Turkey's Crisis with the West: How a New Low in Relations Risks Paralyzing NATO

NATO’s most important challenge today may not come from Russia, but from within. With the number of disputes between Turkey and several European allies yet again on the rise, the two parties’ souring relations have begun undermining the organization’s cohesion and ability to make timely collective decisions. If left unaddressed, these tensions could cause serious damage to the world’s most powerful alliance.

The latest flashpoint came from Turkey’s open backing of Azerbaijan’s war effort in the small landlocked enclave of Nagorno-Karabakh, which ended abruptly in early November thanks to a Russian-brokered deal. Reports of military assistance and alleged Syrian mercenaries sent by Turkey placed Ankara at loggerheads with its NATO allies’ calls for a peaceful, negotiated resolution to the conflict. The deal, which foresees Baku reacquiring sizeable portions of the disputed enclave, has made Turkey one of the obvious winners of the recent flare-up, while its Western allies remain on the sidelines. For some, this could be the straw that breaks the camel’s back, adding to a long list of complaints they have recently leveled against their NATO ally.

Last month, Greece and Turkey came dangerously close to a head-on naval confrontation in disputed Eastern Mediterranean waters over Turkey’s gas exploration activities near the Greek island of Kastellorizo, just a few hundred meters away from the Turkish coast. Though Turkey later withdrew its ship, tensions between the two NATO allies spiked again following Turkey’s announcement that it would send the ship back for a 10-day seismic research mission in the area, renewing Greek calls for sanctions. What makes this a particularly explosive situation, of course, is the two Eastern Mediterranean powers’ lingering dispute over the post-1974 division of Cyprus and the discovery of energy resources in the area.

A similar confrontational encounter occurred in June when France and Turkey nearly came to blows after a French warship, the Courbet, tried to inspect a Turkish vessel for allegedly breaching a UN arms embargo on Libya — a claim Ankara fiercely denies. Supporting different sides in the Libyan Civil War, the two allies have been engaged in a war of words over each other’s provocative deeds in the Libyan, Syrian and Nagorno-Karabakh conflicts, as well as over Turkey’s territorial claims in the Mediterranean. The latest spat followed President Emmanuel Macron’s defense of a cartoonist’s right to caricature religious figures in the wake of a teacher’s beheading, to which Turkish President responded by calling for a boycott of French products.

Within NATO, the escalation in tensions and growing entanglement of the two camps’ now numerous disputes reflects European allies’ mounting frustration over what they perceive as Turkey’s self-serving and aggressive regional posturing, and its unwillingness to consult allies before acting. A NATO member since 1952, Turkey has always occupied a somewhat unique role in the alliance. Its size, military resources, and key position at the doorstep of Asia — in other words, as NATO’s southern flank — give it important strategic relevance within the context of renewed interest in the Middle East. Though relations have often been fragile, especially since the 2016 coup attempt, the current rift marks a new low in the recent history of the alliance, with potentially damaging consequences. Given this backdrop, NATO should take advantage of its own resources to try to address its members’ deteriorating relations, and work to reconcile their diverging security interests. This is a lot easier said than done, but it may be the only option to prevent a more fundamental rupture in the relationship.

Divided We Stand

As tensions grow, a key risk for NATO relates to the crisis’ potential to hamper its cohesion and ability to act decisively, as the alliance relies on the principle of consensus to successfully operate. Every major NATO decision embodies the collective will of all allies and results, therefore, from a complex but fragile process of negotiation wherein nations are invited to compromise on matters of mutual interest. The inevitable drawback to this is that every ally possesses a de facto right to veto any NATO issue if its demands are not met, which they may be incentivized to use as leverage to pursue national interests. The same can be said of the European Union, which operates on unanimity and where Cyprus recently made headlines for blocking sanctions on Belarusian President Alexander Lukashenko’s regime, insisting on the imposition of E.U. measures on Turkey for its energy exploration in Mediterranean waters. The European Union was criticized for failing to agree on timely sanctions.

Unlike the European Union, NATO consultations are held behind closed doors, and disagreements largely avoid public scrutiny. In principle, however, any nation’s objections could stall key alliance policy or business. Last year, leaks revealed that Turkey had threatened on the eve of a NATO summit to block a key defense plan to protect the Baltic states and Poland against Russian aggression unless NATO backed its own recognition of the Kurdish People’s Protection Units militia as terrorists. Likewise, for years, Turkey had vetoed NATO cooperation with neutral Austria under its partnership program in response to Vienna’s calls for the European Union to halt membership talks with Ankara. Though in both cases deals were eventually reached to break the deadlock, and though such negotiation tactics are not uncommon, these incidents highlight a mounting climate of uncooperativeness and unwillingness to compromise between allies, making interaction increasingly difficult.

As Ankara grows more defiant, NATO members are indeed finding it difficult to reign in their southeastern ally. With the 2011 Arab Spring and its aftermath, the rapid deterioration of Turkey’s regional and domestic security environments has coincided with a growing perception that its Western allies are not giving enough credence to its core security interests. The stalled European Union membership project, together with America’s disengagement from the Middle East, support for the Kurdish YPG militia, and persistent refusal to extradite cleric Fethullah Gülen, the presumed mastermind of the failed 2016 coup attempt, have all contributed to strengthening the conviction that Turkish security interests are likely best served through autonomous action — and not by relying on a suspicious and divided West. This impression is reinforced by Europe’s vocal criticism of Erdogan’s concentration of executive power, and by the country’s worsening economic and social woes.

Overall, these factors have eroded NATO’s credibility and influence over Ankara, just as the latter has become more conscious of its own considerable leverage over Europe due to its key role in Syria, which NATO sees as the defense of its southern frontier, and in easing the pressure to accommodate large arrivals of refugees on European shores. The former is linked to Turkey’s vetoing of NATO’s defense plan for Poland and the Baltics, which aimed at compelling NATO to provide greater support in Turkey’s defense of the alliance’s southern flank — something Ankara has demanded for years. Likewise, Turkey’s handling of its four million-strong refugee population, the largest in the world, has contributed to Ankara’s influence over Brussels through its instrumentalization of fears that it would “open the gates” to Europe for migrants and refugees, which Erdogan announced earlier this year in violation of a 2016 E.U.-Turkey agreement. Given its shrewd sense that the tables have turned, Ankara has lost many incentives to cooperate. Of course, one key risk is that Turkey’s bold strategy backfires and leads to a fresh round of retaliatory measures such as collective sanctions or cutbacks in E.U. funds, with damaging effects on Turkey’s weakening economy.

For NATO, another conceivable consequence lays in the reinforcement of calls for greater European “strategic autonomy” in the realms of defense and security, with potentially harmful repercussions on the future of the transatlantic community. Against a backdrop of deteriorating Euro-Atlantic relations, several leaders have begun to publicly question the relevance and effectiveness of NATO as an organization. A staunch advocate of the “strategic autonomy” concept, Macron reacted to the clash with Turkey over the arms embargo on Libya by reiterating his assertion that NATO was “brain dead” for being unable to temper Turkish adventurism. In a recent interview, Armenian President Armen Sarkissian echoed these remarks by putting at stake NATO’s credibility over the organization’s seeming inability to influence its member’s involvement in the Caucasus. Were NATO to become increasingly paralyzed by souring internal relations, doubts about the effectiveness and reliability of the organization could further incentivize E.U. countries into acting beyond the NATO framework. Regrettably, this could result in accelerating E.U. states’ ostracizing of Ankara, while persuading some allies into seeking additional bilateral arrangements as more reliable forms of security guarantees.

E.U.-Turkey tensions have also brought to the fore Ankara’s ambiguous ties to Moscow. Though relations hit rock bottom over the downing of a Russian Su-24M fighter jet in 2015, the two countries have since rebuilt extensive political and economic ties, culminating with high-profile endeavors such as the TurkStream pipeline and Ankara’s 2017 purchase of a Russian S-400 surface-to-air missile defense system. The moves drew stern condemnation from Washington and other NATO allies, with some going as far as to label them as signs of a Turkish pivot to the East. What made this rapprochement all the more alarming were the two countries’ ostensible affinities over their highly centralized, authoritarian-leaning political systems, which run counter to the core values of the alliance. The main fear is that these newfound affinities introduce vulnerabilities within the alliance through bilateral ties that Moscow can exploit to drive Turkey further away from the West, and sow division to weaken NATO’s ability to act.

Ultimately, however, fears of a Turkish realignment with Russia are likely overblown. Moscow and Ankara’s relations have historically been fraught, and the recent rapprochement stems more from opportunism and coinciding interests than a major reorientation in Turkish foreign policy at the expense of its traditional alliances. In fact, Turkey’s forceful posturing is making it steadily more at odds with Russia in conflict environments where both operate, including Nagorno-Karabakh, Syria, and Libya. Its growing involvement in the Caucasus, for instance, has brought it dangerously close to armed confrontation with NATO’s primary contestant, Russia, which supports Armenia under the Collective Security Treaty Organization framework. This was highlighted by Russian President Vladimir Putin’s underscoring of Russia’s “obligations to Armenia”. Though the violence ended there, Turkey’s proxy saber-rattling contributes to increase risks of accident or miscalculation leading to armed confrontation with Russia — something all parties are eager to avoid. With antagonistic security interests at stake, Turkey and Russia are ultimately more likely to balance against rather than align with each other, though several NATO allies continue to regard Ankara’s ties to Moscow with a deep-seated sense of suspicion.

A Constructive Role for NATO

As Turkey and the European Union ramp up their rhetorical joust, it is perhaps no surprise that NATO is better placed to act as a forum for the de-escalation of the crisis. It is indeed Turkey’s membership to NATO, and the daily staff-to-staff contacts which it generates, that makes the alliance able to work as a platform where their diplomats can negotiate, exchange information, and address issues of common strategic interest with European counterparts, thus helping to undermine the “us-versus-them” mentality which at times prevails across E.U. institutions. As the latter hardens its rhetoric, NATO can generate the much-needed safety valve where diplomatic efforts have a chance of succeeding.

To this end, the alliance should capitalize on the consultative function of its institutions to allow for parties to sit together, express their views and concerns on national and collective security considerations, and improve mechanisms to reach a consensus on the means to address any perceived challenges. Consultations have indeed always been at the core of the alliance, and remain important vectors for addressing intermember disagreements. The recent announcement by NATO Secretary General Jens Stoltenberg that a military de-confliction mechanism would be established between Greece and Turkey is but one example of the productive results that such diplomatic efforts can yield, and an encouraging sign that the two sides are not willing to see their relations deteriorate further. Yet a limited arrangement between Greece and Turkey is also unlikely to address the deep-seated causes of the political turmoil between Ankara and European allies, and NATO should find new and improved ways to act as a forum to discuss, and to act, where necessary, on issues affecting the security interests of its member states. This is key if the organization wants to remain flexible and relevant in the increasingly contested and fast-paced security environment of today.

Moreover, notwithstanding the key importance of consultations, NATO should find ways to turn talk into action. The alliance should move beyond hollow statements of assistance or condemnation, and consider how to more proactively engage with crises occurring on its periphery. This would help assuage the growing concerns of Turkey and others that it fails to do enough to defend its members’ interests, while reaffirming the important strategic benefits that membership to the organization — “the most successful alliance in history” — can yield. Of course, this would require allies to reconcile their sometimes conflicting security interests and agree to a unified stance on Libya, Syria, the Caucasus, and elsewhere, something which at present seems perhaps unlikely.

Were relations between Turkey and the West to collapse, NATO allies could ultimately consider calling for extraordinary consultations under Article 4 of the Washington Treaty. While the latter has traditionally been linked to more conventional threat perceptions under collective defense commitments, Article 4 could formally bring the ongoing E.U.-Turkey crisis to the attention of the North Atlantic Council, given its potential to threaten the solidarity, cohesion, and effectiveness of the alliance as a whole. Turkey, in fact, has a long record of demands for Article 4 consultations over fears of spillover from Syria, which have led to some demonstrations of NATO support. Though this would be a move of great political significance, its symbolic value would undoubtedly serve as a powerful catalyst for allies to sort out their disagreements, while sending a clear ultimatum for more recalcitrant nations to change path. Ultimately, both parties should appreciate that neither benefits from a total breakdown in relations.

At present, for diplomatic efforts to succeed, the two sides should recognize that engaging in bombastic statements and provocative measures, including sanctions, would only serve to further polarize both camps and reinforce Turkey’s conviction that its European allies are teaming up against it. One consequence from this would be the confirmation and reinforcement of Ankara’s self-perception of being under siege, with more reasons to seek partners to the East or undermine NATO from within. E.U. countries, instead, should signal their willingness to compromise and give Ankara a sense that its grievances and security interests are heard. Of course, concessions need to go both ways, and Turkey should be willing to sacrifice some of its own foreign policy objectives to improve relations, including its support for foreign proxies and other actions that bring NATO closer to confrontation with Russia. Most importantly, Turkey should avoid putting fuel on the fire in Eastern Mediterranean waters by keeping its research vessel, the Oruç Reis, ashore. This is one of the easiest compromises Ankara can make. Part of E.U. states’ grievances is also the conviction that Turkey should do more to consult allies and show transparency in the expression of its foreign policy goals and intentions, instead of resorting to unilateral action.

Looking Ahead

Two additional factors will play a decisive role in this process. One will be NATO’s and the European Union’s ability to coordinate their respective strategies. In this area, greater convergence is warranted, for the provocative measures of one would only serve to undermine the other’s efforts toward conciliation. The upcoming European Council meeting in December 2020, which will address the bloc’s external relations with Turkey, will be a litmus test of how the European Union wishes to handle the question and an indication of whether its members can agree to a unified stance, especially on sanctions. This gives Turkey limited time to prove it is both willing and able to compromise.

Finally, when Greece and Turkey were on the cusp of war over Cyprus in 1974, a decisive factor that prevented hostilities from occurring was the ability of the United States to lean in and force the contenders into making concessions to avoid direct confrontation. While the United States of President has remained largely silent over the ongoing crisis, Washington’s willingness to leverage its influence on both sides can be an important factor, as before, in ensuring their growing rift does not cause irreparable damage to NATO. Trump’s seemingly durable personal rapport and populist affinities with Erdogan has made this unlikely, but a new U.S. administration under Joe Biden will likely allow for a more proactive approach in rebuilding the strained relationships between the members of the alliance under renewed U.S. global leadership, and a tougher stance on Turkey.

Antoine Got is a civilian staff officer at NATO’s Supreme Headquarters Allied Powers Europe and former staff member at the International Crisis Group. The views presented here are his own. Follow him on Twitter @AntoineGot1.

Image: U.S. Navy (Photo by Mass Communication Spc. 3rd Class Robert S. Price)

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