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Turkey seeks to refresh NATO ties to balance Russia

Turkey seems to have failed to get all it wanted from the NATO summit in London, but even an incomplete outcome meets its purpose of balancing ties with Russia by refreshing ties with NATO.

Turkey went to NATO’s 70th anniversary summit in London with a big delegation and after tight preparations, as all pro-government quarters turned pro-NATO this week and the whole Turkish media focused on the two-day event that ended Dec. 4. It is perhaps fair to say that never since the coup attempt in July 2016 has Turkey witnessed such a positive sentiment toward NATO, especially in the pro-government media. 

President Recep Tayyip Erdogan had looked forward to the summit, to which he went with a thick file, seeking to win support for Turkey in the row over its purchase of the Russian S-400 air defense system, its ongoing military campaign in northeast Syria and a related plan to resettle Syrian refugees in a safe zone in the region. Another major objective was to get NATO to recognize the Syrian Kurdish People’s Protection Units (YPG) as a terrorist group. The YPG is the Syrian affiliate of the Kurdistan Workers Party (PKK) in Turkey, which NATO already sees as a terrorist organization. Mounting tensions in the eastern Mediterranean and Ankara’s efforts to secure the extradition of Gulenists from NATO countries were other important items in Erdogan’s dossier. 

To strengthen its hand in pressing those objectives, Ankara last month blocked the approval of a NATO military plan to defend Poland and the Baltics in the event of a Russian attack, according to media reports, which have not generated an explicit denial by Ankara.

In short, Turkey went to the summit with maximalist expectations from Article 5 on collective defense in the NATO charter, taking a tough negotiation position to force the alliance to pay regard to Turkey’s security concerns by holding up defense plans for Poland and the Baltics. The four-way meeting between the leaders of Turkey, Britain, Germany and France on Dec. 3 showed that Ankara saw the summit also as an opportunity to fix communication lines and rebuild trust with major European allies. 

On the eve of the summit, however, Ankara made two moves that caused raised eyebrows in the Western security bloc. In a game-changing move in the eastern Mediterranean, Turkey signed a deal Nov. 27 with Libya’s internationally recognized Government of National Accord aiming to delimit maritime zones in the region, where tensions have been on the rise over gas exploration rights. And on Nov. 25-26, Ankara conducted tests of the radars and identification systems of the S-400s as well as training exercises for the personnel who would operate them.

Still, Ankara expected NATO to reconsider what it sees as the alliance’s abandonment of Turkey in the Syrian conflict and its campaign against the YPG. According to the prevailing perception in Ankara, NATO has been disregarding Turkey’s strategic requirements, and active anti-Turkey campaigns by some members have poisoned the decision-making mechanisms of the alliance. 

Turkey’s strategy at the summit was actually rather simple — the “NATO-fication” of Turkey’s security concerns in a bid to balance Russia. In short, Erdogan — emboldened also by Trump’s support — has laid down new cards to suppress the voice of members who have come to question Turkey’s place in NATO. To ward off sanctions over the S-400 deal, especially by the US Congress, he is trying to move the S-400 issue and spats over the Syrian conflict and Western support for the YPG to NATO ground, where Turkey could make use of its leverage as a member. 

For Turkey, the most important part of the London summit was the quartet meeting between Erdogan and the leaders of Britain, Germany and France. Erdogan has said Turkey will not stay indefinitely in Syria, so his European counterparts wanted to know Ankara’s plans, including a pullout timeframe, how it intends to shape its ties with the Syrian Kurds, its strategy against the Islamic State (IS) in the coming period and an action plan on IS detainees. 

While IS was the top issue for Britain, Germany and France, Erdogan’s main goal was to convince his interlocutors to help finance the return of the Syrian refugees in Turkey and back Ankara’s arguments against the YPG.

The fact that the meeting ended earlier than planned and without a press conference is a sign that it did not go very well, according to Turkish sources contacted by Al-Monitor. Erdogan made no clear-cut statement after the meeting, which also suggests that the discussions were not really productive for Ankara. 

What are the prospects of Ankara’s strategy on the “NATO-fication” of its security concerns? Can Turkey make any substantial gains by moving its bilateral problems with allies to the NATO platform? The outlook does not seem very optimistic. Erdogan may have the full support of Trump, but German Chancellor Angela Merkel, on whose mediation Ankara was pinning hope at the summit, appears to have delivered little. 

Moreover, by creating a linkage between NATO’s defense plans and its own agenda, Ankara appears to have alienated NATO’s eastern European and Baltic members, who have not been particularly critical of Turkey and have to some extent supported it within the alliance. So the new strategy might end up increasing Turkey’s isolation within NATO.

Furthermore, many within the alliance appear worried that Ankara’s strategy might undermine NATO cohesion on some highly political issues such as the YPG and some high-risk issues such as the activation of the S-400 system in Turkey, strengthening Russia’s hand in its arm-wrestling with NATO. Erdogan’s and his team’s failure to alleviate such concerns and NATO’s foot-dragging on building a mechanism to bridge the confidence gap emerge as two major predicaments. 

The strong-arm tactics of Erdogan’s administration threaten to damage Turkey’s long-term relations within the alliance and undermine trust between Turkey and the rest of NATO for the sake of dubious short-term gains.

No doubt, Turkey’s growing structural dependence on Russia was another reason why Ankara placed so much importance on the London summit. By showcasing its strategic ties with the Western security bloc, Ankara hopes to balance Russia in Syria’s northeast and northwest, particularly Idlib. 

Yet Erdogan appears to have failed to get all he wanted from the summit. Will he continue to strain relations with NATO now? 

Some anti-Western cliques in Ankara appear to be testing Turkey’s strategic ties with the Western security bloc via Erdogan. As a seasoned and shrewd politician whose only goal is his political survival, Erdogan could have hardly failed to discern that. Hence, he likely saw the NATO summit as an opportunity to strike a balance between Turkey’s pro-Western and pro-Eurasian orientations. Erdogan’s political fortunes at home have come to depend on how successful he is in balancing ties with Russia and the Western security bloc. Therefore, a Turkey sitting in Russia’s lap, completely detached from the West, is not in his interest.

How long could Erdogan sustain the balancing act? The answer depends a lot on who wins the US presidential elections in November 2020.

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