Turkey is a strange ally of the United States, and a strange member of NATO. This has been clear for several years now. It has become yet clearer in recent weeks.
On October 6, Recep Tayyip Erdogan, the Turkish strongman, had a phone call with President Donald Trump. Apparently, the Turk informed the American that Turkish forces would invade Syria in order to attack Syrian Kurds (who had been allied with the United States in the fight against ISIS). Trump said the U.S. would not interfere — would, in fact, clear out of the region. On October 9, Turkey invaded, in what it called “Operation Peace Spring.”
Before the operation, and after word had gotten out, there was an uproar: Could the United States really abandon the Kurds in this way, standing aside for the Turks? In response to this uproar, Trump issued an extraordinary warning on October 7. He did so by Twitter. “As I have stated strongly before, and just to reiterate, if Turkey does anything that I, in my great and unmatched wisdom, consider to be off limits, I will totally destroy and obliterate the Economy of Turkey (I’ve done before!).” It is unclear what the president meant by “I’ve done before!” He concluded, “THE USA IS GREAT!”
It perhaps goes without saying that it is very, very unusual for one NATO member to threaten another with the total destruction, or obliteration, of its economy.
On October 11, U.S. troops who had not yet cleared out of the region came under artillery fire from the Turks. (No one was harmed, or at least no American.) U.S. officers said that this was no accident: The Turks knew exactly what they were doing. And why were they doing it? To announce that there was a new sheriff in town? To administer something like “an Ottoman slap”?
This phrase had been introduced by Erdogan in early 2018. He used it in a speech to his parliament, responding to an American general, Paul Funk. Funk had warned Turkey not to tangle with Americans in Syria. “You hit us,” he said, “we will respond aggressively. We will defend ourselves.” Speaking to the parliament, Erdogan said, “It’s obvious that those who say ‘You hit us, we will respond aggressively’ have never received an Ottoman slap.”
Richard Haas had a notable reaction to the October 11 incident, when Turkish forces “bracketed” U.S. troops with artillery fire. Haas is the president of the Council on Foreign Relations and a veteran of the Defense and State departments. On Twitter, he wrote, “Long overdue to give up fiction that Erdogan’s Turkey is an ally in practice.”
Erdogan flew to Sochi, the Black Sea resort in Russia, to huddle with his Russian counterpart, Vladimir Putin. At the airport in Ankara, he said, “With my dear friend Putin, we will discuss the situation.” The two of them came to an agreement on who would control what in Syria. It was not the first deal they had made. Earlier this year, Erdogan bought anti-aircraft weapons from Russia, over the very strong objections of his NATO allies. Indeed, the United States removed Turkey from its Joint Strike Fighter program, which features the F-35, a stealth, “multi-role” plane. A statement from the White House read, “Unfortunately, Turkey’s decision to purchase Russian S-400 air defense systems renders its continued involvement with the F-35 impossible. The F-35 cannot coexist with a Russian intelligence collection platform that will be used to learn about its advanced capabilities.”
By rights, Turkey’s purchase should have triggered CAATSA sanctions. This is a U.S. law enacted in August 2017, whose acronym stands for “Countering America’s Adversaries through Sanctions Act.” Some administration officials still contend that CAATSA sanctions on Turkey are being contemplated.
NATO trust in Turkey is obviously low. When U.S. forces killed the ISIS chief, Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, on October 27, they did so without informing the Turks of anything. Baghdadi was hiding out in the village of Barisha, in northwestern Syria, on the border with Turkey. U.S. forces launched their operation from an air base near Erbil, the capital of Iraqi Kurdistan, entailing a dangerous 70-minute flight over Syria (during which the aircraft took gunfire). They did not use Incirlik Air Base in southern Turkey, which is much closer to the target. As a headline said, “U.S. Secrecy on Baghdadi Raid Exposes Distrust of NATO Ally Turkey.”
The world is shifting, as it does. In February 2017, when Putin came to see him in Budapest, Viktor Orban, the Hungarian leader, said, “We all sense — it’s in the air — that the world is in the process of a substantial realignment.” Putin hailed Hungary as an “important and reliable partner for Russia in Europe.” Five days after the launch of Operation Peace Spring this year, Erdogan and Orban met in Baku, Azerbaijan. The Turk thanked the Hungarian for his steadfast support on the international stage — which has included the thwarting of resolutions by the European Union against Operation Peace Spring.
Erdogan has a card to play against Europe, as he confirmed in a speech on October 10. That card is a refugee card, the threat of a flood. There are 3.6 million Syrian refugees in Turkey. “Come to your senses,” he told the EU in that speech, given to his party in Ankara. “I will say this once again: If you try to label our current operation an occupation, our job becomes easier: We will open the gates and send the 3.6 million refugees to you.”
Despite this threat, several EU nations have responded to Operation Peace Spring, imposing arms embargoes on Turkey. These nations include Germany, France, Sweden, and Finland. Also, a group of EU nations on the U.N. Security Council proposed a resolution against Turkey. The resolution was vetoed by Russia and the United States — a surprising pairing. This produced headlines that you perhaps had to read twice, such as “EU Stands Alone against U.S. and Russia on Syria.”
Yes, the world is in flux. In the summer of 2018, Erdogan had his latest inauguration, following his latest fraudulent election. Viktor Orban was the only EU leader to attend. (He had also been the only EU leader to congratulate Erdogan on a rigged referendum. President Trump offered the same congratulations.) Also on the guest list at the inauguration were Dmitri Medvedev of Russia — standing in for Putin — and Nicolás Maduro of Venezuela. Maduro pronounced Erdogan a “leader of the new multipolar world.” This seems hard to dispute.
The North Atlantic Treaty Organization began after World War II and in the initial stage of the Cold War: 1949. Originally, there were twelve members; now there are 29. The first additions to the original twelve came in 1952. The new members were Greece and Turkey, those historic enemies. They were not model democracies, but they were on the right track. NATO is a military alliance, to be sure, devoted to a “collective defence,” as the preamble to the treaty says. But there is also a philosophical or political component. NATO members, says the preamble, “are determined to safeguard the freedom, common heritage and civilisation of their peoples, founded on the principles of democracy, individual liberty and the rule of law.”
And yet, one of the original members was a dictatorship: Portugal. NATO’s founding fathers thought that Portugal was too important, strategically, to exclude. Spain, however, was not admitted to NATO until 1982, well after the death of Francisco Franco and the dawn of Spanish democracy.
If Portugal was of strategic importance, Turkey certainly was, and is: a literal bridge between Europe and Asia, bordering the Arab world, bordering Iran, bordering the Black Sea, the Aegean Sea, the Mediterranean . . . When considering the question of NATO and Turkey, says Eric Edelman, you have to remember an old adage. Edelman is a former U.S. ambassador to Turkey and a former Defense Department official. The adage is one that President Trump is no doubt familiar with, as Edelman says, for it comes from the world of real estate: “Location, location, location.”
Furthermore, Turkey is a majority-Muslim country, and this can be useful in international disputes. An action may be seen as less “anti-Muslim” if Turkey is involved. There are some 2,000 American troops in Turkey, and nuclear warheads as well — American nukes, about 50 of them, at Incirlik Air Base.
Turkey would never be admitted to NATO today. It has an authoritarian regime, with democracy an increasingly distant memory. NATO is not admitting such countries anymore; it has stricter democratic criteria. But Turkey is grandfathered in, if you will. Other NATO countries have “backslid” as well, in the course of these decades — Greece, for example, during the Regime of the Colonels (1967–74).
Recep Tayyip Erdogan became prime minister of Turkey in 2003. He later assumed the title “president.” In his first years, there were high hopes for him around the world, as well as in his own country. Indeed, he was bidding fair to have Turkey join the European Union. In 2005, he told the annual meeting of the World Economic Forum in Davos, Switzerland, that Turkey was ready to take its rightful place within Europe. The Ottoman Empire was known as “the sick man of Europe,” he reminded the audience, not “the sick man of Asia.” He said that Turks “by deed and culture are compatible with Europe” and that he looked forward to a “reconciliation of civilizations.”
The next year, Erdogan attended a World Economic Forum meeting in Sharm El Sheikh, Egypt. He met with some journalists, and I asked him the first question — a basic one, on many minds at the time: What would Erdogan say to people who doubted the compatibility of Islam and democracy? He would have them look at Turkey, he answered. “In my country, 98 percent of the people are Muslim, and we are a democracy, a republic, in which the rule of law, secularism, and the fundamental rights of liberty are held dear.” He went on to say that Turkey was “condemned to success.” By this, he meant that the eyes of the world were on it, waiting to see what would happen. Turkey had to set an example: an example of democratic success in the Muslim world at large. It could not afford to fail.
Since that time, Erdogan has built a nasty authoritarian regime, combining elements of nationalism and Islamism. Turkey is the world’s No. 1 jailer of journalists — outpacing Iran and even China.
In July 2016, there was a coup attempt against Erdogan. Who started it? Who was responsible? That is the subject of much and interesting debate, which has been had at length elsewhere. In any case, Erdogan declared the coup attempt “a gift from God,” making possible “a new Turkey.” It did, in a way. Erdogan executed a sweeping, horrific crackdown, arresting hundreds of thousands of people — judges, professors, anyone who might dissent from him — and cementing a personal rule. His government established an “Office for Human Abductions and Executions” (which I wrote about in the January 28, 2019, issue of National Review).
In the wake of the coup attempt, Erdogan recalled Turkish officers serving in the NATO command structure abroad — almost 1,000 of them. A few hundred went home, and were promptly arrested. They were labeled “Atlanticists,” a dirty word in Erdogan’s “new Turkey.” The other officers sought asylum in the countries where they were living, including the United States.
Americans got a glimpse of Erdogan’s rule — just a glimpse — when the ruler came to Washington in May 2017 (“a great honor,” tweeted President Trump). There were protesters in front of the Turkish ambassador’s residence, and Erdogan’s presidential guard beat them to a pulp, as Erdogan looked on. The D.C. police, astonished, intervened as best they could. Senator John McCain tweeted, “This is the United States of America. We do not do this here. There is no excuse for this kind of thuggish behavior.” If Erdogan’s men do this sort of thing in America’s capital, in broad daylight, imagine what they do at home, when no one (no foreigner) is looking.
Erdogan held an American hostage, in effect, for two years. That was Pastor Andrew Brunson, who was released in October 2018. “There’s still a number of American citizens who are held in Turkey,” Brunson said a few months later, “and I hope that there will be continued interest in getting them released.” Erdogan frequently sounds anti-American themes, which are of course broadcast through his media. He rails against the American hegemon, fostering resentment against it.
A classic revanchist, Erdogan would like to restore the Ottoman Empire, or at least make strides in that direction. He and his lieutenants have been unblushing about this. As Alon Ben-Meir, an expert at New York University, says, Erdogan wants to be the new “Ataturk” — “Father of the Turks” — by 2023, the centennial of the Turkish republic. He flexes his muscles, and spends his liras, in the Balkans and elsewhere. In a similar vein, Putin would like to see the restoration of the Russian Empire — but neither man has the means to accomplish his goal, as Ben-Meir says. For one thing, they don’t have the economic strength.
Empire or no empire, Turkey is a power. The country has the second-largest military in NATO. Just recently, Erdogan lamented Turkey’s lack of nuclear weapons. Other nations have them, he said in a speech on September 4, but Turkey is told that it may not. “This, I cannot accept.”
Officially, Turkey is still a proud, or at least a standard, member of NATO. The website of its ministry of foreign affairs still says the right, or standard, things. “Ever since our NATO membership in 1952, the North Atlantic Alliance has played a central role in Turkey’s security and contributed to its integration with the Euro-Atlantic community. Turkey, in return, has successfully assumed its responsibilities in defending the common values of the Alliance.” The foreign ministry also repeats the bromide — no less true for being a bromide — that NATO is “the most successful military alliance in history.”
Yet Erdogan feels that his allies, and especially the United States, do not respect his concerns and do not treat him as a peer. He said so bluntly in an op-ed piece published in the New York Times in August 2018. “Before it is too late,” he wrote, “Washington must give up the misguided notion that our relationship can be asymmetrical and come to terms with the fact that Turkey has alternatives. Failure to reverse this trend of unilateralism and disrespect will require us to start looking for new friends and allies.”
That would be perfectly fine with some Westerners, particularly after Operation Peace Spring, with its war crimes. U.S. congressmen, EU ministers, and other officials have called for the suspension or even the expulsion of Turkey from NATO. There’s a rub, however: NATO has no mechanism for the suspension or expulsion of a member. The United Nations and the European Union do. NATO does not. Such a mechanism was contemplated at the time of the founding — what if a NATO member were to turn Communist, as Italy almost did in 1948? — but it was decided against. Evidently, the founders figured that an incongruous or disaffected member would simply leave — there is a mechanism for that (Article 13).
The treaty could be amended, allowing for the suspension or expulsion of a member. But that would require unanimous consent — meaning, Turkey’s, too.
Some people hope that, out of pique or cold calculation or whatever, Turkey will just up and leave. They ask some provocative questions, including this: What if a country — Bashar al-Assad’s Syria, say — attacked Turkey? Wouldn’t the 28 other members of NATO be obliged to come to Turkey’s defense, as dictated by Article 5? Formally, yes. (Article 5, which says that an attack on one is an attack on all, was never invoked during the four decades of the Cold War. It has been invoked only once, and that was by the United States after 9/11. Turkey did not take part in the Iraq War coalition, but it contributed non-combat personnel in the Afghan War.)
Alon Ben-Meir would like to see Turkey out of NATO yesterday. “But kicking Turkey out of NATO would make Brexit look like child’s play,” he says. Even if there were a mechanism for expulsion, Turkey has been enmeshed in NATO for almost 70 years now. Military cooperation has grown ever “deeper, wider, and more comprehensive,” says Ben-Meir. It could hardly be disentangled overnight.
Does NATO have any tools, any leverage? Something with which to chasten or reform erring members? There is always moral suasion — but this can seem weak and pathetic. As Turkish forces and their associated militias were doing their worst against the Syrian Kurds, the secretary general of NATO, Jens Stoltenberg, was reduced to saying, “Turkey is a great power in this great region, and with great power comes great responsibility.” This must have occasioned guffaws in Ankara. What NATO can do, however, is distance itself from Turkey. Freeze it out. Stop sharing intelligence, stop sharing technology. And this, NATO members are already doing. Erdogan is not complaining about it publicly, says Ben-Meir — but he knows he is being marginalized, and he will complain about it publicly before long, almost surely.
If you freeze out Turkey, you have to replace it with something. You have to replace what Turkey has brought to the alliance, which is considerable. Already, there is “open conversation” about this, as Nate Schenkkan says. He is an expert on Turkey and Central Asia at Freedom House. Where are you going to get another air base, so desirably positioned? Where are you going to store your nukes? What are you going to do for ports? How about reconnaissance and surveillance capabilities? Current discussion revolves around Greece, Cyprus, Romania, Jordan, Iraqi Kurdistan, and still other locales.
Some believe that you have to wait Erdogan out. He will not be around forever. And roughly half the country is against him. NATO has had troublesome members before — even France was a problem, for some years. Have patience with Turkey and get through this backsliding period. Others, such as Michael Rubin of the American Enterprise Institute, think it is too late: Erdogan has “de-Atlanticized,” or “de-NATO-ized,” the military, and has indoctrinated a whole generation of Turkish youth. There is no going back. Erdogan has indeed made “a new Turkey,” in his own phrase.
I myself think of the Palmerstonian adage: Nations do not have permanent allies but permanent interests. For some years now — at least half of Erdogan’s 16-year reign — Turkey has not looked like an ally, certainly not of the United States or NATO. Mark Esper, the U.S. secretary of defense, said on October 21, “We had no obligation, if you will, to defend the Kurds from a longstanding NATO ally.” Does this kind of thinking make sense in today’s world? Does it comport with the realities on the ground? Does it jibe with conscience? Remember, U.S. forces took off from Erbil, not Incirlik. And, according to various sources, among them U.S. officials, Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi was located thanks to Kurdish intelligence.
No one, including me, has an easy answer to the Turkish question, and the specific question of Turkey in NATO. Nate Schenkkan asks, “What does it look like to have an ally that’s not fully trusted within the alliance?” We are seeing that now, as he says. “It is uncomfortable, and challenging, but not unmanageable. And people are getting used to the idea.” True.