New Year’s to-do list: bring Turkey back into the Atlantic fold


Peace, Security & Defence

Picture of Jamie Shea
Jamie Shea

Senior Fellow for Peace, Security and Defence at Friends of Europe, and former Deputy Assistant Secretary General for Emerging Security Challenges at the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO)

In international politics, problems come and go, and the agenda of priority issues is constantly being refashioned. Yet, as the calendar marks the end of one year and the beginning of another, the perennial issue of Turkey remains. Is Turkey still a viable member of the Western alliance or has it become a liability that weakens the alliance more than it adds value to it? Should we focus our efforts on cultivating Turkey in the hope of bringing it closer, or on isolating it in the hope of diminishing its potential for disruption? Before we embark on this debate, we must first decide what to call the country: Turkey, the traditional name, or Türkiye, the civilisational rebrand favoured by the current Erdoğan regime?

The Turkey problem has bedevilled NATO throughout 2022, even if allies hopeful to placate Ankara have kept their criticisms private rather than public. In the spring, Finland and Sweden, rattled by Russia’s invasion of Ukraine and experiencing a sudden and dramatic shift in public opinion, simultaneously decided to abandon non-alignment almost overnight and seek NATO membership. For NATO, this was a match made in heaven.

Since NATO’s first post-Cold War enlargement in 1999, the alliance has added 14 new member states. These have been former communist countries, most of which were in the Soviet camp during the Cold War. These countries joined NATO as part of their political transformation and to gain a foothold in the Western community of democracies. Some, such as Poland or the Baltic states, were motivated primarily by security concerns, given a long history of suppression by Russians. Elsewhere, NATO membership was seen as something that might ease entry into the European Union, or in the case of the countries emerging from the former Yugoslavia, something that might help anchor a new form of nationhood.

We could expect the alliance to seize the urgency of the moment and make it a reality as quickly as possible

The novelty of Finland and Sweden’s NATO application was that it was the first to occur during a major war in Europe and the first post-Cold War enlargement to involve two democracies from the classical West, which had joined the EU decades before they sought NATO membership, in a reversal of the usual sequence. Unlike the majority of NATO’s new members, they bring not only solid democratic institutions into the alliance but also real military capabilities. Finland has seven mechanised brigades and Sweden two, backed up by modern, world-class defence industries and an advanced technology base. They can defend themselves – even in the new, more confrontational environment with Russia – more comprehensively than the other new NATO members, which rely heavily on a permanent NATO presence on their territory and large-scale reinforcement plans. This defensive capability applies also to hybrid attacks, for instance, through cyber-sabotage or disinformation campaigns. Perhaps, most importantly, the addition of Finland and Sweden to NATO gives the alliance much greater control over the Baltic Sea region and allows the Baltic states and Poland to be defended from the north as well as the west.

Due to the equal benefits that this latest round of enlargement presents to Finland, Sweden and NATO, we could expect the alliance to seize the urgency of the moment and make it a reality as quickly as possible. After all, no one wants to repeat the unfortunate precedent of 2008 when, at its summit in Bucharest, NATO invited Ukraine and Georgia to join the alliance at some point in the future but with no concrete timetable and no plan to integrate them into NATO’s structures. This decision left Ukraine and Georgia in an exposed position, facing Russia’s vindictiveness without the countervailing assurance of the Article 5 NATO treaty security guarantee. To prevent this vacuum from being repeated, NATO moved swiftly to welcome Finland and Sweden once they had taken their historic decision.

The two countries, as long-standing partners of the alliance, were not required to go through NATO’s Membership Action Plan, which would set specific interoperability targets and verify their military and political credentials. The protocols of accession were signed ahead of the alliance’s Madrid summit last June, and Finland and Sweden joined the North Atlantic Council, albeit as non-voting members for the time being. Allies then ratified the process through their national parliaments at lightning speed. To date, 28 out of 30 allies have ratified the accession of Stockholm and Helsinki.

Turkey has always been a firm supporter of NATO enlargement

But not Turkey. Instead, Ankara has dragged its feet over ratification. It has put strenuous demands on Finland and Sweden relating to charges that they have been harbouring terrorists connected to the pro-Kurdish Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK) party. Turkey has demanded the extradition of several people on its terror watchlist before it will consider sending the NATO ratification protocols to the Turkish National Assembly. It has also demanded that Finland and Sweden tighten up their counter-terrorism legislation and that both countries lift bans on arms sales imposed on Ankara after Turkish forces intervened in Iraq and Syria against Kurdish militias accused of being in league with the PKK. After much haggling and the mediation of NATO’s Secretary General Jens Stoltenberg, a memorandum was signed by Finland and Sweden with Turkey on the margins of the NATO summit in Madrid. The two candidate countries pledged to work closely with Ankara to meet its requirements.

To be fair, Turkey has always been a firm supporter of NATO enlargement and allowed the signing of the protocols of accession for Sweden and Finland to go ahead. Turkey also has a long-standing problem with domestic terrorism, as demonstrated by a recent bomb blast in a busy Istanbul shopping street. Allies also commit to a community of solidarity and should not impose bans on arms sales on each other. The EU has also recognised the PKK as a terrorist organisation, and EU member states should not be harbouring terrorist suspects if indeed there are legitimate and substantiated charges against them. Finland and Sweden have equally acknowledged the Turkish concerns insofar as they have reviewed their counter-terrorism legislation. Sweden has lifted its arms ban on Turkey, and Finland has announced that it will follow suit in the coming days. Sweden also extradited the first individual on Turkey’s terrorism watch list two weeks ago, a man already sentenced to a six-year prison sentence by a Turkish court. Finnish and Swedish ministers and officials have made multiple trips to Ankara, including recently the new Swedish Prime Minister,br Ulf Kristersson, to assure President Erdoğan of their good faith.

The problem here is that Turkey, while expressing satisfaction with the progress thus far, always seems to want more and is in no hurry to ratify the accession of Finland and Sweden. It is using this leverage to demand more concessions, hinting in recent days that these should also include people allegedly associated with the Gulenist movement that Erdoğan believes was behind the attempted military coup against him back in 2016. Many allies would, however, dispute the characterisation of Fethullah Gulen’s religious foundation as a terror organisation and rebut Ankara’s tactic of branding its political opponents as terrorists. Turkey’s ire is mainly directed at Sweden, but as Finland and Sweden have made clear that they will only join NATO together, it is inconceivable that Turkey would ratify the accession of one country but not the other.

Holding out against Finland and Sweden and wringing ever more concessions out of them in the name of Turkey’s national security is a way for Erdoğan to project himself as a strong leader

Up to now, Hungary has also not ratified the accession, giving Ankara some limited political cover. Hungarian President Viktor Orbán, under pressure from his central European colleagues at a recent Visegrad summit, undertook to complete the ratification process by the end of February. This will leave Turkey isolated within NATO. Being in a minority of one is usually sufficient to induce an ally to give up its opposition to a decision or action and to fall into line. The problem here is that Turkey is different. Erdoğan is well used to conducting multiple, simultaneous disputes with individual allies: with the United States over arms deliveries, weapons purchases by Ankara from Russia and the arrest of US citizens or embassy employees; with France and the EU over migration, energy exploration and the implementation of the arms embargo against Libya; and with Greece over islands and airspace in the Aegean. So Erdoğan, safe in the knowledge that membership of NATO gives him veto power over Western defence arrangements, is able to weather US or European pressures when other allies, less accustomed to living in a permanent state of crisis, would soon crack.

Erdoğan has elections coming up in May which, given Turkey’s parlous economic situation and growing weariness with his long term in office, he is far from guaranteed to win. So, holding out against Finland and Sweden and wringing ever more concessions out of them in the name of Turkey’s national security is a way for him to project himself as a strong leader. This suggests that NATO will be kept waiting and may be in the highly embarrassing situation of going to its next summit in Vilnius in June with the ratification of Finnish and Swedish accession still outstanding. This can only provide comfort to Vladimir Putin and is hardly calculated to maintain the current high level of support or political consensus for NATO membership in Finland and Sweden.

Other issues complicate Turkey’s relationship with its Western partners as well.

Erdoğan has paid a price for his arms deals with Moscow

One is Erdoğan’s readiness to send the Turkish army back into northern Syria to fight the Kurdish militias, known as the People’s Defense Units (YPG). These militias are allied to the US, which has been relying on them to keep the Russia-backed Syrian forces out of the northern tier of Syria, thereby providing a humanitarian zone for displaced people and the remnants of the anti-Assad opposition. The YPG has also been running the camps where the remnants of ISIL have been held in captivity since the collapse of the ISIL caliphate in north-eastern Syria and northern Iraq in 2017. The US fears that a renewed Turkish incursion will not only kill many YPG fighters but also leave the ISIL camps such as Al Nol unguarded, allowing hundreds of radicalised ISIL operatives and their offspring to flee. Hence, Washington has been putting maximum pressure on Ankara to stay out of northern Syria where its past missions against the YPG have been met with only limited success. Yet, Erdoğan has a habit of whipping up domestic nationalist sentiment, which he then finds hard not to follow. He also likes to defy the US and his other critics, making pressure on him often counter-productive.

Another worry is Turkey’s relationship with Russia. Turkey has angered the US by buying two batches of Russian S400 air defence missiles and other pieces of military equipment. The S400 is not compatible with NATO’s integrated air defence system and its deployment in Turkey alongside NATO systems could give the Russians valuable military information. Erdoğan has paid a price for his arms deals with Moscow as Ankara has been shut out of co-production of the US F35 Joint Strike Fighter and seen its order for F35s cancelled by the US administration under strong pressure from Congress. Turkey has already transferred several million dollars as a down payment for the F35s and would like to use this money to buy upgraded F16s instead. The Biden administration looks favourably on this proposal, but still has to win the support of Congress where criticism of Erdoğan for his dalliance with Moscow and clamp down on human rights and press freedoms at home has been rife.

Turkey has also upset Washington by showing up at the recent summit of the Moscow and Beijing-led Shanghai Cooperation Organisation (SCO) and asking to become an observer in that body. To some in the West, Turkey has become a swing state between East and West, still sufficiently democratic to remain in NATO but autocratic enough to also be at home in the camp of the anti-US authoritarians. Turkey’s support for the Palestinians and the Muslim Brotherhood, its backing of the Libyan government in Tripoli against its rivals in the eastern part of the country or its support for Azerbaijan in its military campaign to regain lost territories in its conflict with Armenia over Nagorno- Karabakh can sometimes frustrate US or EU diplomatic and mediation efforts.

Even in a new, more dangerous security environment with many new threats, Ankara still regards Athens – its NATO ally – as its traditional enemy

Finally, Turkey’s long-standing dispute with its western neighbour, Greece, continues despite over 60 attempts to get Athens and Ankara around the negotiation table. Most recently, Ankara has complained that Greece is not allowing Turkey and Northern Cyprus their proper share of drilling rights for natural gas exploration in the eastern Mediterranean and that Greece is militarising its most easterly islands in the Aegean, just a few kilometres off the Turkish coastline, in violation of its international obligations.

Athens, for its part, has sought EU support against Ankara for pushing migrants across its border with Greece. This week, the Greek Foreign Minister Nikos Dendias also complained to his EU counterparts about Erdoğan’s aggressive rhetoric towards his country. Last weekend at a townhall meeting for youth supporters, Erdoğan taunted Greece by pointing out that Turkey’s new short-range ballistic missile, the Tayfun, could easily strike Athens. He also mentioned that the Turkish army could parachute into Greece and overwhelm it “in the middle of the night”. This may well be only pre-electoral rhetoric, but it clearly unsettles the Greeks in that even in a new, more dangerous security environment with many new threats, Ankara still regards Athens – its NATO ally – as its traditional enemy.

These factors suggest that the Western allies need to put a new Turkey policy at the top of the list of New Year’s resolutions. What could such a new approach entail?

Turkey has already provided its highly effective Bayraktar drones to Ukraine, as well as maritime patrol vessels and coastal defence systems

When it comes to the requirements, the first would be to have Turkey declare that Finland and Sweden have met their conditions for NATO membership and to set a date for the Turkish National Assembly to debate the issue and move the ratification forward, preferably by the spring. Turkey would refrain from demanding more last-minute concessions and separate any further talks on terrorism with Finland and Sweden from their NATO membership. These issues would then be handled as part of the normal bilateral relations between allies without holding the NATO machinery hostage to them.

Second, Turkey would cancel further arms deals with Russia and announce that it is donating its two batches of S400s to Ukraine to reinforce the air defence of cities such as Kyiv, Lviv and Kherson. Turkey has already provided its highly effective Bayraktar drones to Ukraine, as well as maritime patrol vessels and coastal defence systems. At the beginning of the Russian invasion of Ukraine, it threatened to restrict the movement of Russian warships in and out of the Black Sea as the guardian of the Straits.

Third, Turkey would pull back its forces from its Aegean coastline and reduce its amphibious capability for a short-notice operation against the Greek islands. Turkey would signal its readiness to re-engage with Greece on a set of de-escalation and transparency measures to avoid clashes and dangerous incidents in the Aegean, including airspace. Turkey would also reduce its troop presence in Northern Cyprus, which at 30,000 seems somewhat excessive given the status quo situation on the island. Both Greece and Turkey could reduce the number of their military exercises and avoid exercise scenarios that provoke the other side.

Turkish leaders need to understand that any ephemeral burst of patriotic pride that is generated by these anti-Western outbursts is vastly outweighed by the damage to Turkey’s image and reputation

Fourth, Turkey could seek under US auspices an arrangement with the Kurdish YPG militias to deconflict their operations along the Turkish-Syrian border and establish a direct communications mechanism. The YPG would commit not to support any operations inside Turkey against the Turkish government. Turkey would commit to consult the US and its NATO allies before any military incursions into Iraq or Syria and to demonstrate a clear national security interest before acting. The US would act as a guarantor of this arrangement and also better coordinate the operations of its own special forces in northern Syria with Turkey’s general staff and defence ministry.

Turkey could also tone down the inflammatory anti-Western rhetoric that it tends to trot out whenever it suffers a national security setback. For instance, immediately after the recent Istanbul bomb attack, the Turkish Interior Minister attributed the blame to the US. This was as absurd as it was grotesque. Turkish leaders need to understand that any ephemeral burst of patriotic pride that is generated by these anti-Western outbursts is vastly outweighed by the damage to Turkey’s image and reputation. It makes it harder for Turkey’s sympathisers and friends abroad to make its case. Given that Erdoğan appears to govern in perpetual campaign mode, adopting a more balanced and moderate political discourse will not be easy for him or his loyal ministers. Yet if all the reciprocal measures proposed here bear some fruit, Turkish politicians may feel some incentive not to jeopardise the security gains for Turkey by indulging in the usual rhetoric of victimisation and inflated nationalist pride.

For its part, Turkey’s Western partners could offer a number of matching efforts. For instance, Finland and Sweden would commit to work with Turkey on counterterrorism and create a trilateral group of ministers and senior parliamentarians to harmonise their positions with Ankara. Both Finland and Sweden could commit to providing assets such as air defence and fighting jets to help defend Turkey’s southern flank once they are full-fledged NATO members.

The EU has its role to play as well in engaging Turkey

The US administration would commit to engaging Congress to authorise the sale of upgraded F16s to Turkey and also draw up a roadmap of what Ankara would need to do to be re-admitted into the F35 programme with perhaps some of the co-production of the cockpit instruments and display panel restored to Ankara. NATO, for its part, would review its collective defence posture along its southern flank, particularly the Turkish-Syrian border. One of Turkey’s complaints against the alliance is that it agreed to a package of defence measures for Turkey back in 2011 and 2012 after the civil war broke out in Syria, but many of the additional naval and air assets that were promised were never delivered apart from Spain, Germany and the Netherlands providing some rotational Patriot air defence batteries. Turkey will have noticed, by contrast, the significant forces that the alliance has sent to its eastern flank after Russia’s annexation of Crimea in 2014 and the still larger forces since Putin’s invasion of Ukraine last February. So, NATO could ask its planners to incorporate an upgraded collective defence and reinforcement plan for Turkey into its overall contingency plans for enhanced forward presence.

In return for a disengagement of Turkey’s forces from its Aegean coastline, Greece would undertake not to station permanent forces on its easterly islands but only to conduct temporary rotations and small-scale military exercises with invitations to observers from Turkey and other allied nations. Greece and Turkey could also agree to resume their negotiations on the exploration zones for gas in the eastern Mediterranean. Moreover, Turkey and Greece could invite each other to participate in their respective eastern Mediterranean and Black Sea energy development and pipeline projects.

The EU has its role to play as well in engaging Turkey. The recently launched European Political Community (EPC) saw Erdoğan come to Prague to meet with all his European counterparts for a rare interaction. Provided that it takes off and develops a coherent agenda and set of regular meetings, the EPC can promote a more productive EU-Turkey dialogue on contentious issues, such as migration or energy security and supply chain diversification. It can also serve to engage Turkey with Russia. The fact that Ankara has open and cordial channels of communication with Moscow does not need to be negative for the EU or NATO. Ankara hosted peace talks between Moscow and Kyiv in the early stages of the conflict. It is not the time for these talks to resume given Ukraine’s desire to push the Russians back first, but Turkey’s role as an honest broker and a country that has also helped Ukraine and condemned Russia’s illegal annexation of Crimea may yet prove useful. Similarly, Turkey’s diplomacy mediating between the United Nations, Ukraine and Russia made it possible to conclude the deal on exports of Ukrainian grain from Odessa and its other available Black Sea ports. The coordination centre is housed in Istanbul. Russia, albeit with reservations, recently agreed to prolong the deal, a key part of the EU’s strategy for food security and to ensure a minimal food supply to countries on the brink of famine in Africa. So, both NATO and the EU need to recognise the special bridge-building and mediation role that Turkey can play when Russia ultimately has to be brought back to the negotiating table. Yet to be effective, Turkey’s diplomats need to be transparent vis-à-vis their allies and embed their efforts in a broader Western framework for achieving sustainable and just outcomes. Ankara must not give a platform for Russia to pretend to the public gallery that it is interested in peace and serious negotiations when it manifestly is not.

A package of balanced and mutually beneficial steps to improve Turkey’s relations with its Western partners will not be easy to negotiate. Each side will want the other to move first to test the sincerity of intentions and to build trust, the magic ingredient that is so lacking at the moment. Knowing where to begin and which areas to prioritise as the easiest or most rewarding will not be self-evident either. But diplomacy is not about staying eternally in ruts or going around in circles. Turkey is not an adversary but an ally and a partner. It irritates but it also contributes. On many issues, the role of Ankara is indispensable, so there is no alternative to engaging Turkey and seeking ways to get it back at the centre rather than the periphery of the Western alliance. Waiting out the end of the Erdoğan era in the hope of a milder, more democratic and western-oriented alternative may be one strategy. Yet even if it happens, it will not make all the friction points between Turkey and the US or the EU magically disappear. A package to break the logjam is urgently required. Policymakers: if this one is not the right one, then please rise to the challenge and come up with something better.

The views expressed in this #CriticalThinking article reflect those of the author(s) and not of Friends of Europe.

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