Turkey Pulse

London summit exposes Turkey’s isolation, lack of clout in NATO

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Article Summary
Seasoned diplomats say despite Ankara’s tarnished image in the alliance, Turkey has confirmed its Western orientation.

The results for Ankara from NATO's recent London summit continue to reverberate in Turkey.

The opposition believes the summit produced one of the greatest diplomatic fiascoes for President Recep Tayyip Erdogan’s ruling Justice and Development Party (AKP).

Opinion among supporters of the government is also divided when it comes to Turkey's participation in NATO. Burhanettin Duran of the government-sponsored SETA think tank wrote in Daily Sabah, “The London summit demonstrated yet again the crucial nature of Turkey's place in the NATO alliance and gave Ankara a new opportunity to convey its key messages to the group.”

Ibrahim Karagul, the firebrand editor-in-chief of the pro-government Yeni Safak, heads the group that takes the opposing view. Karagul is among those who believe that NATO poses the greatest threat to Turkey and argued that Ankara got no support in London from its allies against Kurdish terrorism.

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Seasoned diplomats are unclear as to why Turkey brought up threats it could not carry out in London in an effort to get what it wanted regarding the People's Protection Units (YPG) in Syria.

Ankara sees the YPG as a Kurdish terrorist group that poses an existential threat to Turkey’s security.

Turkey launched Operation Peace Spring against the group in northeastern Syria in October despite objections from its NATO allies, who have been working with the YPG against the Islamic State.

These diplomats, nevertheless, stress that Turkey realigned itself with NATO’s core targets in London, and say this is a positive sign of Ankara’s desire to remain in the Western fold.

They also note that despite being angry with Ankara over a host of issues, NATO members also confirmed the importance of keeping Turkey in the alliance.

Ankara’s purchase of the Russian-made S-400 air defense system and its military incursion into northern Syria against the YPG have been the source of tensions between Turkey and some key NATO members, most notably the United States and France.

Erdogan’s pervasive anti-Western rhetoric and efforts to deepen military ties with Russia have left many believing that he is ultimately seeking to steer Turkey out of NATO.

Erdogan even suggested in the past that if Turkey were to join the Russian- and Chinese-led Shanghai Cooperation Organization that this would “ease its hand,” given Turkey’s difficulties with the West. 

Ankara poured more fuel on existing tensions with the West in the lead-up to the London summit by threatening to block NATO’s plan to bolster the defense of the Baltic countries and Poland against Russia.

Turkey said it would demand that NATO list the YPG as a terrorist group before lifting its veto. The scene in London appeared set for a confrontation between Ankara and its allies over the YPG question.

That, however, did not happen after Turkey backed down from its veto threat. NATO Secretary-General Jens Stoltenberg told reporters later that the YPG issue had not even been discussed. 

Analysts said Ankara tried to underscore just how serious it was over the YPG matter with its threat to veto NATO’s Baltic defense plans. Turkey's allies, however, called its bluff, the analysts said, leaving Ankara with no choice but to revoke its threat.

Some analysts argued that Ankara’s threat backfired and effectively “codified” the fact that NATO will not label the YPG as a terrorist group.

US Defense Secretary Mark Esper had already indicated before the London summit that “not everybody sees the threats that [Turkey] sees” and underlined that he would not support labeling the YPG as a terrorist group.

Turkish Defense Minister Hulusi Akar highlighted the isolation Turkey found itself in among its NATO allies in London. Addressing a public event in Ankara on Dec. 6, Akar said Turkey’s priority as a NATO member of nearly 70 years was to act to together with its allies and stamp out terrorism.

“Unfortunately, Turkey was ultimately left on its own in its fight against terrorism even though agreement was secured on many topics [in London].” Akar said.

It was not clear why Turkey dropped its veto threat after having raised the ante as it did.

Talking to reporters in London following the summit, Erdogan merely indicated that Stoltenberg, French President Emmanuel Macron, German Chancellor Angela Merkel and Polish President Andrzej Duda had called him to seek Turkey’s support for the alliance’s plan for the Baltics.

“I discussed this matter with my friends and we decided to say yes to it,” Erdogan said, adding that he had asked in return that Ankara’s allies not leave Turkey alone in its fight against terrorism. 

This superficial explanation is unlikely to have mollified his Islamist support base at home, which expected him to carry out the veto threat to demonstrate Turkey’s clout in the alliance.

Former Turkish Ambassador to NATO Ahmet Uzumcu believes Ankara dropped its threat because carrying it out would have been counterproductive. “NATO does not have a list of terrorist organizations, so it was not possible to have the YPG listed as such,” Uzumcu told Al-Monitor. “Confrontational positions which say ‘I will do this if you don’t do that’ are not moves that are in line with NATO practices,” Uzumcu said.

“This approach is something that was developed under this administration and it is not clear what the aim is,” he added. “The document regarding NATO’s Baltic plans is a routine one so it was wrong to use this as an opportunity to gain something,” Uzumcu said.

Retired Ambassador Suha Umar, who represented Turkey before NATO, recalled that it was the threat that Turkey perceived from the Soviet Union at the time that made it seek membership in the alliance. “This threat has not changed. The Russian quest for expansion to the warm waters of the Mediterranean remains the same,” Umar told Al-Monitor.

Article 3 of the London Declaration that was adopted at the London summit, and which Turkey also endorsed without reservations, also declares that “Russia’s aggressive actions constitute a threat to Euro-Atlantic security.”

Umar added that combining NATO’s Baltic plan with the YPG issue amounted to “mixing apples and oranges.”

He added that Ankara’s relatively soft approach in the past to radical Islamist groups in Syria such as Jabhat al-Nusra had also weakened Turkey’s hand on the YPG issue.

While in London, Macron also threw Turkey’s “working with terrorists” accusation leveled at the United States and the French back at Ankara. "When I look at Turkey, they are fighting against those who fought with us shoulder to shoulder against [the Islamic State] and sometimes they work with [Islamic State] proxies," he added.

The London summit turned out in the end to be a source of political embarrassment for Erdogan and his government domestically.

Aware of this, Foreign Minister Mevlut Cavusoglu is arguing that the game is not over by far. He said Turkey is still poised to prevent the final publication of NATO’s Baltic defense plan until the alliance agrees to list the YPG as a terrorist organization.

“It is out of the question for there to be a compromise here,” Cavusoglu told reporters in Rome after the London summit. 

Whatever intricacies regarding the inner workings of NATO that Cavusoglu may be pointing to here, it is not clear to the public what his statement means in view of what transpired in London.

Erdogan’s government is now caught in the uneasy position of having to convince its support base that Turkey has clout in NATO with regard to its demands, while having to cope with the realities that govern its alliance membership, which clearly forced him to climb down in London.

In the meantime, we can also expect more tensions between Ankara and its NATO allies because the issues that have caused strains in the first place — most notably the YPG issue, Turkey’s incursion into northern Syria, and the S-400 question — remain unresolved.

Still, Umar said he believes the final outcome of the London summit was good for Turkey, whose orientation has been and should remain acting with the West.

“This result prevented a further erosion of this undertaking even if ill-considered moves by the government harmed our image in NATO,” Umar said.

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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 articles have been published in The Financial Times, The Times of London, Mediterranean Quarterly and Foreign Policy magazine.

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