Under Erdoğan, Turkey has increasingly become an obstruction to NATO and Western foreign policy implementation in the region. Following Friday’s attempted military coup, the Turkish army’s support for NATO is in greater doubt than ever.
Initially joining the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO) in 1952, Turkey’s armed forces are the second largest in the alliance behind the United States. Turkey is a key ally at the nexus of Europe and the Middle East providing staging grounds for operations in both Syria and Iraq. While these qualities make it a valuable asset to NATO, the fallout from Friday’s attempted military coup to remove Turkish President Recep Erdoğan from power could weaken its ability to contribute to the alliance and may further exacerbate existing political concerns between Turkey and Western allies.
The rise of Erdogan
President Erdoğan initially came to power in 2002, at that time as Turkish Prime Minister. He began to consolidate authority and maintained his position until 2014 when he was elevated to President of Turkey. Previously a largely ceremonial position, Erdoğan transformed it into the power center he occupies today with increasing autocracy. Since 2002, Erdoğan has clamped down on dissidents, purged elements of the Turkish government of political dissenters, and restricted press freedom to the point that it is now ranked just behind both Russia and Venezuela. Further, Erdoğan and his Justice and Development Party (AKP) have rolled back secular governance in favor of moderate Islamic policy and reached out to Hamas among other regional Islamic organizations.
These actions have challenged the notion that Turkey continues to practice a democratic form of government. The underpinnings of democracy continue to be brought under Erdoğan’s authority. NATO allies in the US and Europe have become increasingly alarmed at his consolidation of power, but until recently, US and other NATO allies have enjoyed positive cooperation and support from Turkey’s military, an organization which has attempted to remain free of Erdoğan’s increasing oversight authority.
Possible NATO Impact
With Friday’s failed coup attempt, the Turkish military has provided President Erdoğan with the opportunity to continue his efforts to cleanse the government of political dissenters and outside challenges to his authority. Erdoğan has already captured nearly 3,000 troops suspected of contributing to the coup as well as unilaterally issued warrants for 2,745 judges in what seems like the beginning of a purge of opposition forces in the military and court system. Ominously, Erdoğan commented, “This uprising is a gift from God to us because this will be a reason to cleanse our army.”
With Erdoğan’s tightening grip over military actions, previously cooperative relations between the US and Turkish armed forces will likely begin to chill mirroring the growing political differences between Erdoğan and Western leaders. Ankara has already begun to look elsewhere beyond NATO for geopolitical support.
Following the downing of a Russian military aircraft in November 2015, Erdoğan sought to improve relations with Moscow through a series of concessions culminating in the suggestion that Turkey will normalize diplomatic ties with Syria on July 13. This reverses Ankara’s previous hard line against Syria’s Assad regime and serves as a significant olive branch to Russia who has acted to preserve Assad’s control of the country. Further, Turkey has pledged to coordinate its Syria policy with Moscow moving forward potentially jeopardizing its cooperation with Western NATO activities in the country.
In addition to the warming of relations with Moscow, in 2013 Turkey, under direction from the AKP, purchased Chinese air defense systems, breaking with historic commitments to purchase weaponry from NATO allies. While Turkey’s military has ranked third among importers of American arms sales since 2015, this dependence may decline following a possible cleansing of pro-Western, anti-Erdoğan factions from the Turkish armed forces.
Under Erdoğan, Turkey has also increasingly become an obstruction to NATO and Western foreign policy implementation in the region. In May 2010, Turkey voted against UN Security Council legislation backed by both the US and Europe to impose sanctions on Iran aimed at stymying Tehran’s nuclear ambitions. Turkey’s obstruction to a clear, NATO-supported position earned Erdoğan the ire of President Barack Obama.
Further irritating European NATO allies, Erdoğan has recently sought to extract concessions from Europe over the Syrian refugee crisis. His willingness to use the flood of refugees as a bargaining chip in Turkish-European relations will further undermine the relationship between key NATO allies and possibly further destabilize a European Union already struggling to accommodate Syrian refugees. As Erdoğan continues to consolidate domestic power in response to the coup, his ability to control this flood through Turkey and into Europe will strengthen his hand in European relations.
Putting aside Erdoğan’s increasing hostility towards NATO allies in the West and turn towards competing world powers, it is unclear if Turkey’s armed forces are even currently capable of supporting NATO initiatives. As Erdoğan continues to purge the Turkish military following the attempted coup, a now destabilized armed forces may not have the capacity to support critical NATO missions such as the current build-up of troops along eastern-Europe’s border with Russia and NATO activities in the Middle East. This military weakening of a key NATO ally may have significant repercussions for stability in Europe and the Middle East.