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Turkey Is Distancing Itself from NATO

Erdoğan strengthens his autocratic rule and tightens ties with Russia.
October 23, 2020
Turkey Is Distancing Itself from NATO
The Turkish Air Force's Murdet Air Base, with the S-400 air defense system from Russia, seen on November 25, 2019.(Getty)

Last Friday, in a provocative move, Turkey tested the S-400 anti-aircraft missile system that it purchased from Russia in 2017 and received last year. Integration of this system risks the exposure of NATO secrets. It also highlights Turkey’s departure from the liberal world. The top spokesman for the U.S. Department of Defense, Jonathan Hoffman, issued a stern warning:

We object to Turkey’s purchase of the system, and are deeply concerned with reports that Turkey is bringing it into operation. . . . It should not be activated. Doing so risks serious consequences for our security relationship. Turkey has already been suspended from the F-35 program and the S-400 continues to be a barrier to progress elsewhere in the bilateral relationship.

The activation of the system will make Turkey eligible for sanctions under Countering America’s Adversaries Through Sanctions Act.

Turkey has been a member of NATO since 1952 but has been distancing itself from the alliance for over a decade. Three different presidents with very different styles have failed to stop this drift because they mostly have maintained their predecessors’ policies of caution towards Turkey. The next administration should change the course.

The problem starts at the top. Recep Tayyip Erdoğan became the prime minister of Turkey in 2003 and retained that position until 2014, when, in a Putin-like move, he became the country’s president. Here’s a question: Who has the most power in Turkey, the president or the prime minister? It’s a trick question: In a move that even Putin never tried, Erdoğan forced through a constitutional “reform” that abolished the position of prime minister and moved Turkey’s executive power away from the parliament to the presidency.

Erdoğan first came to power following years of economic and political turmoil. The Turkish economy was facing major issues in the 1990s. The annual inflation rate had peaked at a ruinous 120 percent in 1994. In 1997, a coup had removed the Islamist government. Coups are usually unacceptable illiberal and anti-democratic actions, but Turkey’s coups were an exception: The Turkish military intervened every time it feared that an Islamist regime was straying too far from the inheritance of Mustafa Kemal Ataturk’s secularization. As soon as a new government was elected, the military went back to its normal functions. Erdoğan, who became mayor of Istanbul in 1994, was briefly imprisoned in 1999 for having publicly recited a poem deemed a threat to Turkey’s secularism.

Erdoğan’s ascent to the highest office in the land was democratic, as were the first few years of his premiership. He solidified his reign as he undertook reforms, with the help of the World Bank and the International Monetary Fund, that stabilized the country’s economy and led to rapid growth. However, he began rolling back on democracy. As he said back when he was Istanbul’s mayor, democracy is like a streetcar that you get off once you reached your destination.

But, before beginning his assault on liberal democracy, Erdoğan started to purge secular leaders from the Turkish military, leading to en masse resignations in protests. By expelling secularists and promoting Islamists to high ranks, he ended the secular regime in the military. The military was no more a unified secular institution—and so could no longer serve as the bulwark of liberal democracy in Turkey.

There was an attempted coup in 2016, but it failed. Accounts vary, but it seems that the coup was a sincere attempt to oust Erdoğan; he found out in advance and decided to let the coup proceed so that he could take advantage of the crisis. It gave him an excuse to crack down on the opposition. His government arrested 80,000 people and purged 150,000 government workers. It was this crisis that also allowed him to push through his radical remaking of the Turkish constitution.

The end of democracy in Turkey has led to problems for the United States—practical problems, not just moral objections to Erdoğan’s illiberalism. Turkey is aligning itself more closely with Vladimir Putin’s Russia. This is a problem of its own, but what makes it worse is that Turkey is a NATO member and has access to key NATO secrets and weapons. The Russian S-400 anti-aircraft missile system it tested last week illustrates the problem. This system is not compatible with NATO weapons. One suspicion is that Erdoğan purchased it precisely for this purpose: to have in place a military system that only his most trusted military officers can control. Integrating it with the rest of Turkish military equipment—including NATO systems—risks the exposure of American and NATO secrets to Russia.

The problems don’t stop here. Turkey has a large Kurdish population—about 19 percent of the country’s total population of 82 million, a percentage projected by demographers to rise—and much of that population is secessionist and hostile to the central government. The Workers’ Party (PKK), a Kurdish group, has been conducting terror attacks against the Turkish government for decades and has been designated by many governments, including the U.S. government, as a terrorist organization. However, PKK’s affiliate organization in Syria, the People’s Protection Units (YPG), is not a terrorist entity; it has been an ally for the United States during the Syrian Civil War and the anti-Islamic State Operation Inherent Resolve in Syria. The Turkish government has attacking the YPG anyway—because terrorism is not the real difference between Turkey and Kurds; Kurdish nationalism is. This was a major source of drama when, last year, President Trump gave a green light to Turkey to enter Syria and bulldoze the YPG and Kurdish civilians.

And Turkey really does not have an issue with terrorism per se. In fact, even though the United States has not formally designed it as such, Turkey is a state sponsor of terrorism. According to the Defense Intelligence Agency, Turkey, along with Qatar, has supported the Levant Victory Front (aka Jabahat Fatah al-Sham, formerly al-Nusra Front), a jihadi Salafist terror group that is al-Qaeda’s branch in Syria. Turkey has also provided support and care for Islamic State fighters in Syria. And Turkey is a supporter of Hamas, the terrorist organization that occupies the Gaza Strip and routinely targets Israeli civilians.

Turkey’s support for Islamism in the region is partially strategic against common enemies, but it is also ideological. Just like Putin, Erdoğan is revanchist. Putin wants to resurrect the Soviet empire; Erdoğan wants to revive the Ottoman Empire and make it the center of the Islamic world. Erdoğan’s support for Islamists at home and in neighboring countries, of course, stands opposed to the U.S. objective of combating Islamism in the region.

Turkey’s relationship with Russia is complicated. Historical grievances, back to the Ottoman-Tsarist era, have kept the two countries from becoming too close. They are rather frenemies. But they are increasingly allied in opposing the U.S.-led liberal international order.

Meanwhile, Turkey has been actively undermining U.S. efforts around the world. It has been helping Iran to evade U.S. sanctions. And it is tightening ties with China.

How can all of this be squared with Turkey’s formal relationship with the United States—as a treaty ally and a member of NATO?

NATO, it must be noted up front, does not have an expulsion mechanism, and legal opinion as to whether expulsion is even possible is unsettled. Even if there were an expulsion mechanism, simply expelling Turkey would create a headache over Turkey’s access to the NATO infrastructure in Turkey and American-built systems that Turkey has purchased, risking their exposure to Russia and China. Any punitive action against Turkey could worsen that risk.

But whether or not expulsion from NATO makes sense, there needs to be some kind of course correction in U.S. relations with Turkey. That course correction must begin with two admissions. First, the problem with Turkey is that it has turned to a regime with a fundamentally different vision than that of the United States. Second, three administrations’ diplomatic engagement with Turkey has not improved the problem—and if Bush, Obama, and Trump, with their very different styles, failed to find a resolution, it’s hard to see how a Biden administration that doesn’t try something new will see results any different.

Ultimately, the solution to the problem in Turkey is restoring Turkish democracy and ending Erdoğan’s increasingly Islamist and autocratic rule. With a good strategy, Turkish democracy can be revived if Erdoğan is removed, but the clock is ticking. Once Erdoğan completes his domestic project and institutionalizes a regime that can survive independent from him, all bets will be off.

Shay Khatiri

Shay Khatiri studied Strategic Studies at the Johns Hopkins University School of Advanced International Studies. He’s an immigrant from Iran and writes the Substack newsletter The Russia-Iran File.