Turkey-NATO relations amid ISIS crisis and Ukraine crisis

Meeting of NATO foreign ministers is taking place in Antalya, Turkey.


1. In general, what does NATO want from Turkey these days, and vice versa?

2. How much are NATO-Turkey relations influenced by two crisis, by  Syria conflict and the rise of ISIS, and by Russia-Ukraine conflict?


Joshua Walker, Director, Global Programs, APCO Worldwide, Non-Resident Transatlantic Fellow, German Marshall Fund of the United States

1. I think in general expectations of NATO on Turkey and vice-versa are fairly low and standard. Domestic politics in Turkey leading up to the June 7th elections are understandably predominating the discussions at the moment and there is some forward movement in Cyprus given the elections of a Turkish Cypriot leader who is eager to find a solution. NATO continues to see Turkey as its forward flank and given the twin crises in Syria and Ukraine, Turkey’s geostrategic value has never been higher to the alliance, yet more complicated.

2. I think NATO-Turkey relations have been severely influenced by the Syria conflict from the beginning. The ability of Turkey to invoke Article 5 discussions given various violations including having a Turkish airplane shot down, citizens shelled, and various border skirmishes has put Ankara in the NATO spotlight from the beginning. The continued Patriot missile deployment by NATO and discussions about possible missile defense systems from China have also necessarily effected relations. However the rise of ISIS and non-state actors throughout Turkey’s neighborhood including the broader question of what to do about the Kurdish question both internally and regionally has meant that NATO’s focus on traditional threats has needed to be broadened. However given Europe’s internal focus, the lack of a more aggressive British-Franco involvement over the last year in Syria unlike in Libya, Turkey has been severely disappointed in the transatlantic response to Syria which they have been forcefully arguing for Assad’s removal. The contrast between the robust transatlantic response to Russia in Ukraine vs Syria, drives home Turkish skepticism which has necessarily effected the politics of NATO-Turkey relations even as military training and operability continues. Given the focus on the P 5+1 which Turkey is not a part of and the expanded role for the EU as a foreign policy actor, the place of NATO in Turkish foreign policy calculus seems to be as a pure security alliance rather than geopolitical one. In this context the upcoming NATO foreign minister’s meeting in Antalya will be critical.

Bill  Park, Senior Lecturer, Department of Defence Studies, King’s College, London University

1. The US holds on to Turkey because of its location and because ‘losing’ Turkey would be worse. But Washington is frustrated, as Ankara is not cooperating with respect to IS or Ukraine, is hostile to Israel to the extent of anti-semitism, and is characterised by anti-western rhetoric and growing authoritarianism. From NATO Turkey wants whatever it can get – Patriot air defences for example; but would like NATO to adopt its view of ever regional issue – that it, fight Assad, oppose Sisi, etc. Turkey is frustrated that NATO does not see things the way Turkey does.

2. See above. There is a bad atmosphere now. Turkey is becoming more Muslim Brotherhood, Islamist, regionally oriented, Eurasian, etc and less western. It has a transactional approach to the west, and a confrontational and sometimes abusive style. It isn’t helping things, especially as Obama made quite an investment and the pro-Turkey lobby in the EU has been let down.

Jean-Marc Rickli, Assistant Professor, Department of Defence Studies, King’s College London and Qatar National Defence College

With the revolutions that have swept through the Arab world since the Arab Spring Turkey, together with Saudi Arabia and Iran have emerged as the regional powers in the Middle East. President Erdogan is willing to reestablish the leadership of Turkey among Sunni Muslims. Thus, both the EU and NATO have lost importance in Turkey’s geostrategic perspective. However, maintaining relations with NATO is important for Turkey because it provides a direct access and a talking forum to the Western powers. Erdogan has well understood that, for now, NATO member states need more Turkey than the opposite. The fact that the airforce base of Incirlik cannot be used by the coalition to fight ISIS represents an important operational burden to fight ISIS. Similarly, the fact that Turkey’s borders until very recently were very porous for foreign fighters joining Syria is also a major issue of concern for the European members of NATO. The ambiguous policy of Turkey regarding Syria has demonstrated the lack of leverage that the other NATO member states have over Ankara. Yet, Erdogan knows that he cannot push too far. The 2013 decision to buy the HQ9 chinese air defence system to protect Turkey would have been a major blow to the Alliance. This decision has now been put on hold due to the pressure of Washington.  Similarly, there are now talks between Washington and Ankara to use Incirlik for drones operation against ISIS in Syria and Iraq.  Thus, Turkey understands that being a member of NATO provides it with a competitive advantage over its regional competitors., Although Turkey portrays itself as a leader in the Islamic world it is not ready to leave NATO as the latter provides Ankara more advantages than the opposite. For NATO members, the policy of Turkey represents a challenge and for some even an enigma but they still consider having Ankara onboard as a better solution than the opposite. Similar to Turkey, NATO members can use NATO to facilitate access and discussion with Turkey. When the primary purpose of a military alliance that is collective defense fails or is in trouble, the institution is still relevant as it forces member states to maintain working relations and an open channel of communication. NATO witnessed this in the past with France when Paris left NATO’s integrated military structure. The French experience demonstrates that even if one member state decides to conduct a more independent policy, the door remains open and that one day business can return to normal. Both sides are probably aware of this and therefore are not ready to go to the brinkmanship.




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