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Erdoğan’s independence disturbs Turkey’s position with US, NATO and EU

AP Photo/Burhan Ozbilici, Pool
Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan, left, talks to U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken during their meeting at Esenboga airport in Ankara, Turkey, on Feb. 20, 2023.

Turkey presents the European Union and the North Atlantic Treaty Organization, led by the United States, with seemingly insurmountable problems. Now the question is whether the strategically located country, on the dividing line between Europe and the Middle East and Asia, can either remain in the NATO alliance or join the EU.

Both the EU and the U.S. rushed in hundreds of millions of dollars in emergency aid after the Feb. 6 earthquake that devastated portions of Turkey and Syria, but that show of humanitarian support has not been enough to convince Turkey’s president, Recep Tayyip Erdoğan, to cooperate on urgent issues. He’s showing his dissatisfaction by blocking admittance of Sweden and Finland into NATO, and he has shocked his American NATO ally by ordering Russia’s S-400 missile system, considered superior to the most advanced U.S. surface-to-air systems.

Erdoğan’s policies are troubling to NATO policymakers arming Ukraine against the Russians. Erdoğan, doing away with democratic principles and ruling Turkey as a despotic strongman, seems to want to carve out an independent position in which he no longer cooperates as a NATO member and American ally. Complicating the problem, the U.S. has two military bases in Turkey that are deemed essential not only for the defense of Europe but also as bulwarks against crises in the Middle East.

Secretary of State Antony Blinken has visited Incirlik Air Base in south-central Turkey, making a show of lending a personal hand in loading relief supplies for earthquake victims. Some 5,000 American troops are on the base, operated jointly by the U.S. and Turkey, from which F-16 fighter jets flew in support of American forces in Iraq during the Gulf wars. Then there’s the small American base on the eastern end of the Mediterranean Sea at Izmir, on Turkey’s west coast, described by the Defense Department as “a hidden gem” for several hundred members of the Air Force who are lucky enough to be stationed there. In between enjoying the beach and shopping for souvenirs, they assist in coordinating NATO operations. No planes are based there.

The United States, outraged over Turkey’s missile deal with the Russians, has blocked Turkey from joining a program for acquiring the latest F-35 planes and is having second thoughts about selling updated F-16s to replace the older versions. Why provide Turkey with “America’s most advanced military aircraft?” writes Steven A. Cook with the Council on Foreign Relations in New York. “Turkey’s open undermining of U.S. interests and policies cannot continue to go unchecked.”

Turkey’s problems with the EU are just as bad as those with the U.S. — and maybe worse. “The EU’s relationship with Turkey is stuck at an impasse,” writes Ilke Toygur with the Centre for Applied Turkey Studies at the German Institute for International and Security Affairs. “Policymakers can no longer conduct effective diplomacy or formulate a wider geopolitical strategy premised on Turkey acceding to the union. They need to look elsewhere and be innovative to regain some influence over Turkey’s democratic backsliding.”

Admittance of Turkey, long a NATO member, to the European Union has been a matter of sometimes bitter debate for several years while Erdoğan tightened controls over his once democratic nation. “The prospects of Turkey joining the EU have been dim for a long time,” Toygur writes. “In practice, Ankara has no credible prospect of membership in the near future, if ever.” An overwhelming reason is Turkey’s “democratic backsliding and increasingly confrontational foreign policy.”

Adding to the difficulties, Turkey and Hungary, under another strongman, Prime Minister Viktor Orbán, have joined forces in blocking both Sweden and Finland from joining NATO, which is now a 30-member bloc standing up against Russian President Vladimir Putin’s expansionist aims. These two Scandinavian countries once preferred to remain aloof from NATO but now need the assurance of defense by NATO nations in case Russia’s aggression goes beyond Putin’s invasion of Ukraine. With unanimity of all NATO countries required for admittance, Turkey and Hungry can veto either or both applicants for membership in the alliance.

Turkey, in particular, has an immediate reason for opposing Sweden and Finland. Erdoğan accuses them — Sweden in particular — of having had relations with the Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK), at the forefront of the movement for carving out an independent Kurdish nation in territory that is now in southeastern Turkey and northern Syria, Iraq and Iran. The U.S. and EU have applied the “terrorist” label to the PKK, and Sweden agrees. Now, Turkey is calling for the expulsion from Sweden of Kurdish terrorists. Finland, with close ties to neighboring Sweden, wants to join NATO simultaneously. Orbán isn’t worried about the Kurds but objects to highly critical articles about him in the Swedish media and shares Erdoğan’s brand of authoritarian rule.

In a sense, Turkey is caught in the middle between a desire to not incur the wrath of Russia and the need to maintain historic ties with NATO and the U.S. “Russia’s … invasion of Ukraine has heightened challenges Turkey faces in balancing relations with the two countries, with implications for U.S.-Turkey ties,” according to a report by the Congressional Research Service in Washington. “Turkey has not joined sanctions against Russia, with which it has close trade and energy ties, likely because it hopes to minimize spillover effects to its national security and economy.”

Erdoğann, undoing the democratic reforms put into place under Mustafa Kemal Atatürk, the founding president of modern Turkey after the breakup of the Ottoman empire, no doubt would like to assure Turkey of an independent position among conflicting forces. The U.S. “needs to adjust its expectations, ask for less, and develop other options,” writes Steven Cook at the Council on Foreign Relations. As a result, he says, the use of Incirlik air base “is no longer assured.” America, he argues, “should never again be forced into a position that leaves U.S. security interests vulnerable to the changing interests of Turkish politicians.”

Those words raise disturbing questions about Turkey’s utility for NATO. The Incirlik base is  integral in the defense of Europe. If the war in Ukraine were to spread, American fighter jets would fly from there over eastern Europe. As a NATO member, Turkey would be expected to cooperate fully with other member-states. In today’s environment, however, while the EU hesitates to accept Turkey as a member, Turkey’s future as a friend and ally is uncertain — if not unlikely.

Donald Kirk has been a journalist for more than 60 years, focusing much of his career on conflict in Asia and the Middle East, including as a correspondent for the Washington Star and Chicago Tribune. He currently is a freelance correspondent covering North and South Korea. He is the author of several books about Asian affairs. 

Tags Antony Blinken NATO Recep Tayyip Erdoğan Russia Turkey US-Turkey relations Viktor Orban

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