Cracks in Ankara’s relations with other Nato members, particularly the US Administration, are increasingly isolating President Recep Tayyip Erdogan. They are also dangerously threatening to erode Turkey’s role as a reliable buffer zone between the European Union region and an unstable Middle East.
This is happening at a time when Turkey’s ambitions to join the EU are rapidly becoming something of the past. Accession negotiations with the Europeans that started about 13 years ago, have now reached a dead end. It was made absolutely clear during Erdogan’s last visit to Paris when his French counterpart, Emmanuel Macron, had told him there was “no chance of progress towards Turkey joining the European Union at present”. The French president simply said it was time “to end the hypocrisy of pretending” that there was any prospect to “advance Turkey’s membership talks with the EU”. On top of that, Turkey’s relations with Nato have been going through an unprecedented rocky period in the last few years. Erdogan is facing, for the first time in his country’s 65-year-long membership in Nato, a historic test that might end up in Turkey’s pulling out from the North Atlantic organisation. Relations as they currently stand between the two parties have never been worse.
Two issues are at the heart of the problem: handling the situation in Syria and dealing with the US-supported Kurdish dominated militia in Northern Syria, the People’s Protection Units (PYG). Feeling frustrated by Turkey’s own historic allies, Erdogan has been searching for an alternative and he eventually settled to tie himself into an alliance with Russia and Iran. It is true that Turkey’s membership of Nato has never been perfect and regularly surrounded by controversy. First, the tension between Turkey and Greece for at least three decades starting in 1950s, and second, the differences between Turkey and the US over Cyprus after the Turkish invasion that led to the island’s partition in mid 1970s. This has resulted in straining of relations between Turkey and Nato member states.
Erdogan suspects the West
But the deterioration of the relationship between the two are going in different directions now and are much more serious than in the past. Previous conflicts between Nato and Turkey (whether over Greece or Cyprus) were of a passing nature and the North Atlantic Organisation has managed somehow to contain them over the year.
Erdogan seriously suspects that the western countries want to get rid of him (especially since 2013). He believes certain western countries, including the US, were behind the wide spread anti-Erdogan demonstration in Istanbul and other major cities in Turkey. He is also convinced the West was behind the failed coup attempt against his government in July 2016. Western governments were directly accused by Erdogan of bias for accusing his government of using harsh tactics against the coup plotters rather than criticising the officers behind the failed coup. In fact, he accused Nato governments, particularly Germany, for offering many of these officers the opportunity to apply for asylum in Europe. The refusal by the US government to extradite the alleged coup leader, Fethullah Gulen, angered Erdogan who considered the American lack of action in this respect as a main part of the conspiracy against his government.
However, Erdogan’s Justice and Development Party (AKP) found in the failed coup attempt a God-given opportunity for the Turkish president to speedily reshape the country’s armed forces. He sacked thousands of highly professional officers and replaced them by lower ranking ones.
But the real test of Nato’s coherence seems to be ultimately in Syria. Turkey’s strategy is basically concentrating on the Kurd structure and organisation in northern Syria. This puts Turkey immediately at loggerheads with Nato in general, and the US in particular. When the Arab Spring erupted in Syria in 2011, Erdogan quickly switched to oppose his old friend, the Syrian president, Bashar Al Assad. The western alliance has, since 2012, provided Turkey with Patriot units to deal with any potential rocket attacks from Syria. Nato has also stationed its Awacs aircraft along the Turkish-Syrian borders to monitor the airspace between the two countries since December 2015. This system has played significant role over territories held by Daesh (the self proclaimed Islamic State in Iraq and Levant) since October 2016.
But now, with the US fully supporting the Kurdish powerful militia PYG and its junior ally the Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF) composed of Arab and Yazidi fighters, Erdogan is sending his army deep inside Syria to fight this militia which he considers terrorists. He considers PYG as an extension of the Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK) which is listed as a terrorist organisation by the US, Turkey and Europe. PYG downplays its relationship with PKK which calls for separation from Turkey. Now, with Turkey, the second largest contributor to Nato, on an offensive inside Syria, Erdogan is putting the North Atlantic Organisation at a crossroads.
Mustapha Karkouti is a columnist and former president of the Foreign Press Association, London. Twitter: @mustaphatache.