NATO’s Erdogan Problem

5 months ago Alger Mag Editor 0

The foundational institutions of our global political system have been caught in the crossfire amidst the recent wave of political and social populism. The organizations that previously acted as stabilizing factors are now subject to intense criticism, with the splintering of the European Union, gridlock in the UN Security Council, and rivalries within OPEC. NATO has made brief appearances in the public eye with President Donald Trump’s repeated criticism of the alliance, going so far as to call it “obsolete.” While these words depict a dire future for the security organization, Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan’s growing authoritarian rule and increasingly erratic behavior pose a much more substantial threat to the integrity of NATO’s power in the Middle East. Since the 2016 coup, Turkey has been marred by frequent arrests of journalists and political opposition, and increasingly paranoid Erdogan is calling into question how reliably the United States and its NATO allies can call upon Turkey, NATO’s second largest army, to cooperate in Middle Eastern operations.  

When the dust settled on the morning of July 16th after the 2016 coup d’etat, Erdogan found himself in a position to exert an incredible amount of authority over the Turkish government. An approval rating at 67.6% and a 3 month state of emergency allows Erdogan wield the entirety of Turkish executive power to shape the state structure and its agents. Government purges are estimated to have relieved or detained more than 100,000 people are from the military, education, and judicial sectors in connection to the coup along with the shutdown of 160 news agencies and hundreds of opposition journalists. Under the guise of protecting the Turkish people, Erdogan has used the coup as a modern day Reichstag Fire to eliminate political opposition.These purges caused an already tense relationship between Turkey and NATO to go from complicated to hostile. 80-90% of Turkish officers who served in NATO were relieved or detained in the aftermath. NATO Supreme Commander General Curtis Scaparrotti commented shortly after in frustration, “Some of the officers that we have our relationships with in Turkey are now either detained, in some cases retired as a result of the coup. We’ve got some work to do there”. Erdogan has repeatedly accused the US and NATO in either having knowledge of the impending coup, even so far as making accusations of direct support, declaring “This coup attempt has actors inside Turkey, but its script was written outside. Unfortunately the West is supporting terrorism and stands by coup plotters.” The US has vehemently denied involvement, but public perception has already soured the relationship and made political ties between the two increasingly more difficult. The vacancy of pro-Western voices in the Erdogan government and military from the purges makes NATO cooperation with Turkey a far off dream.

The row between Erdogan and NATO states has only been exacerbated by both parties involvement in the Syrian Civil War in the past year. Turkey’s role in the conflict is a complex one defined by the myriad of different stances Erdogan and his regime have taken. Covering the entirety of Syria’s northern border, Turkey was the primary landing zone for weapons, funds, and Islamist militants seeking entry into Syria, even so far as Turkey’s state intelligence agency facilitating the smuggling of arms to rebel-controlled areas in 2013 and 2014. The general indifference shown by Turkish authorities reflects Erdogan’s stance that his main goal in Syria is to topple Syrian President Bashar Al-Assad’s regime. Operate Euphrates Shield commenced on August 24th with the Turkish invasion of the Islamic State-controlled border city of Jarablus, but has ballooned to contain around 2,000 sq km of land in Syria up to the city of Al-Bab. Most of Turkey’s authority in the area is exerted through their surrogate ground force, the Free Syrian Army, a rebel group that had taken a backseat role to the more Jihadist Al-Nusra Front and Ahrar al-Sham in the conflict until its recent revival by Turkey.

While Erdogan continually has reiterated the main goal of the operation is to protect his border from ISIS forces, analysts argue he has used the operation to mask an attempt to subvert the growing strength of the Syrian Kurds and its de facto federation Rojava, the Kurdish region in Syria. Internally, Turkey has faced a renewed amount of support for Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK) which Erdogan argues is a result of the growing power of the Syrian Kurdish militia group, the People’s Protection Units (YPG) as they swallow territory formerly controlled by ISIS. Erdogan’s increasing hostility towards Kurdish groups in Syria directly conflicts with the current US-led coalition policy of supporting the Syrian Defence Force (SDF), a group the US assembled with mostly Kurdish fighters and local Arab militias to combat ISIS in Northern Syria. The SDF has become the primary partner for the Coalition, providing air support, military arms, and special forces training to the group as they make their push toward the ISIS stronghold of Raqqa.

The Turkish officials have taken aim at this policy publicly, and going as far as Erdogan accusing the US of supporting ISIS and YPG/PKK groups in December. “We are your NATO ally. How on Earth can you support terrorist organizations and not us? Are these terrorist organizations your NATO allies?” This statement by Erdogan stated in response to the lack of support from the anti-ISIS, U.S.-led coalition, made up of many NATO members, for its Euphrates Shield operation. The tension between Erdogan and his American and British counterparts will likely reach its pinnacle in the coming months claims over former ISIS territory in Northern Syria grow. The SDF captured the strategically significant city of Manbij and are preparing to begin their siege of Raqqa, two cities Erdogan has repeatedly made claims upon. “The force that looks most likely capable of conducting the liberation of Raqqa remains the SDF. Are we confident in the SDF? Absolutely we are,” said Major General Rupert Jones, the deputy commander of the anti-ISIS Coalition. He recently rebuked previous statements by Erdogan concerning  his intentions on liberating the city. While the conflict in Northern Syria is heading towards the end of ISIS territorial control, a success for both Turkey and Coalition states, a permanent stake has been driven between the two in Middle Eastern politics.

 The Syrian policy divide for Turkey and the Coalition has driven Erdogan right into the hands Russia and President Vladimir Putin, a blatant slap in the face to NATO leadership that has repeatedly warned of the threat of a “resurgent Russia.” Russia has been the main backer and representative of the Assad regime in Syria since the beginning of the conflict, increasing its political capital in the region through deepening military ties with Syria, Iran, and Iraq. Negotiations during the civil war have frequently placed both Turkey and Russia at the table across one from one another. It appeared Ankara and Moscow would be natural enemies on two ends of the conflict, but Erdogan and Putin recognized the geopolitical value in partnering with one another to enact ceasefires and cooperate in the fight against ISIS as the situation evolved. Both states share a common thread of rampant anti-Americanism internally, cultivating the narrative that the US supports terrorist organizations. The two leaders look to carve out a sphere of influence in the Middle East among the chaos, painting an image of the future of the region without US involvement.

Both a bridge to the Middle East and a barrier to Russian influence, Turkey has played a crucial role in the global goals of NATO since joining in 1952. Optimism about the relationship is dim though, as President Erdogan’s domestic policies call into question his ability to represent democratic values and his foreign policy collides with fellow NATO states’ interests. While the United States continues to reexamine its role in the organization, an upheaval of its current influence in Middle Eastern politics is in the works.  

by: Ryan Kurz