NATO’s Turkish Question

By THO Nonresident Fellow, Altan Atamer

On October 21st, 2019, French President Emmanuel Macron made the first of many comments deriding the NATO alliance and calling it “brain dead.” In subsequent declarations, Macron specifically targeted the unresolved nature of the “Turkey issue” as contributing to the “brain death” of the alliance. Since Macron’s initial remarks, calls to reform NATO and solve the “Turkish issue” through sanctions or even its outright expulsion from the alliance have reverberated across various political channels in France, Spain, Greece, and even in some sectors of the United States. And while there is no mechanism to remove Turkey from the alliance, much to the chagrin of Macron, the growing list of political actors criticizing Turkey’s position within NATO does hint at a “Turkish issue.”

But what exactly is this “Turkish issue”? And what does the “Turkish issue” mean for Turkey’s broader geopolitical goals or its relationships with NATO members and the US?

The “Turkish issue” is a relatively novel phenomenon arising out of a perceived incompatibility between the interests and actions of NATO and that of Turkey. The conflicts in Syria, Libya, the Eastern Mediterranean, and Karabakh have given fuel to the belief that Turkey is actively combating the interests of the transatlantic alliance and even threatening other NATO members. In addition, Turkey’s purchase and recent testing of the Russian S-400 missile system has suggested that Turkey is not just threatening the interests of other NATO members but even drifting towards its historical rival – Russia. Consequently, the calls to sanction Turkey or even remove it from the alliance are interpreted to be beneficial for both the individual member states of NATO and the general integrity of the alliance. 

But a closer inspection of these conflicts reveals a more complicated relationship between Turkey and NATO than what is presented by Macron. In Syria, NATO has largely remained silent in the face of Assad’s well documented use of chemical weapons and human rights abuses. The general ineffectiveness of NATO has also reproduced unfavorable situations in Libya and Karabakh where NATO had been unable to defend the UN recognized government of al-Sarraj or return the internationally recognized Azeri lands to its rightful owners. Instead Russia – the historical rival of NATO – has effectively extended its reach into Syria, Libya, the Caucuses and actively poses a threat to Eastern Europe. In short, NATO – a defensive alliance created to stem the spread of Russian and anti-democratic influences in the world – has demonstrated such passivity in the emerging conflicts of the world that Russia has even encroached on the sovereign territories of European states like Ukraine. However, since 2016 the rising Russian influence in various regions of the world has met a roadblock by way of NATO member Turkey.

In 2016 Turkey conducted a military intervention in Syria dubbed “Operation Euphrates Shield.” This operation was subsequently followed up in 2018 with “Operation Olive Branch” and then again in 2019 with “Operation Peace Spring.” Each of these operations successfully established a Turkish presence in three distinct regions in Syria, removed ISIS and PKK elements from the borders of Turkey, and continues to be the only serious challenge to Assad’s grip on the country. In Libya, Turkish intervention has effectively turned the tide of the war in favor of the internationally recognized Government of National Accord (GNA). And in Karabakh, Turkish coordination with Azerbaijan has resulted in the reestablishment of Azerbaijan’s territorial integrity in line with multiple UN resolutions and international law. Crucially, the success of the Turkish military and its growing influence in these conflict areas has strengthened NATO’s previously weakened hand in regions where it has been losing ground. 

This is not to say that Turkey’s geostrategic interventions have resulted in hostile confrontations with Russia. On the contrary, Turkey and Russia have closely coordinated with one another establishing ceasefires in all of the aforementioned areas. Yet, this cooperative relationship emerges only after decisive Turkish interventions change the realities of the conflict areas. In fact, Turkey has demonstrated to the US and NATO that it is an effective representative and ally in these conflicts. In Syria, Turkey is currently the most significant threat to Assad’s hegemony, and the only force keeping the GNA in power in Libya – two goals expressed by both NATO and the US. In Karabakh, where the situation is more complicated due to the large numbers of politically engaged diaspora’s, Turkey has nevertheless upheld international law by siding with Azerbaijan and is now poised to be an influential power in the region of the former Soviet bloc – an area previously dominated exclusively by Russia. Without Turkey, the interests of NATO were clearly not taken seriously by the Russians, nor was NATO in a position to assert itself against the Russian’s since the Trump administration turned increasingly inwards and ascribed to a more isolationist foreign policy. Why then do individuals like Macron continue to insist that Turkey’s relationship with NATO contributes to its “brain death” or that it poses a threat to the integrity of the alliance and the interests of its member states?

Taking the events in Libya as a microcosm of the wider strained relationships within NATO, it seems as though French, rather than Turkish, geopolitical interests are misaligned with the interests of both the transatlantic alliance and the US. After all, while Turkey cooperates with Russia in implementing ceasefires that preserve the legitimacy and integrity of the GNA, France supplies arms and supports the anti-democratic efforts of notorious putschist General Haftar. In this sense, France does not simply cooperate with the political efforts of the Russians, it actively supports enlarging the Russian mandate in Libya – as well as passively supporting Russian efforts in Syria and Karabakh – in order to benefit its own agenda. It is no surprise then that Turkey acts against the interests of France in Libya and other areas. But where Macron is wrong is the false assumption that actions against the interests of France are necessarily against the interests of NATO and the US. After all, if Turkey is guilty of acting against the interests of NATO by supporting the GNA in Libya, so is the UK as well as Italy and the US – three other very prominent NATO members. Unlike France, Turkish interests in Libya have mimicked those of the leading members in NATO like the US and UK. And in Syria, while Turkey and the US are not united in regards to the Kurdish issue it is worth noting that the US supports the vast majority of the same organizations that Turkey works with and that both nations oppose Assad with equal ferocity. The remaining question then is not so much if Turkish actions should elicit sanctions or expulsion, or if Turkish interests are misaligned with that of the US or NATO. It is clear that they are. Rather it is what to do with the French who attempt to hijack NATO for their own interests and slander fellow members that oppose them. In other words, NATO might be “brain dead” but only if “brain death” is defined as contributing to obstacles that hinder the realization of Macron’s ambitions. On the other hand, recognizing Turkey’s positive role in NATO and cooperating with Turkish efforts could lead to not just a stronger and more assertive NATO, but a NATO that is able to realize the interests of most of its member states including those of its two largest armies – the US and Turkey.

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