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Turkey and NATO: the shaky alliance enters 2020


Turkey and NATO: the shaky alliance enters 2020


During the December 2019 NATO Summit in London, Turkey’s President Erdogan agreed to support NATO’s updated defence plan for the Baltic countries and Poland, despite previously threatening to halt the initiative.


– While NATO leaders agreed to an updated Eastern defence plan, Turkey continues to threaten to veto the initiative unless NATO supports its actions against the Kurdish People’s Protection Units (YPG) in northeast Syria
– Following Turkey’s purchase of the Russian-made S-400 missile defence system and Turkish action against the YPG, a number of different sanction packages are currently being processed through the US Congress
– Turkey’s rhetorical response to criticisms from the US and Europe now includes threats to close US air bases at Incirlik and Kurecik


NATO’s December 2019 Summit was dominated by Turkey’s reluctance to support the update to its Eastern defence plan. The initiative required formal approval from all 29 member states to deploy the military plan to defend Estonia, Latvia, Lithuania, and Poland in the event of a Russian attack. Though ultimately approving the plan, Turkey attempted to make its support conditional on NATO declaring the YPG a terrorist organisation.

The summit, which celebrated the organisation’s 70th anniversary, was also marked by controversy caused by earlier comments from French President Macron about NATO being ‘brain dead’ because of its inability to coordinate among its members. He listed US President Trump’s withdrawal of US troops from YPG-held areas in northeast Syria as an example of this lack of coordination. Together with the US, France was assisting the YPG in the fight against the Islamic State.

Eastern European representatives at the summit focused on potential Russian aggression and the topic was of much concern among Western political elites. However, the leaders of US, France, and Turkey (three of NATO’s four largest armed forces) are not primarily concerned with the Russian military threat. Trump wants to enlist NATO into Washington’s struggle with Beijing, while Macron and Erdogan are focused on counterterrorism (though strongly disagreeing on whether this includes YPG). Macron also aims to strengthen European ties to Russia to ensure cooperation, including on handling international crises, putting him at odds with many European partners — but not Turkey.


Photo: The Kremlin

Summit tensions with Turkey were expected in light of ongoing strains from a number of controversial Turkish defence and foreign policy decisions. These include Turkey’s purchase of the S-400 missile defence system and the subsequent exclusion of Turkey from the F-35 fighter jet program, as well as Turkish attacks on YPG positions in northeast Syria and unilateral Turkish gas and oil explorations in the eastern Mediterranean, especially around Cyprus.

Turkey’s purchase and recent testing of the S-400 system continue to strain relations with NATO, especially with the US. It represents a financial and strategic geopolitical loss to US interests and a coup for Russia. The US fears Turkish use of the S-400 will jeopardise the operability of the F-35 fighter jet — the construction of which Turkey was heavily involved in — which featured heavily in the US decision to exclude Ankara from the fighter program. Washington claims data collected about the F-35 by S-400 could be disclosed to Russia. Turkey refutes this by claiming that the S-400 will be separate from any joint NATO defence systems.

Turkey’s S-400 is not expected to be operable until April. The Turkish and US administrations have attempted to downplay tensions by continuing negotiations on the restraint on the future use of S-400 and talking up possible Turkish purchase of the US Patriot missile defence system. However, tensions deepened in late 2019 after President Erdogan accompanied President Vladimir Putin at a Russian air show with the view to purchase Russian Su-57 jets and Russia started pumping gas into a new pipeline between Russia and Turkey (Turk Stream).

Turkish advances into northeast Syria, dubbed Operation Peace Spring, further strained relations with NATO because Turkish forces attacked the YPG, a key Western ally against the Islamic State. While Trump endorsed the operation by withdrawing US troops from YPG-held territory, that decision and the subsequent operation met with significant criticism from Congress and from European NATO allies, most of which suspended arms exports to Turkey.

While large-scale Turkish operations against the YPG have ceased following negotiations that resulted in YPG forces withdrawing to at least 30km from the Turkish border, low-scale violence continues, as do reports of human rights abuses committed by Turkish-allied Syrian forces. That violence, and Turkish efforts to settle the territory with mainly Arab Syrian refugees from other areas of Syria, has resulted in accusations of ethnic cleansing of Kurds.

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Turkish relations with NATO are further complicated by its unilateral gas and oil explorations in the eastern Mediterranean, especially around Cyprus. While Cyprus is not a NATO member, it is a member of the European Community, which recognises the sovereignty of the ethnic Greek enclave over the entire island. Turkey asserts its right to drill on behalf of the Turkish Republic of Northern Cyprus, an ethnic Turkish-majority entity only Turkey recognises and effectively maintains. The EU has set up sanction mechanisms against Turkey to stop its exploration around Cyprus but, with Turkish vessels undertaking the drilling accompanied by Turkish Navy, Ankara’s resolve appears unaffected. These operations, together with Turkey’s recent agreement with Libya over gas fields in the eastern Mediterranean (against competing Egyptian, Greek, Cypriot and Israeli negotiations), are part of Turkish policy to become a regional energy hub, the benefits of which seemingly outweigh frayed ties with Europe in Ankara’s calculations.


Photo: Dmitriy Fomin/Flickr

NATO sanctions against Turkey are highly unlikely due to a lack of clear formal mechanisms for such actions and fear of pushing Turkey closer to Russia. The EU Council has set up a legal framework to take action in relation to Turkish drilling around Cyprus, but the Council’s response to Turkish actions in northeast Syria has been limited to condemnations; France, Germany and the UK imposed limited arms embargos on Turkey. These measures are unlikely to deter Ankara from continuing to pursue its key foreign policy objectives.

In December, the US Senate Foreign Relations Committee advanced a bill, the ‘Promoting American National Security and Preventing the Resurgence of ISIS Act’, to the Senate for a vote. The proposed legislation includes retaliatory measures against Turkey’s purchase of the S-400 and operations targeting the YPG. It includes restrictions on Turkish weapons purchases and sanctions various Turkish officials, Halk Bank and other Turkish financial institutions, and opposes loans from international financial institutions to Turkey. The action follows another sanction bill passed by the House of Representatives and the House’s decision to recognise the Armenian genocide, a very sensitive issue in Turkey. The bill also obliges the president to take action against Turkey through mechanisms in the Countering America’s Adversaries Through Sanctions Act.

Despite this pressure from Congress, Trump’s support for Erdogan is unlikely to significantly change course. While the relationship is imperfect, both presidents claim to value their personal affinity. Trump is likely to continue to try to minimise the impact of any sanctions pursued by the US Congress, but the various sanctions mechanisms, if passed into law with veto-proof majorities, could constrain his ability. Aside from Congressional lobbying, Turkish energy ambitions in the eastern Mediterranean, especially in relation to Cyprus, have the potential to upset the Trump–Erdogan relationship. Exploration around Cyprus has become a key foreign policy objective for Turkey and an expression of its regional self-assurance. It does not appear likely that Turkey will reverse its unilateral action, presenting an ongoing irritation given that the US recently reaffirmed its support for Cypriot sovereignty over the disputed area and warned against “provocative action.” Yet with Trump and Erdogan coming to terms in relation to pushing the YPG from the Turkish Syrian border, expect efforts to paper over the fractures.

Turkish threats to close US bases at Incirlik and Kurecik, as a response to US action against Turkey, are highly unlikely to eventuate. The bases are key US strategic assets in the Middle East and their loss to President Trump, whose intervention was critical to the launch of Operation Peace Spring, would require a strong response, most likely in the form of targeted sanctions designed to hurt the Turkish economy. This power is within Trump’s remit and he could easily pull the trigger if he perceived it necessary to maintain his domestic support. Indeed, the administration’s impositions of tariffs on Turkish steel and aluminium in August 2018 — action taken in connection with the arrest of US citizen Pastor Brunson — rattled the Turkish economy and threatened Erdogan’s grip on his country. While Trump has firmly rejected further sanctions, the pressure for action and the mechanisms to implement additional measures are increasing.

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