Turkey Pulse

Once-frosty Erdogan warms up to NATO

Article Summary
Russia’s military intervention in Syria is forcing Turkey's president to acknowledge he needs NATO.

Russia’s military intervention could be the last nail in the coffin of Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan’s Islamist/Sunni-based desires for the future of war-torn Syria. It has also left him facing stark truths about where Ankara’s security interests ultimately lie when push comes to shove in any serious international crisis on Turkey’s borders.

Erdogan has made his anti-Western sentiments and dislike for NATO more than apparent in the past, even though Turkey is a long-standing member of the alliance and a candidate for EU membership. He is therefore in the spotlight now for what one analyst has referred to as his “full U-turn” in this regard. 

Aware that Turkey has a limited capacity to respond to Russia on its own, Erdogan is relying on Turkey’s NATO membership as a counterbalance, especially since Russian jets violated Turkish airspace as they carried out strikes against anti-Assad targets in northern Syria.

Erdogan’s position contrasts sharply with his previous statements, in which he openly suggested he would rather be in an alliance with Russia than with the West. In 2013, he even called on Russian President Vladimir Putin to help Turkey join the Shanghai Cooperation Organization, which comprises Russia, China and the former Soviet Republics in Central Asia. In return, Erdogan indicated he would be prepared to dump Ankara’s EU bid.

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Since the SCO is essentially a security alliance, Erdogan’s remarks were also taken by many as a new indication that Ankara was turning away from the West and might even be prepared to reconsider its NATO membership, based on an offer by a Russian-led alliance.

Most analysts at the time, however, thought Erdogan’s remarks were rhetorical at best and a bad joke at worst, considering the near impossibility of what he was asking for. They pointed out that, despite the vast economic interests shared by the two countries, Turkey and Russia are in deep disagreement over a host of strategic international issues, including Syria. 

Erdogan's anti-Western tone was noted as another sign of his antipathy toward the West, even though his words were not expected to lead to anything concrete. Moscow’s decision to intervene militarily in Syria to bolster the Bashar al-Assad regime, however, has Erdogan singing a different tune today on Russia and on Turkey’s NATO membership.

At a joint press conference Oct. 6 in Brussels with Belgian Prime Minister Charles Michel, Erdogan said Turkey cannot put up with violations of its air space, even though Moscow claims they were inadvertent.

“NATO has also issued a strong ultimatum on this,” Erdogan said. “What was done to Turkey was also done to NATO." He has also repeated in recent days that Turkey’s eastern borders are NATO borders, too.

Suat Kiniklioglu, a former executive board member of the Justice and Development Party (AKP) under Erdogan’s premiership, and a columnist for the English-language Today’s Zaman, did not mince words when referring to Erdogan’s contradictory stance in this regard.

“[Erdogan] has again managed to make a full U-turn without any qualms or conflict with his inner self whatsoever,” Kiniklioglu wrote in his recent column under the telling headline “Shanghai out, NATO in.”

Kiniklioglu, who has since fallen out with the AKP, said, “Gone is the Erdogan who was pleading with Putin to take Turkey into the Shanghai Cooperation Organization. … We now have an Erdogan reminding Putin that NATO is behind Turkey."

He added, “Erdogan has conveniently remembered that Turkey's security is guaranteed by NATO." He reminded readers that Erdogan “loved to detest” NATO in the past.

In fact, Erdogan’s “detestation of NATO” has always been part and parcel of his Islamist outlook. Turkish Islamists, like their counterparts elsewhere, have a deep hatred for the Western alliance, which they see as a US-led anti-Islamic group of Christian nations that is also out to protect Israel’s interests.

Islamists have always been uncomfortable with Turkey’s NATO membership, and even staunch Erdogan supporters are ambivalent today about his latest remarks reflecting Turkey's dependence on the Western alliance’s security umbrella. This was also apparent in opinion pieces by Selahaddin Cakirgil, a columnist for the daily Star, a pro-AKP paper and staunch supporter of Erdogan. 

In two consecutive pieces on the topic, Cakirgil delved into history and argued that Ankara had forced itself on NATO out of necessity rather than choice after World War II because of the threat from Russia, which he claimed had “placed Turkey on America’s lap.”

Claiming that the NATO emblem represents a cross, Cakirgil maintained that a Christian defense coalition will never endanger itself for the sake of a Muslim country like Turkey. He also suggested that if NATO does act, it will not be to protect Turkey’s interests.

“Erdogan is saying that it’s not just Turkey’s borders that have been violated but NATO’s and that is correct. That’s what the NATO treaty says. But how will NATO’s defense mechanism operate in such cases? It’s not Turkey but NATO that will decide this, because NATO’s interests are arranged according to America’s interests,” Cakirgil argued, clearly eyeing the anti-American sentiments of Turkish Islamists.

Such commentaries aside, though, Turkey has little choice but to cling to its NATO membership, especially when it finds itself in a dispute with Russia. This point was also underlined by retired ambassador Unal Unsal, a former Turkish permanent representative to NATO.

“Turkey did what it had to do. The country that it is facing here is Russia, not just any country, and it has shown that it will not flinch in taking all the steps it deems to be necessary to protect its interests,” Unsal said.

Pointing to the situation in Syria since the Russian intervention, Unsal indicated that the potential for a military confrontation between Turkish and Russian forces is not something that can be overlooked.

“This confrontation could come about due to a mistake, for instance an incursion into Turkish airspace by a Russian jet or a misguided missile from such a jet that lands in Turkish territory,” Unsal said.

Asked to comment on Erdogan’s ambivalent NATO stance, Unsal characterized it as political opportunism for the sake of populist gains.

“At the time of the NATO operation in Libya, Erdogan came out saying, ‘What business does NATO have in Libya?’ He could afford to say this in that case, but clearly cannot do so in this case when Russia is involved," Unsal said.

The bottom line is that Turkey’s NATO membership is not something that Erdogan, or anyone in Ankara, can afford to forget given Turkey's volatile geographical position. That position will ensure that Turkey’s need for a multilateral defense arrangement will continue for the foreseeable future. At times like these, Erdogan’s empty rhetoric against NATO in the past is seen for what it is.

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Found in: vladimir putin, shanghai cooperation organization (sco), recep tayyip erdogan, nato, military intervention, defense, bashar al-assad, alliance

Semih Idiz is a columnist for Al-Monitor's Turkey Pulse. He is a journalist who has been covering diplomacy and foreign policy issues for major Turkish newspapers for 30 years. His opinion pieces can be followed in the English-language Hurriyet Daily News. His articles have also been published in The Financial Times, The Times of London, Mediterranean Quarterly and Foreign Policy magazine.

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