The relationship between Turkey and the West has recently deteriorated. Turkey has been angered by what it sees as lukewarm condemnation by its Western allies of the abortive July 15-16 putsch against President Tayyip Erdogan and the Turkish government. The relationship has soured to the point when Ankara’s NATO membership is questioned. In an outburst following NATO’s perceived lack of backing after the failed coup, foreign minister Mevlut Cavusoglu threatened Turkey would «think of exit» if NATO did not step up to defend the country.
The latest example of deteriorating relations is the row over Turkish Vice Admiral Mustafa Zeki Ugurlu who served as assistant chief of staff, NATO’s Allied Command Transformation in Norfolk. Turkey issued an arrest warrant for Ugurlu on charges that he is affiliated with the Gulenist movement. Ankara asked NATO to terminate his posting and return him to Turkey. The Vice Admiral has applied for asylum in the United States and is now apparently missing. Turkey says Ugurlu has vital information on Gulenist subversive activities in Turkey and finds it hard to accept that he simply disappeared.
Turkey says military units that are part of NATO’s Rapid Deployable Corps-Turkey were involved in the coup attempt on July 15. It makes Ankara suspect that NATO had a role to play.
It has been reported that many officers involved had served long stints in NATO and were identified with strong pro-Western views.
Many Turkish media outlets believe that NATO was aware of the plot.
Suleyman Soylu, Turkey’s labor minister openly suggested that the US was behind the attempted takeover.
Hurriyet Daily News reported: «Anti-Americanism and Western skepticism are common phenomena among Turks. It is not limited to certain segments of the society. One would be surprised to see the intensity of anti-Americanısm and Euroskepticism among the educated elites, even the Western educated ones.» According to the newspaper, a «surprising level of anger and frustration felt against first Americans and then Europeans by the residents of Ankara».
The recently published photo of the US Ambassador’s plot leaders, has caused great concern in Turkey. It was made a day before the coup.
Many Turks are taking the US refusal to extradite Gulen as evidence of complicity in a Gulenist insurrection plot. Muhammed Fethullah Gülen is an Islamic cleric blamed by the Turkish government for masterminding the abortive coup. Turkey has requested the United States to deport him but to no avail.
Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan actually gave the United States an ultimatum, demanding the extradition.
The US has repeatedly refused to hand over the cleric, saying that Turkey would need to provide «evidence, not allegations» against Gulen in order to have him extradited. Erdogan said the US would eventually have to choose between its relationship with Turkey and Fethullah Gulen.
US Secretary of State John Kerry warned that exploiting the coup to crack down on its detractors and undermine its democracy could cost Turkey its NATO membership.
If Kerry’s remarks are meant to sound a warning, they are falling on deaf ears in Turkey where a campaign against Turkey’s NATO membership is also gaining steam.
Indeed, the coup attempt has greatly complicated the Turkey-NATO ties, already aggravated by the Syrian crisis, the migrants’ problem, the differences over how to fight the Islamic State, the Kurdistan Workers Party, and the issue of human rights. The idea of NATO membership appears to lose attractiveness in Turkey.
Turkey will «conduct its own independent foreign policy», said Umit Yardim, Turkey’s ambassador to Russia, after a meeting between Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan and President Vladimir Putin in St. Petersburg on August 9. «In no way can NATO limit our contacts with other countries… It means NATO has no right to dictate its terms and tell us who we should or should not meet and communicate with», the ambassador emphasized.
Turkish Foreign Minister Mevlut Cavusoglu pointed out that Turkey has options outside of NATO when it comes to defense cooperation.
He said that Turkey and Russia will look to establish a joint military, intelligence, and diplomatic mechanism. «Turkey wanted to cooperate with NATO members up to this point», the minister said. «But the results we got did not satisfy us. Therefore, it is natural to look for other options».
It should be noted that Russia, not a NATO member state, was the first country to be visited by Turkish President after the failed coup.
With relations between Washington and Ankara worsening, the United States has started moving nuclear weapons from Turkey, allegedly to Romania.
During the failed coup in Turkey in July, Incirlik’s power was cut, and the Turkish government prohibited US aircraft from flying in or out. Eventually, the Turkish base commander was arrested and implicated in the coup. Now the US control over the weapons in the event of a protracted civil conflict in Turkey is questioned.
It has gone far enough to put into doubt the Lockheed Martin F-35 program.
Turkey has signed up to buy 100 of the advanced jet fighters. Losing 100 F-35 orders as well as a reasonably large industrial partner would doubtless push the costs of the F-35 program through the roof.
If Turkey leaves NATO, its security will not weaken much. Recently, Ankara has mended fences with Russia and Israel returning to the policy of zero problems with the neighbors. Exiting NATO will not give rise to any serious disadvantages. Article 5 of the Washington Treaty envisions the support of other NATO member countries in the case of external aggression. The response measures are left at the discretion of member states – it can be a mere diplomatic note of support without providing any real aid. NATO never exercised Article 5 in cases of Turkey clashing with other states, despite Turkish attempts to initiate the process. Besides, Turkey has a larger military and higher defence spending than any one of its neighbors or its NATO allies, with the exception of the US. Its defense capabilities may even increase as the country will be under no pressure to sign deals with non-NATO states to enhance them. For instance, NATO made Turkey reject a lucrative deal with China to enhance air defenses.
NATO failed to offer anything to compensate the loss.
The territorial dispute between Greece and Turkey in the Aegean Sea and Turkey’s support for Northern Cyprus has traditionally spoiled relations between Turkey and NATO. NATO countries support the Kurds in Syria and have even used the above-mentioned Incirlik airbase to support Kurdish YPG units. Turkey itself considers the YPG to be a terrorist organization. Thus, Incirlik – a Turkish military base – is used to support an organization that allegedly supports separatist movements inside Turkey.
Actually, there are no objective reasons for Turkey to remain in NATO.
If Turkey quits, the alliance will suffer as a result. As mentioned above, Turkey has the second biggest military in NATO after the US. It has commanded the NATO-led mission in Afghanistan twice and has sent thousands of troops to serve under the NATO flag in multiple military operations in the Balkans, Syria and Libya. The western Turkish port city of Izmir hosts one of the five NATO headquarters, which is responsible for coordinating major operations of land-based forces. Izmir is also hosts an important US military airport.
With no bases – five major military facilities – in Turkey, the consequences for out-of-Europe operations will be grave. NATO’s advanced radar systems in Kurecik, in eastern Turkey, deployed under its ballistic missile defense program, hardly meet Turkey’s interests, but are important for the alliance. NATO was keen to conduct military exercises in the Black Sea and was pressurizing Turkey for a permanent presence there, something Ankara opposes. The Black Sea presence concept cannot be implemented without Turkey.
Turkey serves as the linchpin to America’s security strategy in the Middle East and the Balkans based on its geography and longstanding alliance with the United States. The fight against Islamic State (IS) will become more challenging. NATO former Supreme Allied Commander James Stavridis explained in a Foreign Policy article that Turkey has been critical to «virtually every NATO operation with significant impact: training Afghan Security Forces and leading coalition efforts in the central district, including Kabul; sending ships and aircraft to Libya; participating in counterpiracy operations; maintaining a steady presence in the security and peacekeeping force in the Balkans».
Moreover, according to Stavridis Turkey has an «enormous ability» to influence events,«from the Islamic State to Syria; Israel to oil and gas in the eastern Mediterranean; responding to radical Islam to stability in Egypt».
All in all, it proves that Turkey is a major NATO asset; indeed, it’s been more of a benefactor than benefiter from the alliance.
If some foreign power is proven to have been involved in the attempt to overthrow the Turkish government, Ankara will be forced to radically reconsider its geopolitical alignment. Out of NATO, Turkey could play a balancing role between the Atlantic and Eurasia, arguing that it was patently clear NATO did not serve Turkey’s interests anymore. Ankara may also attempt to shift its geopolitical stance in favor of integration into the Shanghai Cooperation Organization (SCO), and enhanced cooperation with the Eurasian Economic Union. If one considers the two presidents’ meeting in the context of Kazakhstan President Nursultan Nazarbayev’s recent visit to Ankara and the summit held between the leaders of Russia, Azerbaijan, and Iran in Baku, then it is understandable that what is at stake is not merely the restoration of pre-crisis relations, but a powerful step forward towards incorporating Turkey into Eurasian integration processes and its future accession to the SCO, where Turkey already has an observer status.
Turkey is a major Eurasian power. Its integration into the Eurasian system acquires greater significance as the relations with NATO worsen. Further progress on the way to integration will facilitate the dialogue between the Eurasian powers and Turkey and strengthen Ankara’s position with regard to the West in general. One way or another, the clock appears to be ticking on the waning hours of the once great military alliance.