Turkey and NATO

Is Turkey a liability for NATO? It certainly looks that way, as Turkey appears to be striking out against NATO interests.

The sun sets over the Ottoman-era Suleymaniye mosque in Istanbul (photo credit: REUTERS)
The sun sets over the Ottoman-era Suleymaniye mosque in Istanbul
(photo credit: REUTERS)
Is Turkey a liability for NATO? It certainly looks that way, as Turkey appears to be striking out against NATO interests, whether it is missile defense or the Islamic State (IS). Does Turkey still want to be part of the alliance? As the points of divergence are becoming more apparent than the points of convergence, and with Recep Tayyip Erdogan (then the Turkish prime minister, now the president) talking admirably about the Shanghai Cooperation Organization, doubts may arise. Still, it is premature to suggest that Turkey should be forced out of NATO, or that it could leave on its own initiative.
A major challenge for NATO is Ankara’s apparent readiness to purchase Chinese missile defense technology. There are concerns that Turkish collaboration with China on missile defense will enable the Chinese to gain access to classified NATO data and military plans, and the Obama administration has expressed its unease on the matter to Turkey. A measure has already been proposed in the US Senate which would prohibit the United States from financially supporting the integration of Chinese components with US technology that is a fundamental component of the NATO European Phased Adaptive Approach. However, there are some indications that Turkey could cancel its plans to purchase from China. While Turkey could cancel on the pretext that its demands for co-production have not been sufficiently met, it is clear that this step would be taken with full awareness that the move toward the Chinese was one step too far for Ankara’s NATO allies.
Another major source of friction is the issue of the battle against IS. Even now with Turkey taking stronger measures to stem the movement of foreign fighters, and even closing its shared border with Syria, there is still disagreement over the correct way to deal with IS. For the Turks, IS is symptomatic of the power vacuum resulting from American policies toward Iraq and Syria; it contends that without the removal of the Assad regime, no improvement can be achieved. For the West, however, since IS appears to have become the greatest threat to the stability of the region, the coalition of the willing has shown that it is even ready to enlist Iran and Assad, if necessary, to confront the jihadists. Turkey does not see favorably the strengthening of Iranian influence in Iraq and has referred to the willingness of the US to “eventually” negotiate with Assad as “shaking hands with Hitler.”
Still, the Turkish public is strongly in favor of Turkey remaining in NATO. According to the 2014 Kadir Has University survey, those supporting the continued membership of Turkey in NATO has risen from 72 percent in 2013 to 76% in 2014. Similarly, in the German Marshall Fund 2014 Transatlantic Trends survey, 49% of the respondents said that “NATO membership is essential for Turkey’s security.”
Western diplomats point out that in spite of frustration over Turkey’s equivocation regarding IS, its geostrategic position dictates that Ankara will remain part of NATO and security ties will remains strong. Turkey is geographically positioned at the center of all the crises that the West is concerned with, and therefore Turkey should not be alienated.
Both former NATO secretary-general Rasmussen and current Secretary-General Jens Stoltenberg have praised Turkey’s contribution to the Alliance, particularly in Afghanistan. Turkey’s defense minister, Ismet Yilmaz, has also recently stated that “NATO is successful as a security-maintaining institution.”
In short, Turkey and NATO have enjoyed more than 60 years of a mutually beneficial relationship.
Yes, the relationship is going through a rocky phase at present, but a divorce is unlikely. While a fear of the Soviets kept the parties together during the Cold War, today both sides share concern over the consequences of instability resulting from the Arab upheavals in the Middle East. Turkey still needs NATO assistance in the deployment of a missile defense system in its territory against the threat from Syria. At the same time, NATO’s military capabilities are reinforced by the potentially large number of Turkish troops at its disposal. While much of the time it appears as if Turkey gets a free pass to do what it likes, its NATO allies do have leverage over it.
If one can draw preliminary conclusions from the ongoing debate in Turkey over the potential procurement of a Chinese missile defense system, it can be argued that when NATO puts its foot down, Ankara gets the message.
Dr. Azriel Bermant and Dr. Gallia Lindenstrauss are both research fellows at the Institute for National Security Studies (INSS). You can follow them on twitter at @ azrielb and