The position of Turkey as a strong and reliant member of the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO) is under severe pressure. European countries and Washington are publicly questioning the position of Turkey inside of the Alliance. At the same time, Turkish president Recep Tayip Erdoğan not only attacks several of his European allies, but also steps up efforts to increased military cooperation with Russia and several Arab states. The Turkish referendum of April 16 20171 is playing a very important role, as it has been a pivotal issue in Turkish domestic politics, as part of Erdoğan’s future depends on it. The coming months, NATO, EU and Turkey will have to reset their ongoing relations for sure, but Brussels and Washington will have to consider the fact that Turkey is not only a military ally, but also has an important role as bridge between Europe and the Middle East. Europe’s military and energy security is intertwined with stability in Turkey the coming years.
The current Turkish government geopolitical posture in NATO – EU is a fluid one. On March 22 Turkish minister of foreign affairs Mevlut Cavusoglu stated that Ankara still fully supports Washington’s drive to revitalize NATO and is also working toward reaching the required defense spending target by the Alliance. While in Washington, Cavusoglu said that “NATO maintains its essential role as the cornerstone of Euro-Atlantic security, and we hope that as two leading allies, Turkey and the United States will cooperate in revitalizing this organization as well as the Trans-Atlantic bond and solidarity”. The Turkish official reiterated that Ankara is working hard to reach NATO’s 2 percent target. This clear positive message to NATO conflicts however with facts on the ground.
TURKEY – NATO RELATIONS SHOWING CRACKS
At present, Turkish – NATO, but especially European, relations are showing severe cracks. The increased political conflict between Ankara and several leading European countries, Netherlands2, Germany3 and Austria4, has almost led to a total breakdown of Turkish possibilities to stay in NATO or acquire a full-membership of the European Union in the coming years. On March 13, just after the political spat between the Netherlands and Turkey, caused by Turkish insistence to send government ministers to address Dutch Turkish citizens in the Netherlands in a pro-Referendum rally, which was refused by the Dutch government and the Mayor of Rotterdam, NATO officials felt it necessary to try to calm the escalating diplomatic row.5 NATO’s secretary general Jens Stoltenberg took the podium and conferred to international media that he has urged the Dutch and Turkish governments to calm down. The latter was necessary after Recep Tayyip Erdoğan, Turkey’s president, accused the Netherlands of behaving like Nazis. The Netherlands had refused to allow Turkey’s foreign minister to enter the country for a political rally in support of constitutional changes that will boost President Erdoğan’s powers in a looming April referendum. Stoltenberg needed to intervene in the political spat as the danger emerged that the military Alliance could be weakened. Stoltenberg reiterated that NATO’s presence in Turkey is good for the country, but Turkey’s membership of NATO is also good for the Alliance. Several leaders of the European Union were more outspoken, as they have put their weight fully behind the Netherlands and other countries, especially Germany and Austria, as the Turkish wrath was also targeting these countries.6 EU’s foreign policy chief Federica Mogherini stated that it was up to each member state to decide on who could hold rallies in their countries “in accordance with the applicable provisions of international and national law”. EU vice commissioner Johannes Hahn called upon Turkey to refrain from excessive statements.
The threats made by Erdoğan to European member states should be partly taken as internal Turkish politics, as he is battling for the survival of his own position. The success of the Turkish referendum, which will increase the presidential powers and introduce a fully presidential system, is still not secured. Turkish opposition parties and media at present are very quiet, but as several analysts have indicated before, all have been either put in jail or have been put under security restrictions. The historically very diverse and open media landscape in Turkey has been dramatically changed, largely after the unsuccessful military coup last summer. Not only have Turkish newspapers, magazines and TV-stations been taken over by Erdoğan appointees, the wide-range of opposition parties has also been taken out of the power equation. Some have been forced directly to become a mouthpiece of Erdoğan’s ruling party, other have been taken out of the equation as suspected FETO supporters (or Gulen sympathizers). Erdoğan and AK Party also have been able to remove the Turkish Kurdish groups and parties, partly based on so-called terrorism charges, others on Gulen / FETO supporters claims. Official opposition is almost non-existing at present. The latter became totally visible during the diplomatic spat with European countries and NATO members. Official statements by political parties were all in line with AKP statements or Erdoğan’s unsubstantiated attacks.
It seems almost as Turkey has stepped back in time, and wants to become a full replica of the former Ottoman Empire, the “Sick Man of Europe” as the Ottoman Empire’s last caliph Abdulmejid was called. That situation led to the demise of the Ottoman Empire and a new Turkey, led by Mustafa Kemal Ataturk. The latter formed Turkey from an Islamic Ottoman state into a secular, non-Islamic nation with its eyes on Europe. The current developments, led by president Erdoğan and his AK Party leadership, has turned the boat, which is now sailing back into history.
There are differences between the Ottoman Sultan and president Erdoğan. The West seems to miss or misunderstand the fact that he has not been put in power by a military coup. The current AK Party and its leader Erdoğan have come to power via a normal democratic process. Erdoğan has been able to enhance his position in several elections, and until now his popularity is still very high. The latter mainly due to an unexpected economic revival of Turkey, which has been booming since that Erdoğan took power (2002). Since 2014 he has been president, until now successful, if only looking at the economic growth potential of the country. For the average Turk, economic and financial situation of the country has become much better than before the Erdoğan era.
The success of the AKP government has been impressive, but most Turks forget that this is partly due to opening up of European markets and heavy European direct investments in Turkey. Main stimulus of the economic growth potential of the country has been the influx of a multibillion investment spree of countries such as Germany, UK, France and not the least the Netherlands. Without this influx, overall growth of the Turkish economy would have been substantially lower.
Erdoğan’s elite however doesn’t seem to grasp this when addressing EU – NATO issues or while discussing the geopolitical issues surrounding the country. The increased focus by Turkey on Central Asia and the Middle East the last 3-4 years stands in stark contrast to the European obsessions of the first Erdoğan years.
The above change in strategy has partly been enabled to the loss of power of the Turkish Armed Forces. Erdoğan’s AK Party government has been able to not only remove opposition groups to his reign in the army, but also has decreased the overall power position of the armed forces in Turkish politics. The position of the Turkish Armed Forces is currently in a flux. Under Kemal Ataturk, the Turkish army had the duty of maintaining a secularized Turkish state. It has had its successes and failures, but as Ataturk recognized, Turkey cannot be an Islamic state and a Western ally. Since decades, Turkish offices have been trained in the US and other Western countries, while also been given a strong presence in international deployments of NATO. The latter contribution has been always of large strategic importance to NATO’s overall security and out of area power projections. Since WWII Turkey has had the only direct NATO border with the Soviet Union, other NATO countries only with Warsaw Pact countries. Turkey’s strategic position, based on its vicinity to the USSR, but also linked to its MENA position (including cooperation with Israel) and the Bosporus Strait, made it a military asset.
Even during the continuing military coups and ongoing internal strife, Turkey’s position within the Western NATO Block never was questioned. This has slowly but increasingly changed after the take-over of Erdoğan’s AK Party government. From the start, Erdoğan has removed non-Islamist leadership from the Turkish Armed Forces. The latter has led to instability in the Turkish forces. but also increased opposition to the rule of the AK Party from inside the military. Since the 2016 military coup attempt, Erdoğan’s covert anti-military operations have emerged to the forefront. All has been done to remove any opposition within the armed forces and security sectors. The July 2016 military coup, at least according to the majority of the Turkish government and AK Party officials, has led to an all-out purge of the military. More than 200,000 people have been arrested or removed from office, of which are around 40,000 from the Turkish army, navy, air force and security services.7 The direct attempt to quell any opposition in the (perceived) pro-Ataturk or Gulen / FETO military establishment has not only weakened the capabilities of the Turkish Armed Forces, but also has led to politicization of the latter. Current leadership of the Turkish forces and security has been put in place by the Turkish government, partly not based on capabilities or experience, but on political allegiance. The position of Turkish troops within NATO projects or operations is under pressure.8 NATO members are questioning partly the political ideas or support of Turkish NATO forces needed to perform duties, such as operations in Syria, Iraq or even Turkey itself. The influence of AK Party ideology or Erdoğan’s geopolitical strategies is immense, constraining full cooperation at present with NATO forces.
This situation has immense negative repercussions for NATO’s current and future posture. Looking at history, Turkey has been, in strategic and literal terms, a cornerstone of NATO. The changing geopolitical landscape, due to a re-emerging Russia under Putin, Arab Spring and its negative outcome in Syria, Iraq, and Libya-Egypt, the encroachment of Iranian Power on Arab soil, the Ukrainian civil war and Russia’s direct involvement, has made it clear that Turkey’s already strategic position during the period 1945-2011 has only increased for all parties involved, but especially NATO and the European Union. Since 1991 (Iraq’s invasion of Kuwait), Turkey has been playing an active direct and indirect role for NATO military engagement in the Middle East and East Mediterranean. Not only were Turkish troops active in Iraq, Syria and other hotspots, but it also played a strategic role in providing logistical and information support for NATO operations in these countries. The military base of Incirlik has had always a central role for NATO air operations in Iraq, the Persian Gulf and Syria.
NATO’s Incirlik Security in Doubt?
NATO operations in Turkey could also be hit by Erdoğan’s current confrontational strategy. In January 2017 Turkish officials made a veiled threat to ground US warplanes at Incirlik Air Base over the US denial of air support for the Turkish military inside Syria. The latter was officially caused by a discussion between Ankara and Washington for air support for Turkish military operations against Daesh in and around Syrian town of Al Bab. Turkish defense minister Fikri ISik stated that the fact that US planes are using Incirlik for Iraqi operations, not giving air support to Turkish operations in Syria, is “leading to serious disappointment in Turkish public opinion … this is leading to questions over Incirlik”.9 In a reaction by the US Air Force, it was stated that any actions by Turkey to shut down or limit US air operations out of Incirlik would be disastrous for the US anti-ISIS campaign now focused in Syria on the drive by a mixed Syrian Kurdish and Arab force against Raqqa, the self-proclaimed ISIS capital. The January 2017 threats were not new, as in July 2016 Turkey briefly closed its airspace to US operations out of Incirlik and cut off power to the base during the failed military coup against the government of President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan. Official reason for the latter was that Turkey suspected that the US may have supported rebels within the military. Reason for the latter was that some Turkish planes took off from Incirlik to bomb Ankara during the coup.
One major other issue in the Incirlik discussion is the fact that since the start of using Incirlik Air Base in 1951, the latter has been used as a deterrent to the then-Soviet Union and as a staging base for US operations in the Mideast. Unconfirmed sources have always instigated that US nuclear weapons are stored at the base.10 US officials always have been unwilling to discuss this openly, but Air Force budget documents state that “special weapons” are stored in countries such as Turkey. The “special weapons” are there as part of a nuclear-sharing agreement among NATO allies, including Turkey and the United States. The weapons deal, reached in the 1960s, holds that some NATO allies will allow the storage of B61 nuclear gravity bombs on their land, while other countries will commit to maintaining aircraft capable of delivering them, according to one NATO outline. The United States keeps possession of and provides security for the bombs wherever they are. In 2014 a NATO position paper still declared that NATO’s nuclear weapons “are stored under highly secure conditions”, without specifying where they are. This statement now seems to be invalid and needs to have a reset. Particularly in the case of Turkey, under Erdoğan, it can be argued that overall security of the country, and its regional ambitions and future alliances, could be a threat to about 50 NATO nukes that are kept in storage. A growing amount of discourse is currently being focused on Turkey’s instability that makes it a poor choice for nuclear weapons. US analysts even have argued that it’s time to pull the nukes out of Incirlik, especially considering there are no planes based there permanently that can deliver them. The latter would not be really strange for NATO historically. In 2001 Washington also pulled out its nukes from Greece due to concerns about lax security. The situation after the July 2016 military coup and security around the Incirlik base could be seen as a precursor to reassess the situation without delay.11
The Incirlik controversy has increased already existing downward spiral of relations between Ankara and Washington, but also Brussels. The room for maneuver at present is also being constrained by other new developments, such as the thaw between Turkey and Russia. Erdoğan’s new alliance with Russian President Vladimir Putin, after a short period of possible military confrontation due to the shoot down of a Russian plane by the Turkish air force over Syria, is a cause for concern in Brussels. The fact that a major NATO ally, Turkey, is opening up to one of the main adversaries at present to the Alliance is putting most members on edge. Discussions between Moscow and Ankara have shifted from a purely regional energy cooperation to an in-depth military cooperation in Syria and Iraq, and the last months even possible Russian military sales to the Turkish armed forces.12 The integration of non-NATO produced weapon-systems into a NATO force has been until now not been supported by members. The Turkish moves are however not a first for NATO, as Greece already has Russian S-300s in its arsenal. At the same time, the risks attached to a creeping integration of Russian (or Chinese – Indian) weapon systems are immense. Integration of these systems, if ever possible, will always include non-NATO member countries involved in setting up security arrangements with Turkey. Several NATO officials already have stated that an integration of Russian weapon systems, such as the S-400 missile systems currently being discussed, would mean an end to part of the NATO collaboration with Turkey. NATO has indicated that the Russian systems will not be allowed on any NATO base in the country.13
Turkey’s Focus Turns to Persian Gulf State
Even that all eyes are currently focused on Turkey – Russian discussions, Ankara is much more inclined to integrate in the Middle East – Caspian area in the near future. Turkey started since December 2015 the construction of a Turkish military base in Qatar.14 An agreement between Qatar and Turkey was already signed in December 2014, which allowed the deployment of the Turkish Armed Forces on Qatari soil. Main reason for the Qatari – Turkish cooperation is that both have been regionally sidelined after Egypt’s Muslim Brotherhood president Mohammed Mursi was overthrown by the Egyptian military, led by General Sisi, supported of Saudi Arabia.15 The demise of Mursi, which resulted in a full-confrontation with Muslim Brotherhood groups throughout the Middle East (Egypt, UAE, Saudi Arabia, Bahrain and Jordan), resulted in a total collapse of the strong Egyptian – Turkish cooperation until then. Erdoğan, together with the Emir of Qatar, was one of the staunchest supporters of the MB-government. Not only the relationship with Egypt collapsed, Saudi Arabia and the UAE also visibly cooled their relationship with Ankara. Since 2013 official relations with several major Arab countries are still on ice or show a fragile status.16
Qatar’s still perceived support of Muslim Brotherhood linked groups also put Qatar on a confrontation course with its fellow GCC counterparts. The latter diplomatic isolation has been a powerful incentive for closer ties between Doha and Ankara. At the same time, Qatar and Turkey showed a keenness to open up to Iran, seen by most other Arab states as a direct threat to regional stability. Growing economic cooperation with Teheran also put the Ankara – Doha axis under pressure, but until now without any real result.
The December 2014 military agreement was preceded by three previous Qatar – Turkey deals, the first was signed in 2007 followed by two in 2012, strengthening cooperation on military training and defense equipment production.
17 Even when Qatar openly acknowledged some of its diplomatic mistakes, and a rapprochement was put in place with Saudi Arabia, the UAE and Bahrain, the military-economic cooperation with Ankara was not put on ice. Ankara also has started to soften its stance towards the MB supporters, even that it official still is behind MB groups in Egypt and Qatar. Since 2014 Ankara has stepped up its efforts to improve relations with the other Arab states, especially Saudi Arabia. Turkish military support was needed, according to Saudi Arabia, to confront the growing instability in Yemen, the growing power of Daesh in Syria and Iraq, and the role of Hezbollah – Iran in Syria. In 2015 the latter resulted in Turkish support and membership of the so-called Arab NATO or IMAFT, a Sunni Saudi-led military coalition targeting the fight against terrorism and extremism, especially IS / Daesh and Al Qaeda.
Reset Turkish Middle East Strategy
Since the Turkish AK Party took power in the early 2000s, Ankara has changed its NATO – European focused military strategy into a multilayered foreign policy in the Middle East. In addition to increased Turkish trade and investment projects in the region, and Arab investments in Turkey, a regional diplomacy based on direct military involvement has been put in place. The diversification of Ankara’s regional military relations has been clear and in the open. Around 30,000 military personnel from over 50 countries have attended training programs in Turkey, including NATO Center of Excellences and other specialized courses. The range of countries is impressive, but could also raise concerns. Some courses have been visited by high-level security officials of Iran’s secret services, Afghanistan, Iraq, China, Russia and other non-NATO allies. Next to soft power options, Ankara has also started to fully enter the Gulf defense markets, while setting up joint-ventures and development programs for a wide-range of defense hardware products. The impact of the Turkish base in Qatar should not be underestimated. At present Qatar is home to the largest US military base in the Middle East, with roughly 10,000 personnel. The new Turkish base is expected to house more than 3,000 people, including ground troops, special operations teams and military trainers. According to Turkish foreign minister Davutoğlu, “the security and stability of Qatar is like the security and stability of Turkey”. It already has stirred up severe criticism from other Arab countries, especially Egypt. The latter has stated that the military alliance appears to be a power play in the region. For Turkey, until now, Qatar seems to be the most reliable Arab ally.18
In addition to its Qatari military base, Turkey now has even opened a base in the Horn of Africa, showing a willingness to project power even outside of its direct instable neighborhood.19 In March 2017 Turkey reported that it will open three military training camps in Mogadishu, Somalia, to help the country train a professional army and improve the country’s security situation. The latter, as Turkish officials stated, is largely meant to join the fight to defeat Somalia’s al-Qaeda faction by building its largest ever military base abroad in the East African country. The Turkish military base will be opened in April. Based on current information, the Turkish facility is going to be around 400 hectares in size and will house three military camps close to Mogadishu’s airport and the Port of Mogadishu. Since years Turkey has discussed training and rebuilding the Somali army from a Mogadishu base. Another, not openly addressed, geostrategic reason is the fact that a Turkish military base in Somalia will also project Turkish military power in and around the Horn of Africa, addressing the ongoing Yemen war threats and having a say in the security of the Strait of Aden, the main trade route between the Middle East / Asia and Europe. Egyptian officials are already worried about a full Turkish military deployment as it could be an indirect threat to Egypt’s economic artery and interests (Suez Canal). The $50 million base will clearly provide Turkey with an opportunity to project its military power into the Maghreb, Sub-Saharan Africa and the Indian Ocean Rim (IOR).20
At the same time, Turkey has increased its military competition with other Arab countries. The military base in Somalia will be a possible threat to the interest of Saudi Arabia (Red Sea and Yemen) while in direct competition with the UAE military power base in Somaliland. In February 2017 the UAE and Somaliland signed an agreement to open up a military base in the Berbera Port area.21 The UAE recently expanded its military presence in neighboring Eritrea, to allow more military ships and aircraft to be based in the port of Assab.22
TURKEY TO SWITCH TO ARAB – NATO, EGYPT – SAUDI POWER BROKERS?
A more interesting part of Turkey’s current power projections in the Middle East is its relationship with Saudi Arabia. Since the Arab Spring, and even partly before, Saudi Arabia and Turkey have been at loggerheads with regards to Ankara’s support of the Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt, its cooperation with Qatar and Ankara’s solo military strategy on its own borders (Syria, Iraq). Riyadh has been very wary of Ankara’s continuing support of MB’s war against Egypt’s president Sisi, as it deems Egypt to play a pivotal role in its war on terror and the anti-Iran coalition. In this light, the close Qatari – Turkish relationship might worry Saudi Arabia.
At the same time, after that King Salman took the throne in Saudi Arabia, relations have improved with Turkey. King Salman doesn’t see the MB as a main threat to regional powers, in stark contrast to King Abdullah, his predecessor. Riyadh also has now opened up to more intense cooperation with Turkey, as part of the Islamic Military Alliance (IMAFT)23 and playing a role in Syria. Some argue now that the Turkish presence in Qatar could be already in-line with Riyadh’s own strategic plans.24 Turkey, Doha and Riyadh all are supporting the same parties in the Yemen war, and ultimately want to restore the position of Mansour Hadi. A total restructuring of military power in the Arab region is also based on the growing friendship between Ankara and Riyadh. In December 2015 Saudi Deputy Crown Prince Mohammed Bin Salman announced the creation of the 34-member Islamic Military Alliance, also called IMAFT. Turkey and Qatar are from the start two of the members of this pan-Sunni military alliance, founded by Riyadh. The latter could indicate that the Kingdom is more than willing to open up better relations with both very soon. A stronger Turkish military role in the Persian Gulf’s security scene is welcomed officially by Riyadh.25 Turkey already is reaping the rewards of this thaw. The last months several major defense and investment deals have been signed by the two countries, integrating even more than expected the defense sectors of both countries.26 In the new economic diversification strategy, proponed by deputy crown prince Mohammed Bin Salman, called Saudi Vision 2030, there is more than ample room for cooperation. Saudi investment companies are also getting heavily involved in future projects in Turkey.
The future of Turkey as one of the main pillars of IMAFT or the Arab NATO is still not clear. Erdoğan’s strategic plans are not fully complementary to targets set by Saudi Arabia, the UAE, Qatar or Egypt. A Turkish led – IMAFT for sure will not be possible, as Arab states and Turkish regional power politics are largely conflicting. Still, for the foreseeable future, Ankara’s security and economic interests do not seem to be lying in the European Union, Russian influence spheres or even NATO. The ongoing official discourse about the Turkish referendum, the growing power politics of Erdoğan and his AK Party, and the negative repercussions of the post-coup purge on Turkish society, will prevent Turkey to play a major role in European or Mediterranean politics for the coming decade. Some, as stated by the European Parliament lately, even openly want to end ongoing negotiations on a Turkish membership to the EU. Others are questioning the position of Turkey as a trustworthy NATO ally. All this could be partly political statements made by European and Western leaders in light of their own election issues in 2017-2018. Still, the genie is out of the bottle. For decades the Turkish position was unquestionable. NATO’s 2nd largest army was needed to block any Warsaw Pact or Russian aggression moves. This has changed, largely due to Turkish president Erdoğan’s moves with regards to Putin’s Russia, lone-wolf tactics in Syria and Iraq, and the purge of Turkish society.
NATO – EU Crisis Management
The coming months could be decisive for the future relationship between NATO (- EU) and Turkey. Until the Turkish referendum outcome, most Western politicians and military officials will keep to a media blackout. Even if Erdoğan is upping his anti-European media frenzy, which is to look at as a political instrument to gain additional support from the home-front for his presidential program, European leaders will stay quiet. After the results will be clear of the referendum, a whole new constellation of options and discussion points will come to the table. Erdoğan has put Turkey at present in the corner, nobody wants to burn his fingers by supporting the Turkish leader in his fight with Europe. Still, don’t underestimate the position that Turkey, with or without Erdoğan, has gained the last years geo-strategically. Based on high economic growth figures, Turkey has come out of a dark era, in which inflation, corruption, economic decline and political instability, prevented it to be a regional power broker.
For the European countries, two other issues are playing an important role. First of all the EU – Turkey refugee deal, which is constraining the dealing power of European countries, as they are afraid to be confronted by an onslaught of refugees, if Turkey will cancel the deal and opens the gate of hell.
On the other hand, Turkey has become a main energy hub for future European oil and gas supplies. Main production countries such as Kazakhstan, Uzbekistan, Azerbaijan or Iran – Iraq are looking to Turkey as their port of destiny before entering the European markets. Even Russia, via its energy giants Gazprom, Rosneft and Lukoil, are entering in full the Turkish markets, not only to address booming energy demand locally, but also to find additional pipeline routes to Europe without the need to enter the Ukraine. For Brussels these issues are still on the table when talking to Ankara. Erdoğan, as a very powerful and experienced political animal, will for sure play these cards while playing a dangerous poker game. After the referendum, Brussels (NATO and EU) should be calling the bluff, let’s see if the current Turkish leader is strong enough to take the challenge. Economically and militarily at present his powers are linked to the West. If not used Europe could be losing, especially when giving Erdoğan the room needed to increase his links to others.