Is Turkey Still a NATO Ally?
President Joe Biden’s decision to exclude Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan from last month’s Summit for Democracy reflects the deteriorating relations between the two countries, as well as the collapse of democracy in Turkey.
The summit, which focused on “our shared effort to set forth an affirmative agenda for democratic renewal and to tackle the greatest threats faced by democracies today,” included Turkey’s neighbors, Armenia, Bulgaria, Cyprus, and Greece, among others. But a series of Turkish political provocations toward the United States and NATO have been a concern to the Trump and Biden administrations, and may help explain the snub.
The latest spat came during a November 28 meeting between Erdogan and hard-line Iranian President Ibrahim Raisi. Erdogan accused the United States of training and arming “all terrorist groups in the region, including ISIL [ISIS] and the PKK, and providing them with terrorist equipment and tools to create insecurity … So joint cooperation is necessary to bring peace to the region.”
Erdogan also stressed his desire to work more closely with Russia and Iran, two of the United States’ greatest adversaries: “Iran, Russia, and Turkey can maintain security and stability in the region in cooperation with other countries.”
“The capacity for cooperation between Turkey and Iran is more than realized. We have maintained close relations in recent years, and there are many projects that will be implemented. There will be high-level diplomatic visits with Turkey in the near future,” Iranian Foreign Ministry spokesman Saeed Khatibzadeh said in November.
This is not the first time Erdogan has accused the United States of supporting terrorism in the past year. He lashed out after PKK terrorists executed 13 Turkish nationals — mostly soldiers — who had been held hostage in February. “You said you did not support terrorists, when in fact you are on their side and behind them.”
The US State Department condemned the killings “in the strongest possible terms,” and said that “PKK terrorists bear responsibility.” The US designated the Kurdistan Workers Party (PKK) as a terrorist group in 1997.
But Erdogan is critical of American support for the Kurdish People’s Defense Units (YPG), which fought against ISIS in Syria. The YPG helped curb the rapid ISIS expansion there.
Turkey summoned the US ambassador in Ankara two months later, after Biden officially recognized the Armenian genocide committed by the Ottoman Empire in 1915. “We will not take lessons from anyone on our history,” said Turkish Foreign Minister Mevlut Cavusoglu.
Turkey faces a host of internal crises, and the international disputes offer a way for the government to shift domestic attention to other issues.
“Erdogan, as always, is looking to scapegoat external enemies in an effort to distract the attention of his base in particular, and the population in general, from the crashing lira and the effects of inflation. A good part of it is creating internal divisions,” Irina Tsukerman, a New York-based human rights lawyer and national security analyst said.
“The YPG in Syria, despite [their] close relations to the PKK, are not sanctioned or listed as terrorist organizations by the US, and are considered essential allies in the operations against ISIS and other terrorist groups in Syria. Erdogan is spreading anti-Kurdish bigotry in Turkey,” Tsukerman said.
The Turkish lira fell to an all-time low against the US dollar last month, after Erdogan decided to cut interest rates to more closely follow Islamic banking rules. The lira rebounded slightly after a massive central bank intervention to stop its free fall, before the temporary gains started to erode a week later.
Western-Turkish relation reached a low point when Erdogan announced the expulsion of 10 ambassadors for demanding the release of pro-democracy activist Osman Kavala. Seven of these ambassadors represented NATO member countries, including the United States. Erdogan retracted his decision days later after an international diplomatic backlash.
Despite the deterioration in relations, the US Department of State issued a report in August stressing the importance of the Turkish-American security and economic ties, as well as Turkey’s value as “a key NATO Ally and critical regional partner … It is in our interest to keep Turkey anchored to the Euro-Atlantic community.”
Still, Erdogan has been defiant against the US demand that he not purchase arms from Russia, which could pose a threat to NATO countries.
Turkey bought $2.5 billion in S-400 defensive missiles from Russia in 2017 despite American and NATO objections that they can compromise NATO defense systems, especially state-of-art F-35 fighter jet operations.
Meanwhile, Erdogan has taken provocative action against other NATO members. He is trying to strong-arm Greece into securing gas exploration rights in the eastern Mediterranean. When Turkey sent an exploration vessel, guarded by warships, into the disputed area in August 2020, France sent its own warships to support Greece.
Being a NATO member and seeking European Union membership has not deterred Erdogan from appeasing sworn enemies of the alliance, including Iran and Russia. Amidst the rapprochement with terrorist-supporting regimes, bullying NATO members and accusing the West, namely the United States, of supporting terrorism, it is becoming hard to believe that Erdogan’s Turkey remains a NATO ally.
IPT Senior Fellow Hany Ghoraba is an Egyptian writer, political and counter-terrorism analyst at Al Ahram Weekly, author of Egypt’s Arab Spring: The Long and Winding Road to Democracy and a regular contributor to the BBC.
A version of this article was originally published by the Investigative Project on Terrorism.