The future of Turkey as a NATO member

For some time now, Turkey has been increasingly seen as NATO’s “odd-man out”.  The reasons given for this assessment are many. For example, a new presidential system that concentrates power in the hands of the president is likely to challenge the NATO commitment to the principles of individual liberty, democracy, human rights and the rule of law. Ankara’s questionable actions through­out the Syrian civil-war have often served to perplex its NATO allies as well.  The pending purchase of the Russian S-400 surface-to-air missile system has also been the focus of continuing NATO concern.

However, does Turkey really deserve this “odd-man out” status? Historically speaking, the answer is yes. Yes because of: frequent domestic political crises; its location; neighbours; demographics; the slow pace of development; and religion – which have all combined to make it so. Indeed, in 1960, and just eight years after Turkey joined the alliance, a portion of its armed forces successfully ousted the democratically-elected government of Prime Minister Adnan Menderes, and then executed him. Unsuccessful coups attempts by a small section of the army  followed in 1962 and 1963.

In 1964, when Turkey contemplated invading Cyprus to protect the minority Turkish-Cypriot population, Turkish Prime Minister Ismet Inonu soon found himself on the end of a very sharp rebuke from President Lyndon Johnson – the infamous Johnson letter that still touches a nerve in Ankara even today. “I hope you will understand,” Johnson wrote “that your NATO allies have not had a chance to consider whether they have an obligation to protect Turkey against the Soviet Union if Turkey takes a step which results in Soviet intervention.” When Turkey eventually invaded Cyprus in 1974, Ankara was soon hit with a Congressional arms embargo that lasted until 1978.

After 1960, the Turkish military continued to remove democratically elected governments whenever the General Staff felt Turkey’s secular principles were threatened. Thus, in 1971, 1980 and 1997, Turkey’s NATO allies looked on aghast as the generals repeatedly stepped in. The same situation occurred in 2007 when the Turkish military tried but failed to oust Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan in what was dubbed an e-coup. Erdogan, elected as Turkey’s president in 2014, came close to being removed from power again when a group of senior military officers attempted, also unsuccessfully, to forcibly remove him from power in July 2016.

Following the government crackdown after the most recent coup attempt, Freedom House, a New York-based democracy watchdog, dropped Turkey from the “partly free” to the “not free” status in early 2018. The country’s score, Freedom House says, has “been in free fall since 2014 due to an escalating series of assaults on the press, social media users, protesters, political parties, the judiciary, and the electoral system.”

But there is more to the story when considering the future of Turkey as a NATO member. For example, following the 1980 military coup, Freedom House downgraded Turkey from “free” to “partly free” after the military government arrested 650,000 people and drafted a constitution severely limiting political freedoms and civil liberties. After the election of Erdogan’s Justice and Development Party (AKP) in 2002, however, Turkey actually began moving up the rankings and by 2005 was on the cusp of being declared “free.” This remained the case until 2013, when Freedom House reported that Turkey’s civil liberties rating had declined. At this time, however, Turkey was confronting a deteriorating domestic and regional security environment and later just survived a deadly coup attempt – factors, that when combined, would test any government in similar circumstances.

The Turkish acquisition of the S-400 surface-to-air missile system has also drawn a great deal of attention from critics who point out that it is simply wrong for a NATO country to buy sophisticated Russian equipment that will also be incompatible with NATO’s air defence architecture. But this is not the first time Turkey has undertaken efforts to diversify its arms suppliers by purchasing from Moscow. For example, Mi-17 transport helicopters and BTR-80 Armoured Personnel Carriers were purchased from Russia in the 1990s and more recently the Kornet anti-tank missile system was also acquired. And when it comes to operating Russian equipment, the Greek Air Force operates the Russian S-300PMU-1 air defence system, acquired from Cyprus in 2007, and Russian low-level air defence systems such as the Tor M-1 (SA-15 Gauntlet).

Nevertheless, the S-400 deal has created concerns in the West about Turkey’s future political direction. But, in January 2017, Britain and Turkey signed a deal worth more than £100 million to develop an indigenous Turkish fighter jet. An agreement was also signed in January 2018 with a French-Italian consortium that will study the joint development and production of a long-range air and missile defence system. The point is, that Turkey’s drive to eventually become self-sufficient when it comes to its arms industry has much to do with which countries it chooses to partner with.

When it comes to supporting NATO, Turkey has always been a reliable partner, although there is no question that the relationship has often become strained when Ankara sees its interests at risk. It remains a geographic buffer between Europe and the Middle East and has large, well-equipped armed forces, including a significant naval presence in the Aegean, Black and Mediterranean seas. Additionally, Allied Land Command runs all NATO land forces from Izmir; a multi-national NATO Rapid Deployable Corps Head­quar­ters is located in Istanbul; and Malatya is home to a NATO early warning radar station.

Furthermore, the  NATO Centre of Excellence for the Defence Against Terrorism school is located in Ankara and  Turkish Partnership for Peace Training Center was recognized by NATO in 1999 as a partnership training centre.  

As for NATO operations, Turkey has been a consistent troop contributor. Just as important, the Turkish government, through institutions such as the Sivas Police Vocational School have trained thousands of police officers from many countries including Afghanistan, Iraq, Somalia, and Syria.

Keeping in mind all of these positive factors, does it make sense to toss Turkey out of NATO as some have suggested? A balanced view of current goings-on would recognize that, since its foundation in 1923, Turkey has been surrounded by neighbours where misery and suffering are the norm and avoiding collateral damage impossible. It’s safe to say that the only NATO country confronting a destructive and demoralizing domestic insurgency on a daily basis is Turkey. It’s also the only NATO country in whose people courageously stared down an attempted military coup just two years ago. And finally, the United States along with Turkey’s other NATO allies have much to answer for when it comes to the regional meltdown that has engulfed Turkey since the Arab Spring began.

But where to now? With presidential and parliamentary elections now over, and the lifting of the post-attempted-coup state of emergency, there was hope the Turkish government would revisit decisions that have curtailed political freedoms and civil liberties. However, little has changed. The winding-down of the Syrian civil-war and a more stable Iraq also offered an opportunity to kick-start regional trade and help boost a Turkish economy in desperate need of some good news. But when Washington recently doubled tariffs on Turkish steel and aluminum imports, the Turkish Lira plunged to new lows. Now, economic salvation appears to be a long way off. As far as NATO is concerned though, it’s important to look past President Erdogan and the country’s current troubles and challenges. After all, he won’t be there forever, but Turkey will.

Chris Kilford, a former Army Officer and defence attaché who served in Afghanistan and Turkey, is currently a fellow with the Queen’s Centre for International and Defence Policy.