Turkey and NATO: A Relationship Worth Saving

NATO leaders will gather this week in London to celebrate the 70th anniversary of the alliance; reflect on past accomplishments; implement the remaining deterrence and defense measures agreed at the 2014 Warsaw Summit; and lay the groundwork for future cooperation in new areas, such as emerging technologies and space. And while the military machinery that is the core of NATO continues to run smoothly—generating levels of interoperability, integrated operational planning, and force generation that are unmatched—NATO’s political cohesion is being challenged by both internal divisions among members and by external actors who seek to exploit these differences to their own advantage.

Perhaps the most pronounced case of this fractured political cohesion is the Turkey-NATO relationship, where internal challenges and pressure from external actors uniquely intersect. Internally, allies are alarmed by President Erdogan’s walking back of democracy, press freedom, and civic society in Turkey; Turkey’s repeated unilateral incursions into northern Syria; and its willingness to hold the NATO agenda hostage to domestic concerns, for example, Turkey’s current hold on approving the Graduated Response Plan for the Baltic States and Poland pending NATO recognition of the threat posed to Turkey by the Kurdish People’s Protection Units (YPG). Conversely, Turkey (and many other southern flank allies for that matter) believes that NATO does not fully recognize or address its legitimate security concerns, in particular migration and terrorism. Externally, Russia quickly capitalized on the fissures between Turkey and NATO, offering to assist Turkey in managing the YPG along the Turkey-Syria border and to sell it Russian equipment, such as the S-400 surface-to-air missile system, which would compromise NATO capabilities and has led to a halt in delivery of F-35 aircraft to Turkey. Turkey’s subsequent decisions to fly its F-16 against the S-400 over Ankara and to enter negotiations with Russian on purchasing the Russian Su-35 fighter aircraft have reinforced concerns that Turkey has little interest in maintaining or rebuilding its relationship with NATO as instead plans to continue to test its boundaries.

The EU-Turkey relationship is not faring much better, with accession negotiations (initiated in 2005) frozen since June 2018 due to Turkey’s backsliding on democracy, rule of law, and fundamental rights. The 2016 EU-Turkey refugee agreement, whereby Turkey receives EU financial assistance in exchange for continuing to host some 3 million refugees, is creating further tension, with both sides accusing the other of not living up to the terms of the agreement.

What’s next?

Presently, mutual mistrust is so high that many allies are questioning whether Turkey still shares NATO’s interests and values, and many in Turkey are struggling to see the benefits of NATO membership or a renewed EU accession process. Both sides seem to have forgotten the historical ties and shared interests that led Turkey to join NATO in 1952, such as countering Russian (then Soviet) influence in Central Asia and the Middle East and maintaining stability in the Middle East.

Yet these foundational factors remain valid: Turkey’s geopolitical position at the crossroads of Europe, Asia, and Africa still provides NATO with needed political and operational reach, and Turkey continues to benefit from the collective military power of NATO. With the relationship close to (if not at) its nadir, Turkey and NATO, with the support of the EU, need to take active measures to anchor it for the future, while avoiding steps that could destroy the relationship entirely.

Active measures

Assuming that Turkey is in fact interested in rebuilding the relationship with its NATO allies, there are several active measures NATO and Turkey can take now to create a foothold for the future. The key is to focus on areas of mutual interest where NATO involvement is critical to Turkish strategic interests and where Turkey has a unique role to play in NATO.

The first of these is the Black Sea, where Turkey, as well as fellow NATO Black Sea littoral states Romania and Bulgaria, are trying to balance an increasing Russian military presence. While previously resistant to a greater NATO role in the Black Sea for fear it would dilute its own influence in the region, Turkey now sees the dangers of leaving Russian influence and presence in Black Sea unchecked. With its illegal annexation of Crimea in 2014 and entry into the Syrian civil war in 2015, Russia has significantly increased its presence and combat capabilities in both the Black Sea and Eastern Mediterranean.

NATO now faces an anti-access/area denial (A2/AD) bubble that restricts allies’ freedom of maneuver in the Black Sea, with Russia capable of attacking from both land and sea. To effectively counter this, NATO should establish a more continuous presence in the Black Sea, revive the idea of a permanent NATO maritime fleet in the Black Sea, and consider basing more counter-A2/AD capabilities in Turkey and Romania. Importantly, Turkey holds unique power to control access to the Black Sea thanks to the 1936 Montreux Convention, which governs naval passage through the Turkish Straits, limiting the number of foreign vessels that can enter the Black Sea via the Straits and how long these vessels can stay. This access is important to both Russia and NATO. Whereas Turkey has proven to be an impartial and reliable enforcer of the treaty, Russia has pushed the boundaries of Montreux repeatedly since the Russo-Georgian War in 2008 and, more recently, impeded the course of NATO vessels that have entered and departed the Black Sea in compliance with the treaty. More behavior along these lines, or a Russian attempt to leverage its new, closer relationship with Turkey to secure more favorable access to the Black Sea, would likely increase Turkey’s unease and lead it to rely more on NATO as a counterbalance.

For its part, the European Union should closely watch Turkey’s proposed construction of the Istanbul Canal to connect the Black Sea to the Sea of Marmara (and, as such, the Aegean and Mediterranean seas), which is reportedly drawing interest from Chinese as well as Russian investors. As the canal would allow ships to sail between the Mediterranean and Black Sea without transiting the Turkish Straits, and thus abiding by the restrictions of Montreux, the European Union and United States should consider investing in this infrastructure project to ensure they are in a position to work with Turkey to ensure free and fair transit through the canal.

A second area where Turkey’s immediate security concerns intersect with the majority of other NATO members is stability in the Middle East, most immediately in Syria. To be sure, Turkey’s anger over United States’ partnership with the YPG in the fight against the Islamic State—and NATO’s anger at Turkey for its unilateral incursion into northern Syria—will make progress difficult. But ultimately, the two sides share a mutual interest in seeing stability and pluralistic governance in Syria. This entails constraining Syrian president Bashar al-Assad; preventing the return of the Islamic State and Europe-based Islamic State fighters; and facilitating the delivery of humanitarian aid, reconstruction, and refugee return. More broadly, both sides also share an interest in limiting Russian and Iranian influence in the region. With the Russian military presence in Armenia, Azerbaijan, and Crimea now supplemented by the Russian naval base at Tartus, airbases at Kobani and Khmeimim, and helicopter base at Qamishli, Turkey is effectively encircled by Russia. It is in this context that German minister of defence Kramp-Karrenbauer’s suggestion of an internationally-controlled security zone along the Turkey-Syria border, possibly NATO-led and backed by the United Nations in loose partnership with Russia, makes sense. It would address a situation that immediately and directly affects the security of Europe and Turkey and demonstrate that the NATO is invested in addressing Turkey’s security concerns.

Creating the space for progress

Should NATO and Turkey move to restore some level of trust by taking these first steps, it will be important to avoid unnecessarily escalating tensions. For Turkey, this means abiding by the terms of the Syria ceasefire, not pursuing additional purchases of Russian military equipment, and doing its part to prevent the resurgence of the Islamic State in the region or return of Islamic State foreign fighters to Europe. For the United States and Europe, the trick will be to apply the required sanctions and arms embargoes in a discriminate way. For example, whereas imposing sanctions in accordance with the Countering America’s Adversaries Through Sanctions Act (CAATSA) and withholding delivery of Turkey’s F-35s due to its purchase of the Russian S-400 makes good policy sense, imposing additional blanket sanctions could do more harm than good, affecting the Turkish people more than their leadership and giving Erdogan another opportunity to blame the West for Turkey’s economic problems. A smarter approach might involve going after corrupt actors using the Global Magnitsky Act.

Similarly, a total arms embargo by the United States and the European Union will only drive Turkey to procure more Russian or non-NATO interoperable military equipment. Rather, the arms embargoes should be limited along the lines of the most recent House sanctions bill, which includes exemptions for items to be used in NATO-approved operations. Finally, as some of Turkey’s biggest export partners, the European Union and the United States can provide needed carrots along the way to incentivize constructive behavior by Ankara. Measures might include an eventual upgrade of Turkey’s customs union with the European Union or limited visa-free travel to EU countries for Turkish citizens. For the United States, President Trump’s offer of a $100 billion trade deal will also be attractive to Erdogan in Turkey’s struggling economy.

To be sure, repairing the trust that has been lost and returning Turkey to the path of Western integration will be a struggle, requiring sustained effort, and a setting aside of egos, on all sides. Yet on this occasion of NATO’s 70th anniversary, Turkey and its NATO allies owe it to one another to pause for a moment and reflect not on their many disagreements but on what brought them together in the first instance and why that still matters.

Rachel Ellehuus is deputy director and senior fellow with the Europe Program at the Center for Strategic and International Studies in Washington, D.C.

Commentary is produced by the Center for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS), a private, tax-exempt institution focusing on international public policy issues. Its research is nonpartisan and nonproprietary. CSIS does not take specific policy positions. Accordingly, all views, positions, and conclusions expressed in this publication should be understood to be solely those of the author(s).

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Rachel Ellehuus