s help blocking refugee flow to Europe.

Another crucial point that negatively affects NATO-Turkey alliance is Turkish domestic politics. Erdogan uses every opportunity to cover emerging internal problems with assertion in the region and gains short term benefits. Erdogan strengthens his position by using an external enemy discourse that corresponds with the ultra-nationalist worldview of “Turkey has no friends in the world” rhetoric. The base for Erdogan’s arbitrary arrests of opposition leaders or his crossing the line in terms of the rule of law is always to fight off an external threat. When he faces with economic hurdle, in the same way, he blames an external enemy to cover up all his political wrongdoings. The ill discourse of “constant attacks of West against Turkey” feeds governments overall strategy, and damages its relationship with the West. However, Erdogan is not reluctant to change his position as soon as he realizes that he needs better relations, as it is the case after recent EU and US lead sanctions. Under external pressure amid serious economic challenges, Erdogan changed his discourse, after a long time claiming that “Turkey sees itself as a part of Europe”. At the NATO leaders’ summit on June 14, 2021, Erdogan pulled a proposal out of thin air to gain sympathy of NATO, rather than arguing with the Biden administration on more sinister issues, with the proposal of staying in Afghanistan and ensuring the security of the international airport. Erdogan, who succeeded in realizing the nightmare of Turkish Diplomacy, which has been fighting for years so that the expression of Genocide would not come out of the mouth of any US President, thanked his Lord for not being hit by the term "Genocide" in the face once again. More interestingly, he offered to work with Hungary for a possible new mission in Afghanistan. The point to be considered is whether this proposal has anything to do with some crime routes pointed out by Sedat Peker, a mob leader, who recently accused former and current government officials of being involved in international crimes. After a short reluctance, Turkey pulled out its soldiers from Afghanistan and changed the protection of the Kabul Airport proposal and offered that private companies may secure the airport and as of the writing of this article, negotiations to obtain a final conclusion are still ongoing.

Interestingly, his recent pro-western rhetoric has not transformed into any seroius policy shift, most probably due to his partner Bahçeli’s opposition. It seems that most recent tendencies such as creating a kleptocratic state system and cooperating with mafia leaders of 90s limit Erdogan’s U-turn maneuverability. Another dimension to be emerged recently is the closer relationship between China and Turkey, which requires an extensive analysis but suffice to note here, which will cause significant issues for the regional and global actors. China makes significant economic investments in Turkey; using Turkish economies dare situation as an advantage and carries a very discreet policy combining both economic and soft power.


Over the last few years, Erdogan achieved; a) a consensus with Russia in Syria, b) did not allow a Kurdish influence west of the Euphrates River, c) managed to lead Islamist groups in Syria and divert their energy to Libya, Azerbaijan, and Pakistan d) received Trump’s full support, e) explored gas resources in the Black Sea f) gain a clear victory for Azerbaijan on the ground with military technologies. He further attempted to search for more gas resources in disputed areas of the eastern Mediterranean amid strong oppositions of France, Egypt, Greece, the Republic of Cyprus, and UAE by making enemies more than friends while being dispersed from "zero problems" to "precious loneliness." Turkish Military has been in the process of a massive evolution aligned with Erdogan's personal desire to create a new structure under his hegemony over Turkish politics; yet this creates shortages of qualified and highly trained officers. His appetite for re-organizing proxy forces and using them in regional conflicts as well as his recent efforts to establish private military companies is worth following. Despite various risks, Erdogan, a serious risk-taker, and master pragmatist with his ability to make sharp U-turns, will continue to pursue assertive policies that are sometimes in contrast to the interests of NATO allies. He, moreover, will push Turkey's limits to the point that has never been recorded in the Republican era on debated issues and frozen conflicts in the region without any hesitation to even utilize armed forces. Latest example of his decision of ordering 10 ambassadors to be declared as “persona non grata” and willingness to start another military operation in Syria shows how he can relentlessly push the limits of the country for his personal agenda. Unless there is a drastic change in the policies of the U.S. towards Turkey, the Turkish alliance with NATO will endure based on mutual benefits and dependencies, and NATO will continue to tolerate Erdogan’s personal aspirations because it is a partner that NATO cannot afford to lose.


Disclaimer:   The opinions expressed in this article are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the official policy or position of the George C. Marshall Center, the government of the United States of America or the Federal Republic of Germany.

Categories: Turkey - NATO

About the Author(s)

Mehmet Alper Sozer, Ph.D., is a professor at the Roger Williams University School of Justice Studies. He has been studying regional security related issues, specifically violent extremism and radicalization. 

Cüneyt Gürer, Ph.D. is a professor of Transnational Security Studies at the George C. Marshall European Center for Security Studies. His research interests and areas of expertise comprise transnational security issues, regional security dynamics, human displacement, and non-state actors in the contemporary conflicts.