For several years the news out of Turkey is not good, at least from the perspective of NATO, the U.S., and the Middle East. Russia, China, and Iran may be very excited about the possibilities. The Turkish people ought to be terrified. I am talking about Turkey’s surreptitious plan to leave NATO. This would be a terrible development, but the writing is on the wall. It would likely take major concessions by NATO, which are largely unacceptable, to convince Turkey to stay.
Turkish President Erdogan has become increasingly authoritarian since taking office. Turkey’s elections, always questionable in how they apportion opposition votes, became even more dubious as Erdogan consolidated power and eroded the institutions of government. The Turkish military, long the safeguard of some semblance of democracy, is no longer effective in this regard. Erdogan caught the military unprepared with an astonishing purge of career officers loyal to the country and the people, replacing them with those strictly loyal to himself. Turkish citizens have lost significant freedom under his increasingly tyrannical rule.
Although President Trump likes Erdogan (a facet of his inexplicable affection for authoritarian rulers against our own national interests and values) and they have had a close relationship, U.S.-Turkey relations have starkly deteriorated. Turkish relations with Europe have declined similarly, in large part over human rights concerns. Russian President Vladimir Putin, always looking for any opportunity to weaken NATO, has ushered in an era of stronger, improved relations with Erdogan’s Turkey which, as he intended, threatens Turkey’s NATO status. Russia has always been desperate to establish connections with Turkey. During the Cold War, Turkish control over the Bosporus Straights and geographically strategic position was a major challenge to Russian naval movement. As a NATO member, Turkish air bases afforded NATO forces a tactical edge. Over the years, Turkey has played a critical role, militarily and diplomatically, in regional issues and conflicts.
An incredibly dark side of Turkish geopolitical history involves genocide. While Turkey had been a partner in the effort to defeat ISIS and oppose Syrian dictator Assad, their motivation was to ultimately attack and murder the Kurds. Kurds have suffered tremendously from brutal regimes such as Assad, Saddam Hussein, and Iran in addition to Turkey. Consequently, Kurdish forces have been steadfast allies of the U.S. and coalition forces in Iraq, with the U.S. protecting Kurdish territory between the Gulf War and Operation Iraqi Freedom. Kurdish forces have led the fight on the ground against ISIS. The Kurds have earned respect and the autonomy they crave and so desperately need. In fact, they have earned an independent state as well and that terrifies Turkey. President Trump’s recent pronouncement of the immediate withdrawal of all U.S. forces from Syria was done at the behest of Erdogan, his intent being to commit genocide against the Kurds once the U.S. was gone. Thankfully Trump faced significant internal pressure and revised his plan. Good for the Kurds, but angering Erdogan.
Part of Erdogan’s breakup with Trump was fueled by the recent murder of journalist Jamal Khashoggi. Khashoggi, from Saudi Arabia, was a permanent resident in the U.S. writing for the Washington Post. His work often criticized the Saudi Royal family, focused on repression, corruption, etc. Saudi King Salman and Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman were furious. Ultimately, they manipulated Khashoggi into going to the Saudi Consulate in Turkey, where a Saudi hit squad, sent by the Crown Prince, tortured him with a bone saw leading to his death. Turkey was incensed this occurred in their country, but Trump stood solidly with the Saudi Royal family.
This helped push Erdogan further towards Putin, who was all too happy to welcome him into the Russian fold. Putin invited Erdogan to participate in his conferences concerning Syria, omitting the U.S. Clearly, he made deals with Erdogan that had little concern if any about protecting the Kurds. Erdogan sensed a better partner for his repressive style of rule with a fellow authoritarian. Most recently, Turkey finalized the purchase of Russia’s S-400 missile system, an incredibly advanced system. As is easy to understand, NATO members have neither sold nor purchased weapons systems to Russia and its allies, nor have Russia and its allies purchased or sold their weapons systems to NATO members. The S-400 is so advanced that it poses a serious threat to NATO weapons systems. Turkey’s Russia purchase forced the U.S. to cancel the planned sale of our own advanced fighter planes, the F-35, to Turkey because they are incompatible with the S-400 and the S-400 would be able to collect sensitive data about the F-35 that Russia could use against NATO. This is intolerable under multiple perspectives. Putin’s plan was to use the S-400 to pry Turkey from NATO.
Turkey’s decision to proceed with Russia’s S-400, forfeiting the purchase of U.S. F-35s, forebodes a dangerous, but increasingly predictable, turn towards Russia and away from NATO. NATO stands for the preservation of freedom and democracy against repressive authoritarian regimes. NATO and the U.S. have overlooked Turkey’s less than transparent democracy for decades because of their geopolitical relevance in Europe, the Caucasus, and the Middle East. Their strategic importance and cooperation on many fronts overcame deficiencies in their internal political institutions. However, Erdogan’s abrupt move toward extreme authoritarianism to consolidate power and eliminate any opposition called serious question into their continued membership. Their limited assistance in Syria and refusal to allow the U.S. to operate from Turkey during Operation Iraqi Freedom challenged the alliance and signified Turkey’s primary focus on destroying the Kurdish people.
Putin is poised to give Turkey the proverbial key to the city to pry them from NATO and into a more friendly posture with Russia. Putin and Erdogan are of like mind in the Caucasus and Middle East. Erdogan no longer believes in the importance of being part of NATO, not at the cost of his key goals. His increasing friendship with Putin directly threatens and runs contrary to Turkey’s membership in NATO. The result is an irreconcilable impasse. NATO did not want to expel Turkey in the hope Turkey could modify its policies and Erdogan could be convinced to move back towards a semblance of freedom more consistent with NATO. However, Erdogan’s decision on the Kurds and S-400 are entirely incompatible with NATO. Thus, it appears Turkey is poised to leave the alliance. In my view, Erdogan has been preparing to pursue this course of action and is likely to execute it in the near future. Turkey will likely make some grand demand of NATO on a variety of issues before acting. NATO and the U.S. are not likely to be able to accede to such extortion due to the seriousness of the issues at stake. Erdogan will use that as his impetus to move away from NATO and closer to Putin. I truly hope NATO can prevent this for the good of the region.