A plethora of unflattering phrases litters the discourse surrounding relations between Turkey and the North Atlantic Treaty Organisation (NATO), including “strategic liability”, “loose cannon”, “reckless, aggressive ally” and “fifth column”. For years, the country has been alienated by its fellow members — the EU, for example — which view it as a weak link and a threat to the security of the military alliance. From being an integral member serving as a bulwark against the Soviet Union during the Cold War, to currently possessing the second largest standing army in NATO, how did Turkey become so despised?
A key turning point has been the Syrian conflict, which has brought out the worst in relations between regional and foreign states, emboldening some and exposing the weakness of others. Despite Turkey’s initial intentions to keep a low profile at the beginning of the conflict in 2011, the past few years since 2016 have seen the country take ever more daring steps in order to secure its own interests and, more importantly, safety and stability on the border it shares with war-torn Syria. These steps, however, have put it at odds with its long-time ally the United States, and there have arisen genuine concerns within NATO about whether Turkey is more of an adversary than an ally.
Turkey’s foreign policy has been in almost complete contradiction to the interests of the US. For a start, it has disturbed the status quo of the Syrian conflict by pushing into the north of the country and fighting against the Kurdish Peoples’ Protection Units (YPG), which are armed and backed by the US.
Furthermore, President Recep Tayyip Erdogan has insisted on buying the Russian S-400 missile defence system while pushing the US to deliver the one hundred F-35 stealth fighter jets it agreed on previously. He has also set Turkey on the path towards warmer relations with Russia and Iran – major rivals of the US – by participating in trilateral talks and summits with both countries regarding Syria’s future. Lastly, Turkey has shown a shift in its relations with the Gulf countries, supporting Qatar and Iran while relations with the Saudi and Emirati monarchies, with whom the US is aligned, have deteriorated. All of these factors have resulted in the widening gap in relations and Washington’s perception of Turkey as being a sort of rogue state which is increasingly difficult to keep in line.
Rather than being simply a US-Turkey issue, however, it is very much an issue of Turkey’s place in NATO. The issue of the Russian S-400 system, in particular, has caused significant concern due to the claim that it would compromise the security of the alliance, and a number of member states have already called into question the legitimacy of Turkey’s membership. Their common argument is that while Turkey was once a necessary ally during the Cold War in order to serve as a base for NATO’s nuclear missiles aimed at the Soviet Union, the country’s role is now defunct and even dangerous. This calls into question Turkey’s future in the organisation.
In 2016, following the failed coup attempt in Turkey, the then US Secretary of State John Kerry condemned the government for responding with a harsh crackdown and warned that its membership of NATO was at stake if it acted undemocratically. A year later, President Erdogan withdrew forty Turkish troops from a NATO drill in Norway due to incidents in which he was insulted and a picture of modern Turkey’s founding father, Kemal Ataturk, was used as target practice. The controversial S-400 deal is merely the latest in a long list of rows between Turkey and fellow NATO members. On a more positive note, however, the alliance’s Secretary General, Jens Stoltenberg, visited Ankara at the beginning of May and formally expressed NATO’s gratitude to Turkey and acknowledged the strong role it plays; relations are still intact, officially at least.
While there is no doubt that it is perceived as the odd one out amongst member states, the idea of Turkey being exiled from NATO is both far-fetched and impractical for both sides. The alliance has simply invested too much in Turkey, with over six decades of close-knit relations, significant NATO military facilities established within its infrastructure, and an important strategic position on the Strait of the Dardanelles and the Black Sea on the front line with Russia to consider. Simply to let Turkey go would potentially destabilise the alliance.
Overall, while the US holds a prominent role in NATO — indeed, a leading role — Turkey is still too important an ally to let go. The most likely outcome of the current hiccup in relations is that Turkey will remain a member but only in name; it would be sidelined in the face of major developments within the alliance, just as its participation in the F-35 fighter jet programme has been forbidden.
There is also the fact that, since its formation in 1949, NATO has had certain prerequisites for joining but no mechanism to remove member states. This means that if Turkey is to leave the alliance — let’s call it “Turxit” — it would have to do so voluntarily, which it will not do in the foreseeable future.
Ankara’s increasingly warm relations with Russia are for strategic purposes only; the Turkish government has enough sense to know that Moscow has also undermined its foreign interests, particularly in Syria. Turkey will, therefore, remain part of NATO, but will continue to push forward with its own domestic and foreign policies independent of the alliance. NATO’s member states, meanwhile, will attempt to alienate and rely much less on one of their most prominent fellow members than they have throughout their decades-long relationship.
The views expressed in this article belong to the author and do not necessarily reflect the editorial policy of Middle East Monitor.