In 1945, having survived the war without having to fight and avoiding invasion by the German army Turkey found itself pretty lonely after D-Day. The Soviet Union asked for two Turkish provinces and joint control over the straits. AT that 1945 moment, alone in standing against the Soviet threat for nearly a year and a half Ankara made the strategic decision to become an integral part of the American side of the Cold War division. Truman doctrine was announced to protect Greece and Turkey and eventually these two countries joined NATO together in 1952.
Today Turkey may be facing another “1945 moment”. It is geopolitically stronger, capable of projecting military power in its neighborhood as was demonstrated in the Caucasus most recently but also very lonely. Her relations with allies are conflictual, there is in both the Middle East and Eastern Mediterranean a bloc of countries that treat her as a rival. 2021 is likely to be a year when consequential decisions will have to be made on Turkey’s strategic identity. How much autonomy can Turkish foreign policy afford to enjoy while remaining either in the Atlantic Alliance or in getting closer with the Russian Federation? The latter option cannot be deemed a realistic alternative for protecting the national interest and yet Turkey’s rulers did engage in policies that reason did not recommend such as purchasing the S-400 missile system.
Ankara’s relations with the Western partners are currently very troubled. Mutual mistrust is abundant both with the United States and the European Union. Turkey’s quest to become a member of the European Union is in deep coma, if not altogether impossible to save. In the most recent Presidency conclusions Turkey was not mentioned as an accession country and there was no mentioning of the human rights conditions domestically, the deteriorating rule of law and the state of the Turkish democracy.
The tensions and recriminations during the summer of 2020 between Ankara and Paris and the potentially explosive escalation of tensions between Ankara and Athens, along with the shock effect in certain European capitals, notably Paris, of Turkey’s successful intervention in Libya added yet another dimension to the long list of problems between the two sides. Turkey’s assertiveness and military moves in Syria or most recently in aiding Azerbaijan to recapture its occupied territories, its close relations with Islamic militant groups in Syria and the latter’s use in Turkey’s military operations engender a harsh, if not always consistently rational or justifiable, reaction from some allies.
Under these circumstances, influential individuals in both the USA and Europe frequently question Turkey’s NATO membership and criticize Ankara for behavior unbecoming of an ally and for being a disruptor of Alliance cohesion. Obviously, Turkey’s close relations with Russia, despite the fact that the two countries fall on the opposite side of every conflict they are engaged in, emerges as a matter of concern.
The purchase of the S-400 missile system from Russia was arguably a decision that is not consistent with Turkey’s security needs. Their procurement immediately led to Turkey’s expulsion from the F-35 programme and to the cancellation of Turkey’s orders of that aircraft that were designed to be the mainstay of Turkey’s strategic doctrine and air defense in the coming era. The decision left Turkey vulnerable, isolated it within NATO despite the fact that Turkey has been pretty active in the organization and drew the wrath of the US Congress.
Congress insisted on the implementation of the CAATSA legislation that President Trump did not enforce until very recently and a treaty ally of the United States has been sanctioned for the first time in the history of the Atlantic Alliance. The European Union in the latest European Council conclusions effectively indexed its own approach to Turkey and whether or not it will implement hard sanctions against Ankara will depend on the approach and policy choices of the incoming Biden administration in this matter.
In turn, Turkey mistrusts its allies, is defiant about her increasingly militarized foreign policy choices and is intent on pursuing her national interest as she sees fit in all the regions that surround it. In the increasingly personalized system of decision making in foreign policy Turkey’s commitment to the common interests of the Western alliance looks at best shaky.
The ideological pedigree of Turkey’s President and his party inserted the dimension of the leadership of the Sunni Muslim World in the analysis and strategic calculations of the policy makers. Secular and Islamically oriented segments of the public alike are suspicious of the intentions of the West despite the fact that nearly half of the same public wishes Turkey to become a member of the EU according to a recent poll conducted by the German Marshall Fund and Istanbul Bilgi University Migration Center. Another poll conducted by Kadir Has University on the foreign policy preferences of the Turkish public shows that the United States is viewed inimically but membership in NATO is still valued.
A regional power that is isolated and does not like strategic vacuums
The strategic ambitions of Turkey were not just the brainchild of the AKP governments either. Different schools of thought since the end of the Cold War pushed for a more expansive view of Turkey’s strategic interests. At the turn of the century the ascending view of Turkey’s national interest, despite a deep sovereigntist streak in strategic thought, was membership in the EU. That the European Union dropped the ball on Turkey first by admitting Cyprus as a member and then following the will of the German Chancellor and French President not to make Turkey a member contributed to the estrangement of Ankara.
Later on, as the financial and economic crisis of the EU diminished its lure economically and the Arab revolts presented an ideologically defined geopolitical opening for Ankara and because the taming of the military and the secular elites were almost concluded by 2011 Turkey assumed a more assertive regional power posture. It pursued this through the deployment of its soft power at the beginning and then as the Syrian condition deteriorated and began to present a major national security problem there was a swift turn to hard power. The dramatic decision by President Obama not to punish the Syrian regime in August of 2013 after it used chemical weapons confirmed in the minds of the Turkish security elites that it could not count on Washington. In fact, the latter further alienated Ankara as it forged an alliance with the Kurdish PYD/YPG, the Syrian branch of Turkey’s nemesis PKK.
But arguably, the most critical turning point was the response of Turkey’s Western allies on the night of the botched coup attempt of July 15, 2016. Whatever the full story of that traumatic event was, the allies’ reaction was inadequate, unworthy of democratic solidarity and embittered both the public and the government that then used the occasion to undermine democratic rules and institutions in the country. This was the moment that led Turkey to align itself with its historical and current adversary Russia and punctuated the beginning of their interesting pas de deux since then.
Today, the more Islamically oriented strategic vision of AKP and the more nationalistic and decidedly anti-Western strategic visions of different circles appear to have merged in supporting a set of policies that favor power projection, military bases, maritime rights and a wide autonomous space in pursuit of Turkey’s interests. A doctrine developed by secular nationalist officers, “The Blue Homeland” tails Erdoğans’ policies in Eastern Mediterranean and Libya.
For Erdogan there is also another component that relates to the geopolitical cum ideological rivalry with the Gulf countries and their ally Egypt for leadership of the Sunni Muslim world. To that end the campaign to build mosques throughout the world, giving protection to Muslim Brotherhood and championing the cause of Muslims everywhere continues unabated unless that campaign should disrupt economic or geopolitical interests as has been made clear by Turkey’s deafening silence when it comes to the abysmal treatment of the Uighur Turks in China.
In almost all of these issues the Turkish move was a response to a strategic void or vacuum. The retrenchment of American power and its neglect of Turkish concerns led to the interventions in Syria. In Eastern Mediterranean, although Turkey’s isolation was its own doing, Turkey reacted to the moves of an adversarial bloc of countries by defiant military moves, heightened rhetoric but at the same time with an invitation to put all the interrelated matters (East Med energy; Aegean issues with Greece; Cyprus; Libya) on the table for a grand diplomatic bargain to solve them all together. It intervened militarily in Libya with which it signed a military cooperation agreement when no other country would come to the help of the internationally recognized government in Tripoli that was being attacked by rebel forces supported by UAE, Egypt, irregular Russian forces and France.
In the Caucasus it helped Azerbaijan break the gridlock in the “frozen conflict” of Karabagh exposing the lethargy if not outright complacency of the Minsk group whose members included the USA and France alongside Russia. On the tug of war with Greece during the dangerously tense summer of 2020, Ankara believed that the EU could not be an honest broker, that it could not control Greece’s behavior. In turn, the EU saw Turkey as the aggressor and in the case of Germany as a country that broke its promise when Turkey sent its exploratory ship Oruç Reis back to the Mediterranean with a new Navtex after Berlin brokered an agreement and NATO was intervening in the dispute.
Which direction hence?
At the 19th Doha Forum last December Turkey’s Minister of Defense Hulusi Akar answered a question about Turkey’s relation with NATO thus: “We are at the center of NATO. We are not going anywhere, we are in NATO”. Despite the purchase of S-400’s, intimate strategic relations with Russia, deep-seated resentment towards the allies for their lack of solidarity with the elected government during the botched coup attempt and frequent pronouncements by many pundits that Turkey does not belong in NATO Turkey is in the organization. Ankara relies on it, albeit with a demand for a high degree of autonomy for its security and participates in its exercises even in regions that were not traditionally in Turkey’s theater of interest. The limits of the affection for Russia was demonstrated when two US B-1 Lancer aircraft were refueled in Turkish airspace over the Black Sea. Given the fact that since the end of the Cold War Turkey along with Russia tried to keep the Black Sea off limits to the US and to NATO this was pretty significant.
Furthermore, as Connor Dilleen argues, “Ankara probably presents more significant strategic challenges for Moscow than for the West… it is also pursuing a deliberate and nuanced strategy of engagement with countries across the Black Sea littoral region, the Caucasus and Central Asia….(With Ukraine) a mid-October presidential summit between the two countries advanced a defence cooperation partnership, bringing about a ‘new geopolitical reality in the Black Sea region’. The cooperation agreement signed by Ankara and Kyiv encompasses advanced defence industrial collaboration on aerospace engines and unmanned aerial systems, including the co-production of an unmanned fighter jet.”
In my judgment the ability of Turkey to play both sides of the strategic divide, project power in an uninhibited way and count on the passivity of her allies or their reluctance to exert too much pressure will be far more restricted. The incoming Biden administration’s intention to repair transatlantic ties, restore NATO cohesion and promote democratic governance and the unity of the EU will touch Turkey directly. To the extent that Washington will take a firmer stance on Turkey’s transgressions on certain matters the EU will be emboldened to take stricter measures against Turkey within limits given the sensitivity of the refugee problem.
The Trump administration, or more correctly the outgoing secretary of state Mike Pompeo, spent the last few months verbally and symbolically taking offensive positions against Turkey and picked up a fight with his Turkish counterpart during the latest NATO foreign ministers meeting. It was Pompeo’s State Department that announced the CAATSA sanctions as well. A big thorn in the relations between the USA and Turkey that the sanctions and their cause the S400’s represent are therefore left behind. The Biden administration will be able to make a fresh beginning. Ankara will be expected to make some conciliatory gestures. On the other hand, the resolution of the problems in Eastern Mediterranean would necessitate American mediation and even brokering. Whether the Biden administration will have the time or the inclination to so engage remains to be seen.
But this would be the precondition of improving relations between Turkey and her allies. The next step that is needed is for the EU and Turkey to find a more appropriate language to conduct their relations, for Turkey to stop using the refugee issue as a trump card and for the EU in general to start treating Ankara as an equal interlocutor even if it will not treat Turkey as a potential member.
If the Biden administration manages to tame Congress’ fury and find a number of common interests to pursue together with Turkey then the choice of an economically embattled, strategically lonely Turkey would be in favor of its existing alliance relations, albeit with a demand for a wider margin for autonomy. It should be remembered that the strategic decision of 1945 also ushered in a multiparty system in Turkey and opened the path to democratic elections and rule, however intermittently. This year’s decision may also have a similar meaning if the Western world could recommit itself to unequivocally defending its values and principles in a different and more complicated era.
Finally, how the Russians will react to Turkey’s latest pivot and whether or not they have the wherewithal to prevail over President Erdoğan as he walks a fine line between Turkey’s allies and her northern neighbor will be interesting to observe. That Turkey does not really have to gain much from a closer alliance with Russia and that in fact such a closeness would be detrimental to its vital interests is a foregone conclusion for many among Turkey’s serious and substantive strategic thinkers. If Turkey’s current rulers for either ideological blindness or imprudent ambitions, fail to come to a similar conclusion they are liable to create a dependency for the country that would be most regrettable.
What this means is that the Western allies will also have to be tested. Their task is to decide on how important a country Turkey is in the looming strategic contest and how far they are willing to go both to keep her by their side and incite her to move away from its authoritarian trajectory. Only if they are willing to make the requisite commitment and lure Turkey back to the fold can they avoid and overcome the vengeful and plotting President Putin’s assault on the Western alliance.