There is a problem among NATO members. Recently, tensions between the United States and Turkey grew a result of diverging strategies of the two in Syria. Turkey, one of the oldest NATO member states has come under strong criticism from the United States and NATO itself for two reasons. Firstly, Ankara’s intervention in Northern Syria against US-backed Syrian Kurdish forces, who are a vital ally of the Allies in defeating the Islamic State in Syria. Secondly, Turkey has found a new power to partner with, Russia. Its recent rapprochement naturally worries other NATO members. Ankara coordinates its Syrian involvement with Moscow, talks about procurement of Russia’s S-400 missile defence system, and in the recent round of negotiations between Ankara, Moscow and Teheran, the three agreed to establish a demilitarized zone in Afrin region, which effectively turns Turkish intervention into an occupation with Russian approval. All that at the expense of US-backed Kurdish forces.
Both issues, Ankara’s intervention in Kurdish territory and rapprochement with Moscow do not fit the position of NATO, however, one could argue, that from the Turkish perspective, its security concerns and political interest have for long been neglected by country’s closest allies, and today’s situation is merely a result of that.
Is Turkey becoming foreign to NATO?
Republic of Turkey has been a long-term member of NATO. Since 1952, it has for decades served as a key member of the Euro-Atlantic community, participating in every major conflict that NATO was involved in, since the Korean War. Despite that, Turkey has recently been portrayed as an alien element within the NATO, especially when it comes to Syria. For sure, there has been an ideological shift under the AKP government in the past years, which has a profound impact on domestic politics, but for external defence, NATO is still in the centre of country’s security considerations. The question is, whether security concerns of Turkey were part of considerations when the United States and Allies were deciding about Syria?
First of the problems between NATO and Turkey is the approach towards Kurds in Syria. For Washington and majority of NATO, Syrian Kurds became the main ally in the struggle against the Islamic State (IS) in Syria. Receiving training, financial, hardware and aerial support, Kurds managed to form a strong resistance to the IS. With US support, and despite suffering large casualties, Kurds succeeded in establishing their control in large territories to the south of Syria-Turkey border. From the Turkish perspective, however, YPG Kurds fighting in Syria are basically a cousin of Turkish PKK (Kurdistan Worker’s Party – Partiya Karkerên Kurdistanê) which is a militant and political group that has been listed as a terrorist organization in both Turkey, the US and the EU. From Ankara’s point of view, there is little difference between Syria’s YPG and Turkey’s PKK, Ankara believes those groups are capable of operating across the border. American reliance on Kurds as their main friend in Syria was then directly against what Turkey would like. This resulted in a series of Turkish interventions starting 2015, eventually entering Idlib province in 2017, and again earlier this year.
In January 2018, Turkey launched the Olive Branch operation. This large offensive against the Kurdish held territory around the city of Afrin in Northern Syria led to a crisis between the US and Turkey. Ankara seeks to limit territorial gains which could result in a larger autonomy of Kurdish region and subsequent support for Turkey’s own PKK. To Allies, Turkish concerns about growing Kurdish autonomy in Syria should not come as a surprise, however. In fact, objections about such autonomy alongside Turkish border have been the most consistent policy coming from Ankara lately and the fact that Turkey was willing to go this far, putting its relationship with the US in strains, shows its concerns were serious. It is because Turkey, not the US, would share its border with the autonomous region, and face possible insurgency within its own territory from troops who had been trained and armed by the US. Therefore, any changes to the status quo are of vital concern for Turkey.
Ankara’s fear of an insurgency comes from historical experience in the region. Both the US and Turkey have learned that using proxies may backfire. Ankara was flirting with IS until it itself became a victim of its followers. Similarly, various rebel factions backed by the US have often changed sides in Syria. Keeping in mind that Turkish ultimate concerns are its own stability and territorial integrity, it should come as no surprise that Ankara views US policy in Syria as a potential Pandora’s box. After all, it was not a long time ago when US Chinooks were being shot at by Stinger man-pods in Afghanistan. The policy of the 1980’ proved to be problematic decades later. And this example bears strong relevance to Turkey actually. After 9/11 and the invasion, when Washington began to look for supporters of a peacekeeping operation in Afghanistan, it was Ankara who voluntarily took the lead of ISAF in early 2002. From this experience, it makes perfect sense for Turkey to be worried about a few stirred up Kurds claiming their autonomy alongside its border. Similarly, the power vacuum in Iraq had a direct impact on the formation of the Islamic State. Should the US retreat from Syria the way it happened in Iraq and Afghanistan, Turkey would be the first country to suffer the consequences.
Turkey experienced a bloody civil war with PKK. Nevertheless, the Turkish approach in Northern Syria should not be interpreted simply through Ankara having a problem with Kurds, again. Let’s not forget that Turkey established a close partnership with Iraqi Kurds. Iraqi regional President Massoud Barzani has been to Turkey every year since 2016. They are close regional partners and when Barzani arrives in Turkey, Kurdish flag is displayed next to Turkish Crescent at the airport.
In conclusion, by ignoring concerns of Turkey, we have arrived in a situation, when NATO’s Turkey is not afraid to confront the position of its principal ally, the United States, and attack to forces that were trained and armed by Americans. However, there is another part of this rift between NATO and Turkey, the rapprochement with Russia.
While during Wales and Warsaw Summits, NATO came to a clear conclusion that Russia is the main adversary because of the occupation of Crimea and Eastern Ukraine, plus several other incidents such as airspace violations, various forms of offensive intelligence and cyber intrusions all orchestrated by Moscow. The renewed tensions are especially strong in Northern Europe and Baltics. Turkey meanwhile went through a rollercoaster relation with Russia.
In 2015 Ankara did not hesitate to act, intercepting a Russian fighter plane when it crossed NATO’s airspace for less than 20 seconds. This move resulted in the death of the crew in the hands of Syrian rebel militia supported by Turkey and had a severe impact on Turkish relations with Russia. Moscow’s retaliation came in an embargo which touched Turkish businesses immediately, leaving its Mediterranean resorts half empty, as tourist visa and air-travel were terminated at once. Today, however, the Turkish head of state meets with the president of Russia and leaders of Iran, negotiating terms of Syrian ceasefire, without any mention to the US or NATO. Furthermore, Turkey agreed to build Turkish Stream pipeline with Russia and even signed a deal on S-400 missile defence systems of Russian origin. All that while country is still waiting for the US made cutting-edge F-35 jets. Ankara’s ambivalent posture towards Russia, which contrasts the general mindset of most NATO members, resulted in Turkey’s place in the Alliance being questioned in the media. However, making Turkey chose between being with NATO or against it would be a major mistake. It ignores the geopolitical reality of Turkey. Except for the Cold War period, Anatolian Turkish or Ottoman state and Russia have always been closely interacting with each other.
While many like to call Turkey a bridge between East and West, it became somewhat cliché that is used mainly by those outside of Turkey. Before the Turkish Republic was founded, Ottoman Turks saw themselves as the centre. This idea is in striking contrast with the fall of the empire when its size had been drastically reduced. In spite of being smaller, Turkey still covers an area of land larger than any other European country with the exception of Russia and has a population of over 80 million. Its geographical location, size, and population make Turkey unique. To understand the context of Ankara’s policy decisions, one needs to appreciate the geographic positioning of Turkey.
Anatolia spawns from the Mediterranean and the Aegean Sea, bordering NATO Allies in the west, to the border of Armenia and Azerbaijan, Iran, Iraqi Kurdistan and Syria in the east. Some of those countries are currently hosting a garrison of Russian troops. Turkey shares another sea with both NATO and Russia in the north. From this perspective, Turkey has automatically become involved in nearly all major western (and NATO) flashpoints, including those with Russia, Iraq, Iran, and so on.
Furthermore, energy plays a central role in Turkish foreign policy. Turkey is poor in natural resources, which need to be imported. Nearly 60 per cent of natural gas imports come from Russia. At the same time, the country’s location makes it a great option to serve as a transit hub from the Middle East and Central Asia towards Europe. Such projects are generally welcomed in both Russia and Europe. Turkey already has pipeline connections with Iraq, Iran, Caspian Sea region, and with Russia. Energy partnerships, therefore, have crucial implications for Ankara’s regional politics. Especially when some of the pipelines run through Kurdish populated Eastern Anatolia. It goes without saying that energy can be traced even in the US-Turkey relationship. For both, economic and strategic priorities, Washington is not very thrilled by possible connection of neither Russian nor Iranian gas pipes towards Europe.
Clearly, the geopolitical positioning of Turkey makes decisions more complex than just being either with us or with them. Turkey does not have the luxury to look in one direction only. Not in regional politics, and not in Syria.
Assad regime is most likely staying in power thanks to Moscow and Teheran. Which brings Ankara into an extremely awkward position. After all, Turkey was one of the first countries to supply rebels opposing Assad, including radicals from the Islamic State. As a result, Turkey now has two adversary entities in Syria. US-backed Kurds and the Russian-backed government. Being on good terms with Russia is most likely the best option for Turkish security today. While the West has shown little understanding for Turkish concerns in Syria, Moscow is willing to cooperate.
That is especially clear from Putin’s decision to scrap an offensive towards Idlib this September. Such action would most likely bring either influx of migrants or fleeing fighters towards Turkish border. Instead, Moscow agreed to establish a demilitarised zone patrolled by all parties together. Meanwhile, Ankara began its own operation to clean the area from corrupt elements (read: too radical or rogue groups, that Ankara used to support before).
Reliance on Russia in Syria is a result of the previous Allied policy. The US did not consider Ankara’s objections to arming Kurds and only in 2018 when Turkey found other partners, the policy of the US started to change. The US and Turkey formed joined patrols, and Washington established outposts in other Kurdish provinces alongside Turkish border. It did so to prevent movement of militias and weapons into Turkish territory and to prevent Turkish army movement into those provinces. In a sense, Allied denial of Turkish concerns and interests helped Russia to bring Turkey closer. It proves to be a mistake to neglect Turkish security interests. Unstable Turkey would have a severe impact on the Euro-Atlantic area because Turkey is historically embedded in Euro-Atlantic security. The Cold War conditions, under which it was accepted, might have changed, nevertheless, Turkey serves as a key buffer zone for both EU and NATO. At the same time, it is wrong to claim that America and Turkey are having problems just because of Cold War need for each other ended. On the contrary, at the end of 1990’, Ankara’s relationship with Washington was reaching its peak and this situation changed only after the invasion of Iraq. Ultimately, because the Cold War conditions have indeed changed, and bipolarity is not a thing anymore, NATO should not try to punish Turkey for searching balanced relations with its neighbours. Given its location, it does not have any other choice and the Cold War mentality of two blocks is long overdue.
In conclusion, forcing Turkey to make a choice between the West and Russia simply does not make sense. Turkey has been a long-term member of the Alliance. In fact, more than half of today’s members came after Turkey had already been in. It is hard to imagine this relationship to break up. Nevertheless, it can be weakened easily if the policy choices on both sides are short-sighted. It is true that Ankara is not making it easy for the rest of NATO recently, but on the same note, Washington needs to be very responsible when dealing with the situation in Syria. It is not American territory that is at stake. Ankara’s efforts to create a buffer zone beyond the Turkish border have a valid a goal of safeguarding territorial integrity and it makes sense for the whole NATO community in fact. As the Islamic State is losing its last resorts in Syria, precise border management will be needed more than ever. Various factions and armed groups are known to switch sides and move from one battlefield to another. Should there be an unstable region in Eastern Anatolia with an open border, it might as well be the largest threat to territorial integrity NATO that ever had to deal with. Furthermore, many NATO members should expect combatants returning home and here, again, Turkey is the main barrier. Behind its borders, Schengen starts. If nothing else, it is in the interest of NATO’s all continental member states, that there is a stable and secured area, instead of a busy transferring checkpoint for foreign fighters.
At the same time, the rapprochement with Russia should not be taken as abandoning NATO. In a world where potential or actual NATO membership of ex-Soviet states supposedly does not carry any threat to Russia’s security (an argument which is often used when denouncing Moscow’s claims on privileged sphere of influence) it should work the same way in the sense that balancing its ties with Russia does not mean revoking NATO’s affiliation. Most likely, the US-Russia space cooperation is based on the same logic. Just like Germany’s decision to proceed with Nord Stream II., while remaining firm against Russia’s aggressive actions in Ukraine. Ultimately, it is necessary for NATO and mainly the US to consider Turkish issues and objections regarding Syria as valid. Both in order to preserve Turkey as a key member of the Alliance, and to keep NATO safe.