The death of 34 Turkish soldiers in Syria plunged Turkey into crisis and highlighted to many Turks — and, hopefully, to Turkey’s president Recep Tayyip Erdoğan — that Russia’s and Turkey’s interests are not the same.
Erdoğan’s advisor, Mesut Hakki Casin, claimed, “We have fought Russia 16 times in the past and we will fight it again.” Russia denied responsibility and said the Turkish soldiers were commingled with “terrorists.” Turkey blamed the Syrians, apparently to avoid confronting Russia. Erdoğan spoke to Russian President Vladimir PutinVladimir Vladimirovich PutinFederal agencies warn companies to be on guard against prolific ransomware strain Top US general: Meeting with Russian counterpart 'productive' Court finds Russia was behind 2006 poisoning of ex-spy in London MORE, and the two of them met in Moscow March 5 to try to defuse the crisis. NATO pledged its “full solidarity” with Turkey, and the European Union (EU) dispatched a delegation to Ankara to talk about the Syrian migrant crisis.
The attack in Syria highlighted Turkey’s previous request for the U.S. PATRIOT air defense system to support its operations in Idlib, Syria. The most the U.S. is willing to do is supply ammunition, according to U.S. special envoy for Syria James Jeffrey, but the PATRIOT request is still being considered, per the U.S. ambassador to Turkey.
Now is the time for NATO to welcome Turkey back into the fold — but at a price.
After the founding of the Turkish republic in 1923, the most important day in the history of modern Turkey was its entry into NATO on Feb. 18, 1952. The U.S. made the security of Turkey a Cold War priority, and the Truman Doctrine provided financial support to fight communist subversion.
Though Muslim and Asian Turkey was the odd man in Christian-European NATO, it was a valued member that hosted Cold War intelligence sites and fielded the second-largest military in the alliance. This worked because Turkey’s secular leaders understood the practical and modernizing benefits of a close alliance with Europe and North America.
How can Erdoğan secure NATO support?
American Enterprise Institute’s Michael Rubin identified a good start: Withdrawing Turkish troops from Cyprus, Iraq and Syria. The emergency Turkey used to justify sending troops to Cyprus has passed. Turkey has refused to remove its troops from Iraq, and its troop deployment to Syria was more to do with cleansing the area of Kurds than fighting terrorism.
Next, allow U.S. experts access to the S-400 air-defense system. The purchase of the S-400 from Russia precipitated a crisis with NATO, led to Turkey being sidelined by the alliance, caused the U.S. Congress to demand that President Donald TrumpDonald TrumpUkraine's president compares UN to 'a retired superhero' Collins to endorse LePage in Maine governor comeback bid Heller won't say if Biden won election MORE levy sanctions against Turkey, and led to Turkey’s expulsion from the F-35 combat aircraft program. There are some guys at White Sands Missile Range who would love to examine the S-400, and Uncle Sam will even ship it for free.
Last, cancel the maritime boundary agreement with Libya, an attempt by Turkey to control the eastern Mediterranean’s energy reserves. Turkey is the major military supporter of the UN-recognized government in Tripoli, but the Libyans, who have more pressing matters than this, just made enemies of Greece, Cyprus, Israel, Egypt, Syria and Lebanon, all of which claim energy resources in the area. Egypt and the United Arab Emirates, which support the Libyan opposition, now have an incentive to double-down on their opposition to Tripoli — and to Turkey.
These three items will consume all the available bandwidth in Ankara, Brussels and Washington for 2020. The Americans will be focused on their presidential election in November, so the demands to Turkey will keep the diplomats and generals busy, though reticence by Erdoğan will require personal interventions by Trump.
But Turkey has leverage, which it demonstrated by announcing it will “open the gates” to send Syrian refugees to Europe to force the West to take a tougher line with Syria, an unsettling prospect as the COVID-19 virus spreads and the influx of refugees boosts populist, anti-immigrant parties.
Turkey hosts almost 3.6 million Syrian refugees and has spent about $30 billion on refugee assistance, which dwarfs the $6 billion in aid it received from the EU. While some refugees will assimilate into Turkish society, their arrival increased anti-Arab sentiment over concerns about Turkey’s weak economy and cultural differences.
A 2015 poll found Turks hold unfavorable views about other countries, distrust international institutions and prefer Turkish unilateralism in international relations. Turks feel they have to go it alone to maintain their territorial integrity and security, so if the demands aren’t complemented with assistance in resettling the Syrian refugees — not in Turkey — or paying the cost of their support, Turkish attitudes will harden.
The goal is to get Turkey back in NATO, not weaken the government or the economy, nor unhorse Erdoğan.
If Turkey recommits to NATO, Russia will retaliate, probably by immediately banning Turkish agricultural imports, though Moscow won’t damage prospects for the TurkStream natural gas pipeline, which brings Russian gas to Turkey and southern Europe. The trade balance is in Russia’s favor, so its retaliation may be to try to worsen the refugee problem or intervene in the 2023 general election.
NATO should take practical steps to get Turkey onside. Some give-and-take is required and, though Turkey needs the U.S. more than the U.S. needs Turkey, America’s interests will be more secure when Turkey is once again a NATO partner.
James Durso (@james_durso) is the Managing Director of Corsair LLC, a supply chain consultancy. He was a professional staff member at the 2005 Defense Base Closure and Realignment Commission and the Commission on Wartime Contracting in Iraq and Afghanistan. Mr. Durso served as a U.S. Navy officer for 20 years and specialized in logistics and security assistance. His overseas military postings were in Kuwait and Saudi Arabia, and he served in Iraq as a civilian transport advisor with the Coalition Provisional Authority. He served afloat as Supply Officer of the submarine USS SKATE (SSN 578).