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Erdogan to hold up NATO plan unless allies recognize terror threats against Turkey

Seeking a terror designation for Kurdish forces in Syria, the Turkish president has reaffirmed his threat to block a NATO defense plan for the Baltic nations and Poland as the London summit commences.
Turkey's President Tayyip Erdogan waves outside 10 Downing Street ahead of the NATO summit in London, Britain December 3, 2019. Daniel Leal-Olivas/Pool via REUTERS - RC2SND9X4TVF

The points of disagreement between Turkey and NATO allies now run from weapons deals with Moscow to developments in northern Syria, the eastern Mediterranean, Libya and back up to the Baltic states — encircling the nation that long played a key role as the bloc’s southeastern flank.

Speaking as he departed for the NATO summit in London Tuesday, Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan reaffirmed he would oppose a defense plan for the Baltic nations and Poland unless the allies classify a Kurdish militia as a terrorist organization.

“If our friends at NATO do not recognize as terrorist organizations those we consider terrorist organizations … we will stand against any step that will be taken there,” Erdogan said, referring to the Kurdish-led People’s Protection Units (YPG) in northeast Syria against which Ankara launched a military operation in October.

The statements add to simmering tensions regarding burden-sharing and member states’ commitments to the alliance as it marks its 70th anniversary, and risk further unsettling relations in the face of growing threats from Russia and China.

Following conflicting reports of Turkish opposition to the defense plan, Erdogan doubled down, saying he had spoken with his Polish counterpart Andrzej Duda by phone and would hold meetings with him along with the leaders of the United Kingdom, France and Germany Tuesday.

Ozgur Unluhisarcikli, director of the German Marshall Fund in Ankara, said the attempt to secure the terror designation was unlikely to succeed in the short term, but it could help Ankara officials mitigate pressure during the two-day summit over Turkey’s unilateral operation in northeast Syria.

“I don’t believe that Turkey can realistically expect NATO to register the YPG as a terror organization at this point,” Unluhisarcikli told Al-Monitor. “The YPG is only important for Turkey so far, but the Baltics and Poland are important for several allies.” He added, “I think Turkey would take a very big risk by going forward with its threat of blocking the plans.”

Responding to opposition from Ankara, US Defense Secretary Mark Esper told Reuters, “Not everybody sees the threats that they see,” stating Washington would continue to support the YPG forces it allied with during military operations against the self-proclaimed Islamic State in Syria.

“The message to Turkey … is we need to move forward on these response plans and it can’t be held up by their own particular concerns,” Esper said Monday. “Alliance unity, alliance readiness, means that you focus on the bigger issues — the bigger issue being the readiness of the alliance. And not everybody’s willing to sign up to their agenda.”

The tensions come amid wider feuds between NATO allies, highlighted by French President Emmanuel Macron’s declaration last month that NATO had suffered “brain death.” Macron drew fire from both US President Donald Trump and Erdogan for his criticism over a lack of coordination between allies during the US troop withdrawal in northeast Syria and the subsequent launch of Turkey’s Operation Peace Spring.

At Tuesday’s summit, Macron said he stood by earlier statements and went a step further, denouncing Turkey for its ongoing operation against the YPG forces that helped eradicate IS militants, which he claimed were indirectly linked with Ankara.

"When I look at Turkey, they are now fighting against those who fought with us. And sometimes they work with IS group proxies," Macron said during a press conference with Trump. He later added, “We don’t have the same definition of terrorism around the table.”

Trump and his French counterpart traded barbs Tuesday on a variety of issues, including tariffs. The spat came after Macron and Erdogan displayed public animosity prior to the gathering. On the summit’s first day, Trump appeared more inclined to back the Turkish leader, saying “I like Turkey” and that he got along with Erdogan.

“He is a good NATO member, or will be,” Trump said, shortly after condemning Macron’s criticism of NATO as “very nasty.”

Yet leaders from other allied states expressed some support for Macron’s assessment that Turkey “decided not to be compliant with NATO” by acquiring Russian-made S-400 missile defense systems earlier this year. The missiles reportedly pose a security threat to aircrafts used by NATO forces and led to Turkey’s suspension from the F-35 fighter jet program in July.

On Monday, two US senators increased pressure on the Trump administration to impose sanctions on Turkey regarding the S-400 purchase, stating that failing to do so would send a “terrible signal” to other countries considering the acquisition of Russian arms.

Meanwhile, officials in Ankara have repeated their intentions to use the Russian missiles despite the threat of sanctions, stating that negotiations for a new S-400 purchase were already underway.

The developments have rattled relations between Ankara and its NATO allies and coincide with Turkey’s ongoing gas exploration activities near Cyprus, which may lead to a separate set of sanctions and further deepen inter-alliance discord. On Nov. 27, Erdogan signed agreements with Libya’s internationally recognized government demarking new maritime boundaries in the eastern Mediterranean Sea, complicating a pending an EU response to events in the region.

Erdogan said he planned to meet with Greek Prime Minister Kyriakos Mitsotakis on the sidelines of the NATO summit to discuss energy developments in the eastern Meditterranean.

Yet, Ankara’s objectives going into the summit will likely remain fixed on persuading allies to recognize its security concerns regarding the YPG, according to Yusuf Erim, a political analyst with Turkey’s TRT public broadcaster.

“Whether it be fighting threats ranging from communism to terrorism, stemming migration or intelligence sharing, Turkey has more than done its fair share for the alliance,” Erim told Al-Monitor. “Unfortunately, Turkey has not seen the support it has given reciprocated against threats to its national security.”

Amid the wide-ranging disagreements, Unluhisarcikli noted a joint statement would not be issued at the end of the summit — a development he said was “unprecedented.”

“It will not happen this time, probably because it’s impossible to reach a consensus on a statement … which is quite telling,” Unluhisarcikli told Al-Monitor.

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