Relations between Ankara and Berlin hit a new low today as Germany's Cabinet approved moving its troops from Turkey's highly valued and strategic Incirlik Air Base to Jordan. The move, which still needs parliamentary approval, could affect the battle against the Islamic State (IS) in Syria and Iraq.
The widening rift between Turkey and Germany also is likely to have a strong impact on the entire NATO alliance, which perhaps hasn't witnessed such a dramatic row among its members since France withdrew from the alliance's military command in 1966.
The most recent provocation in the long-running feud came when Turkey refused to allow German parliamentarians to visit troops stationed at Incirlik. German Foreign Minister Sigmar Gabriel visited Ankara on June 5 but was unable to resolve the dispute. Even before Gabriel's visit, he had said, “We have already reached the limits of what is acceptable.”
Also just before Gabriel's trip, German Defense Minister Ursula von der Leyen said, "It is unacceptable that our deputies cannot visit the troops." She added that troops at Incirlik would be moved to the air base in Azraq, Jordan, indicating Germany already had considered alternatives in case Gabriel’s efforts proved unsuccessful. “We are ready for a transfer," she said, adding that Jordan's King Abdullah supported the move.
Her statement also indicated that moving from Turkey to Jordan could interrupt Germany's air intervention against IS for two or three weeks during a very crucial period — while the liberation of Mosul and Raqqa is underway. That could paint Turkey, in the eyes of the Western world, as an unreliable NATO ally and an impediment to the coalition’s fight against IS. Germany's Tornado aircraft at Incirlik fly surveillance missions over Syria and conduct refueling flights for coalition partners. Germany has 250-280 military personnel at the base.
If Germany indeed removes its troops from Turkey, Berlin would no longer be able to implement Article 5 of NATO's charter on Turkey's behalf. Article 5 is the backbone of the alliance under which every member country agrees to defend the others. In the wake of US President Donald Trump’s failure to express support for Article 5 during his speech at the Brussels summit, the Turkish-German frictions may be the harbinger of an overhaul of the transatlantic security system.
Germany is Turkey's top trading partner. It accounts for $14.8 billion in annual exports to and $21.5 billion in imports from Turkey, according to data compiled by Bloomberg. There are more than 3 million Turks living in Germany, making them the largest ethnic minority in Germany. Almost half of them are also citizens of Germany. Germany is the lead country of the European Union in the EU’s relations with Turkey. Therefore, Turkish-German relations have the potential to affect Turkey's relationship with the entire West.
Turkey’s leaders, President Recep Tayyip Erdogan above anybody else, are aware of Germany’s importance for Turkey. It is therefore unthinkable for them not to assess the damage caused by the deteriorating relations with Germany. German officials have more than once emphasized that the German army is a parliamentary army and it would be unacceptable for German parliamentarians not to be visiting their military personnel wherever they are. Why, then, is Turkey preventing their visits? Why are Turkish leaders pushing Germany to such a dramatic decision?
The reason lies in the desperate and wrong-headed political decisions of Erdogan and his small circle of loyalists, including Foreign Minister Mevlut Cavusoglu.
Turkey's decision to deny Germany access to its soldiers reflects Turkey's resentment of Germany for harboring Turkish dissidents. German officials disclosed that last month, 414 Turkish citizens with diplomatic and service passports had requested asylum since the July 15, 2016, coup attempt. The German Interior Ministry confirmed some asylum requests have been approved.
The German move angered Turkey's irascible Erdogan. Among those 414 Turkish citizens are dozens of Turkish military officers, some with the rank of general, who have been serving at NATO bases in Germany and declined to return to Turkey in the wake of the failed coup, saying they have no confidence in Turkey's judiciary. Germany is not alone in this regard; some Turkish military officials serving in NATO posts also have applied for political asylum in Belgium, Norway, Denmark and Italy — which are NATO members as well.
But Turkish-German relations have been deteriorating for some time, especially since the run-up to the April 16 referendum, when Germany refused to allow supporters of the referendum to stage campaign rallies there. Although voters supposedly approved the referendum, which granted unprecedented executive powers to the already-powerful Erdogan, the Organization for Security and Co-operation in Europe and the Parliamentary Assembly of the Council of Europe deemed the results fraudulent.
Turkey also has been holding Deniz Yucel, a reporter for the German newspaper Die Welt, since February, alleging he supports terrorism.
German weekly Der Spiegel wrote June 1 that Germany Chancellor Angela Merkel "is unlikely to oppose Erdogan too strongly because she pegged her political fate to Ankara's goodwill by making Turkey the gatekeeper for refugees yearning to make their way to Europe.”
The appeasement policy is not confined to Merkel in the West; it is a general phenomenon. Der Spiegel reminds us that even “NATO Secretary-General Jens Stoltenberg is determined to tolerate Erdogan’s attacks because he needs Turkey as a base for Middle East operations.”
Erdogan, meanwhile, sees these reasons as weaknesses of Germany, NATO and the West. He is therefore determined to take the risk and follow a brinkmanship policy with them.
Yet Erdogan might have overestimated the patience of Western leaders.
Merkel, in her May 25 speech during the NATO Summit in Brussels, praised NATO as a guarantor of cooperation, freedom and trust. Der Spiegel wrote that her remarks were aimed at Erdogan.
In that June 1 story, Der Spiegel said, “The brief [listing] of Western values was aimed at a man who, though he stood in the second row at the ceremony, actually dominated the agenda of Thursday's NATO summit: Recep Tayyip Erdogan, the heavy-handed Turkish ruler who is in the process of transforming his country into an autocracy. The same man who disparaged Merkel earlier this year as a ‘supporter of terrorism’ and who has plunged the Western defense alliance into chaos.”
Despite all these observations, Der Spiegel predicted the escalation "is unlikely to cause a major breach — because NATO needs Turkey.”
That assessment proved to be wrong following Gabriel’s visit to Ankara; there is now a major breach in NATO. But much more important is, what will be the scope of the damage inflicted on NATO, and how — if at all possible — can it be repaired?