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It’s time for Turkey and NATO to build bridges, not burn them 

June 16, 2021 at 9:06 am

US President Joe Biden (R) speaks with Turkey’s President Recep Tayyip Erdogan at the NATO summit in Brussels, on 14 June 2021 [OLIVIER MATTHYS/POOL/AFP/Getty Images]

The NATO summit in Brussels on Monday kicked off with US President Joe Biden’s awkward fist-bump with his Turkish counterpart, Recep Tayyip Erdogan. Their meeting came weeks after Biden risked angering the Turkish president by recognising the Armenian Genocide. These two points aside, there are also other issues between NATO and Turkey that need to be addressed.

While working as a journalist in Istanbul in 2017, I attended a NATO meeting. It was a high level affair with academics, ambassadors and veteran journalists. Most of the foreign diplomats who I interviewed said that the post-1991 increase in NATO responsibilities should not replace its key purpose of collective defence and deterrence of aggressors, and Turkey should be careful over F-35 fighter jet sanctions. They also said that the Russian S-400 missile defence system purchased by Turkey could not become part of NATO’s shared defences. Turkey, though, had other systems in place that would remain part of NATO’s defence capabilities.

Even though Turkey had briefly blocked NATO defence plans in 2019 and launched an offensive against US-backed Kurdish rebels — the YPG — in Syria, prompting French President Emmanuel Macron to assert that the alliance was “experiencing brain death”, US Secretary of State Antony Blinken has said that despite public differences with Ankara, the US and NATO have a strong interest in keeping Turkey on board, for a number of reasons.

Turkey, for example, has been a key member of NATO since 1952. In particular, it supports NATO’s partnerships in the Balkans. During my time as a cultural envoy in Sarajevo, I had plenty of opportunities to visit Turkey’s NATO forces in Bosnia. With its support for the Stabilisation Force in Bosnia and Herzegovina (SFOR), Turkey believes that the integration of all the Western Balkan countries in Euro-Atlantic structures is the key to lasting peace and stability in the region. Hence, it supports NATO membership for interested countries, in particular Macedonia and Bosnia and Herzegovina; the irreversible strengthening of security in Kosovo; and the normalisation of relations between Serbia and Kosovo.

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Ankara also believes that a constructive relationship based on mutual understanding, transparency and cooperation between NATO and Russia is important for Euro-Atlantic peace and stability. The NATO-Russia Council, it says, provides the necessary forum for such a relationship.

The Turkish government was supportive of NATO’s post–Cold War transformation from a self-defence alliance into a collective security organisation responding to a wide array of threats arising from an uncertain security environment in the Middle East North Africa (MENA) region. Being on the margins of Europe and the Middle East, Turkey identifies with both. As such, it can play a key role in garnering and coordinating international responses by mediating in intensive dialogue and consultations.

Moreover, as a NATO member, Turkey was the first Muslim country to join the US-led military campaign in Afghanistan and currently runs NATO’s Train Advise Assist Command-Capital in Kabul. It thus has a key role in NATO’s Afghanistan policy, acting as a bridge between Kabul and NATO member states. According to the Ministry of Foreign Affairs in Ankara, Turkey has based its foreign policy towards Afghanistan on four objectives: maintaining the political stability and unity of the country; strengthening existing political structures and institutions; supporting the stability of its security environment; and restoring peace and prosperity by eliminating terrorism and extremism. Since 2001, Ankara has invested an estimated $1.1 billion in security, health, education and infrastructure in Afghanistan. In addition, Turkey hosts tens of thousands of Afghans who have fled the chaos in their country. According to the UNHCR, there are 116,403 Afghan asylum seekers and 980 Afghan refugees living in Turkey.

Furthermore, Turkey is important for NATO in the battle against terrorist groups, especially in Syria. NATO allies have used the military infrastructure in Turkey in operations against Daesh, for example.

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Finally, NATO knows that Turkey is an important military, geographic and strategic partner, and is key for the protection of NATO members from the ambitions of fierce rivals Russia and China. The situation requires tact and diplomacy, and Turkey has links with both states.

Given that Turkey is a partner with China in its One Belt One Road initiative for economic development, it can act as a mediator between NATO and Beijing. In December 2019, NATO leaders issued the London Declaration: “We recognise that China’s growing influence and international policies present both opportunities and challenges that we need to address together as an Alliance.” Turkey was a signatory of this declaration, but more is needed; it should help NATO to develop a new policy for its relationship with China.

For these reasons alone, it is important for the US and NATO to keep Turkey as a close ally. The effort to establish a period of collective defence and security, as well as to develop a strategic partnership in the MENA region and Asia requires Turkey and NATO to have a more coordinated and trustful relationship. It is time to build bridges, rather than burn them if mutual respect is to provide a win-win situation for Ankara and the alliance alike.

The views expressed in this article belong to the author and do not necessarily reflect the editorial policy of Middle East Monitor.