Security in the Eastern Mediterranean after the Coup Attempt: Turkey’s Reckoning and Washington’s Worries

The July 15 coup attempt in Turkey has plunged Ankara into political chaos and further complicated for the United States and its partners an already intractable situation in the broader eastern Mediterranean. As leaders from the global counter-ISIL coalition meet Thursday in Washington to try to chart a clear way forward, the crisis in Turkey will be foremost on many of their minds. At stake is the direction of Turkey, a NATO ally and crucial partner in the world’s most volatile region. President Recep Tayyip Erdogan’s fraught relationship with the Turkish military is under enormous strain as nearly one-third of all senior officers have either been detained or arrested. This will affect Ankara’s ability to defend itself, as well as to contribute to shared security goals with Washington. Erdogan has cast his dragnet beyond those military officers implicated in the plot, detaining thousands of judges and suspending tens of thousands of education officials on suspicion that they may sympathize with exiled Erdogan opponent Fethullah Gulen, whom Turkey accuses of inspiring the coup attempt.

Erdogan’s July 20 declaration of a three-month state of emergency (which could potentially be extended) will allow the government to rule by decree and will stoke concerns among Turkey’s allies. If Washington policymakers were vexed before the coup by how to address Turkey’s democratic backsliding without upsetting cooperation on so many other issues in which Turkey’s support is crucial, including stemming migration and foreign fighter flows and countering the rise of ISIL, then they will surely be stretched further in the days and weeks to come. Indeed, within the first 24 hours, U.S. and NATO statements condemning the coup also included clear warnings to Turkey to abide by the rule of law and constitutional process in dealing with the conspirators. Secretary of State John Kerry has even raised the possibility of consequences for Turkey’s NATO membership, though those remarks were later downplayed at least in part because NATO has no mechanism to penalize a member for actions counter to alliance values.

Why Turkey Matters to Washington

The United States maintains a robust bilateral defense relationship with Turkey. Despite frequent disagreements and misunderstandings, it is nonetheless critical to the security of both countries. A key irritant remains their differing views on Syria, especially U.S. cooperation with the Syrian Kurds fighting ISIL. Turkey maintains there is no real distinction between the Syrian Democratic Union Party (PYD/YPG) and the outlawed Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK) with which Ankara has and is actively fighting against once again.

The United States benefits from its military presence at Incirlik Air Base located in Turkey’s strategic south, which may include U.S. tactical nuclear weapons. Following extensive negotiations, Turkey agreed to allow U.S. aircraft to fly from Incirlik as part of the counter-ISIL mission. Turkey had sought but failed to get Washington’s agreement on establishing a safe zone along its border with Syria in exchange for use of the base. U.S. flights out of Incirlik have already been disrupted by the chaos and could cease altogether should Erdogan unwisely link continued American use of the base to U.S. extradition of Fethullah Gulen. Should the United States lose its use of Incirlik, the impact would likely be more political than operational. The counter-ISIL mission would continue from bases in Jordan and/or naval assets in the Mediterranean. (Any nuclear weapons would of course remain in U.S. custody.) The U.S. relationship with Turkey, however, would take a big hit.

The broader defense relationship with Turkey likewise is important. From 2011 to 2015, Turkey was the third-largest purchaser of U.S. arms, behind Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates (UAE), accounting for 6.6 percent of total U.S. arms exports globally. U.S. arms sales represent 63 percent of Turkish arms purchases. Because the coup attempt failed, the U.S. statutory requirement to cease all assistance to militaries involved in coups will not impact arms sales already in the pipeline to Turkey, including Chinook helicopters valued at $1.2 billion, Joint Direct Attack Munitions (JDAMs) worth $70 million, and several other weapon systems. Notably, Turkey plans to purchase approximately 100 F-35A Joint Strike Fighters worth approximately $16 billion. President Erdogan’s postcoup crackdown runs the risk of reducing congressional willingness to approve arms sales packages in the future. Several key members were unhappy with Erdogan even before recent incidents. In 2014, Senate Armed Services Committee chairman John McCain called Erdogan a “real Islamist, and worse than that, a pretty oppressive dictator.” Congress’s resistance to arms exports to Turkey can only be expected to increase. This could make getting major sales packages through the Hill more challenging for the foreseeable future.

Ankara’s Importance to NATO

Turkey is militarily, geographically, and politically important to NATO as the alliance’s southern border and as a bridge between the Middle East and Europe. It joined the alliance in 1952, alongside Greece, in NATO’s first round of enlargement. Turkey is a capable ally and has always played a large part in NATO, not least as host to the Allied Land Command in Izmir and to an early-warning X-band radar that is an essential part of NATO’s missile defense architecture. Turkey makes significant contributions to NATO operations, though they are modest relative to the size of its armed forces. It has over 500 troops in Afghanistan as part of NATO’s 13,000-strong training and assistance mission and about 400 troops in Kosovo as part of the Kosovo Force (KFOR) operation that numbers 4,500 soldiers. Turkey contributes to NATO’s maritime presence in the Mediterranean, both in the Aegean effort to stop human smuggling and in NATO’s Operation Active Endeavor patrol mission. Turkey has also made an effort to participate in EU operations, including Operation Althea in Bosnia-Herzegovina.

Turkey represents the second-largest military in NATO after the United States with an estimated force size of 411,000. It is the seventh-largest defense spender, both nominally (an estimated $11.5 billion in 2016) and as a percentage of GDP (1.5 percent). It is one of 10 allies to meet NATO’s target of spending 20 percent of defense resources on procurement and research and development (R&D). Within the alliance, Turkey oscillates between joiner and spoiler; its relationship with Greece and the Cyprus issue have been long-running impediments to full NATO-EU cooperation. In a turn heralded as a breakthrough in NATO circles, Turkey ended its multiyear hold on the establishment of an Israeli partner mission at NATO headquarters in Brussels following its rapprochement with Israel. Turkey is also expected to play a role in implementing the decision at NATO’s Warsaw Summit for alliance Airborne Warning and Control System (AWACS) aircraft to participate directly in the counter-ISIL campaign.

Unfortunately, the positive feelings generated from these recent decisions did not last long. With the events of the past few days, Secretary General Jens Stoltenberg of NATO felt compelled to remind Turkey that as a NATO ally it is expected “to ensure full respect for democracy and its institutions, the constitutional order, the rule of law and fundamental freedoms.” This chiding—in addition to similar ones coming out of European capitals and the United States—is sure to rile Erdogan, who, for his part, has expressed frustration at what he perceives as European ambivalence toward the very real challenges on Turkey’s southern border (despite NATO deploying Patriot and Surface-to-Air Missile Platform/Terrain [SAMP/T] batteries since 2013 to augment Turkey’s air defenses). Tensions with Germany were already on the rise before the coup attempt, after Ankara refused to allow German parliamentarians to visit their troops based at Incirlik as part of the counter-ISIL mission. This was in apparent retaliation for the Bundestag’s June 2 resolution characterizing Turkey’s World War I–era repression of Armenians as genocide.

How Erdogan responds to the attempted coup may impact more broadly NATO’s willingness to answer Turkish calls for assistance going forward. In fact, Secretary of State Kerry suggested on July 18 that the United States was ready to consider consequences, including in relation to Turkey’s NATO membership: “Obviously, NATO also has a requirement with respect to democracy, and NATO will indeed measure very carefully what is happening.” The State Department clarified Secretary Kerry’s remarks later that day, stating that there were no direct implications for Turkey’s NATO membership. Despite the partial retraction, the U.S. concern was clear.

As a practical matter, can a member of NATO be punished for democratic backsliding? The preamble to the North Atlantic Treaty underscores that NATO is an alliance of democracies: “They are determined to safeguard the freedom, common heritage and civilization of their peoples, founded on the principles of democracy, individual liberty and the rule of law.” But there is no provision in the treaty for restricting an ally’s privileges or ejecting it from NATO. The only path out of the alliance is voluntary: a NATO member may withdraw from the alliance in accordance with Article 13 by giving notice of intent, which takes effect after one year. No ally has ever availed itself of the withdrawal option, and Turkey, confronting the consequences of the Syrian civil war and broader instability in the Middle East and a resurgent Russia to its north, has shown no desire to sacrifice the privileges of alliance membership. The United States and its allies may put pressure on Turkey inside NATO for democratic backsliding, but the mechanisms remain informal and largely political. During the Cold War, NATO had to muddle through more serious setbacks to democracy, such as coups in Greece and Turkey and dictatorship in Portugal.

As President Erdogan and Turkish authorities employ their state-of-emergency powers, Washington and NATO will need to continue to advocate clearly for restraint and a commitment to the democratic principles upon with NATO was founded. Whether these warnings will be heard in Ankara and understood as valuable advice from committed allies, or rejected as an unaffordable constraint on state authority in a time of crisis, will shape the future relationship in which both sides have so much at stake.

Jeffrey Rathke is a senior fellow and deputy director of the Europe Program at the Center for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS) in Washington, D.C. Lisa Sawyer Samp is a senior fellow with the CSIS International Security Program.

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