Turkey’s military incursion in northeastern Syria provoked a shock in NATO.
For its European members, this came on top of Donald Trump’s unilateral decision to withdraw U.S. special forces from this strategic territory in the fight against the so-called Islamic State. In addition, Turkey has started sending back European jihadists that it holds on its territory or in Syria to their countries of origin. Meanwhile, President Trump declared that the jihadists were not the United States’ problem.
The reaction of the Western world to Turkey’s operation was unanimously negative, including in the EU—which is a rarity. In addition, seven European governments embargoed arms sales to Turkey. Yet, the fundamental issue is a different one: can the European members of NATO still count on Turkey in situations where Europe’s regional security would be at stake?
In his Berlin speech on November 7, NATO’s secretary general gave the standard answer: Turkey in the South, like Norway in the North, or Canada, the UK, and the United States in the West, is essential to guarantee Europe’s security. As a matter of fact, Turkey’s officers and diplomats sit in the Alliance’s bodies, while its soldiers are involved in operations in Afghanistan and in the Mediterranean.
Yet, the atmosphere has become heavier since the failed military coup of July 2016 and the ensuing hastened replacement of Turkish officers from NATO bodies, since Turkey’s incursions in Syria’s North West, and, more importantly, since the delivery of Russian S-400 missile batteries to an air base near Ankara last summer.
The core issue lies with Ankara’s proclaimed ambition to be a power-in-the-middle, politically equidistant from the big powers. Turkey as a member of the Western camp—embodied in its membership in the Council of Europe since 1950 and in NATO since 1952, and in its multifaceted relations with the EU—doesn’t fit with Recep Tayyip Erdoğan’s vision of his country’s place in the world anymore. His frequent references to the Ottoman Empire have probably influenced the Turkish president, but, more practically, so have his alliance with the ultra-conservative Nationalist Movement Party (MHP), indispensable to make up for the decline of his own Justice and Development Party (AKP). In addition, in a country where generations of high-school kids from 1926 to 2012 were taught distrust for foreigners in a “national security class,” a nationalistic surge and an anti-Western narrative are prime tools to hide political difficulties.
Beyond populist tricks, Turkey’s nationalist elites readily theorize that the post–World War II and post–Cold War order is not suitable for an emerging power like Turkey. In that context, when the Kremlin’s master adequately flatters Turkey’s head of state, a convergence—half real, half fictitious—springs up between Ankara and Moscow. This political change would be legitimate and flattering if it did not rest on two fundamental ambiguities.
One is that NATO is a collective and mutual defense pact, as NATO’s Jens Stoltenberg recalled on November 7 in Berlin in the usual terms: “One for all and all for one.” In other words, can Turkey remain a reliable NATO ally if several hundred Russian soldiers man an anti-missile missile system (and its sophisticated radars) on air bases close to those where NATO equipment is deployed?
The other ambiguity is that the Kremlin—in addition to its long-established and permanent harassment of NATO defense systems at sea, under water, in the air, and in cyberspace—now openly uses Turkey to undermine the Alliance from within. What would Turkey do in case of an open conflict in the Black Sea, in Donbas, or in the Baltic?
A foot in each camp
Beyond the ambition to have a foot in each camp, what irritates European NATO members is the personal narrative of Turkey’s head of state, oscillating between stern geopolitical lessons and hard-fought bargaining. The ensuing loss of confidence is such that, in some NATO capitals, there is talk of kicking Turkey out of the Alliance (not allowed by the treaty) or at least limiting its participation in certain sensitive operations. An extreme speculation is that President Erdoğan, in a nationalistic gesture, could imitate De Gaulle’s 1966 decision and withdraw his military from NATO’s integrated command while staying in the political mechanisms.
On top of Turkey’s historical trajectory under President Erdoğan, Donald Trump’s ambiguous position reinforces the misgivings of European NATO members, even though his successive Secretaries of Defense have strived to reassure them of the United States’ commitment toward Europe’s security.
The NATO summit on December 3–4 in London is looking tense. The debate between NATO’s existential crisis and its “brain death” will probably not be settled. Donald Trump’s words will keep perplexing his interlocutors. But Turkey’s perennial commitment to the Western camp or, on the contrary, its pivot toward a status of autonomous power—which would be anchored in Russia, unless something new happens—will be one of the thorniest issues ever facing the Alliance.