Turkey gains much from NATO, but a rocky road lies ahead

Turkey benefits from NATO’s Strategic Concept and is in a celebratory mood over a new deal with Sweden and Finland. But interpretation is the key to success.

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Published 12 July 2022 Updated 27 July 2022 4 minute READ

With NATO’s new Strategic Concept being designed to address a global security environment defined by the great power competition, it was key for Ankara to ensure that the issue of terrorism was not de-emphasized, and so the fact this remained a major part within it was a win for Turkey.

Putting aside major global subjects such as climate, cybersecurity, or competition over space, it is state-centric and conventional security threats that ultimately define the spirit of this document.

Moving forward, Ankara will likely use this document – and its new trilateral memorandum with Sweden and Finland – to press NATO and its members to provide more support in its fight against the Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK) and to refrain from supporting the Syrian Kurdish People’s Protection Units (YPG) and its associated Democratic Union Party (PYD).

However, as the PYD/YPG is only proscribed as a terrorist organization by Turkey and not any other NATO states, this issue will likely continue to bedevil relations – especially with the US as the main partner of the group.

Russia is unambiguously in the enemy category in the Strategic Concept, which may put a strain on Turkey’s complex relationship with Russia as both countries have developed competitive cooperation through different conflict zones

In addition, with the Ukraine invasion, it is understandable that the eastern flank has become a primary focus of NATO action. But Russia has arguably never had that much presence in the Mediterranean, being a major player in Syria, Libya, and the eastern Mediterranean, and maintaining extremely close relations with Algeria and Egypt – Moscow has air and naval bases in Syria, Libya, and Algeria. From a Russian perspective, the east and south are not seen as two separate spaces but as a single space, and Turkey is a major actor in both spaces.

Ankara is one of the primary powers in the Black Sea region but Turkey and Russia are already facing each other in many Mediterranean conflicts, notably Syria and Libya. And so, in the face of continuing regional instability and disorder, state collapse, and growing Russian and Chinese footprints, Turkey wants NATO to remain committed to the southern flank and southern neighbourhood. The strong emphasis on the southern neighbourhood, the Middle East and Africa, in the concept note was in line with this preference.

NATO is more European, but also more global

As a NATO member, Turkey welcomes discussions on European security being held at the NATO level rather than the European Union (EU) level. And it believes the Russian invasion of Ukraine has shown the idea of European strategic autonomy to be devoid of content and force, at least for the time being.

The invasion appears to have muted these debates, with even France – the main champion of the idea – talking about these concepts much less now. Except for Poland, it was non-EU NATO members – namely the US, the UK, and Turkey – which were more forthcoming early on in providing Ukraine with military equipment, especially missiles and armed drones.

Moving forward, a difference of perspectives and policies between the EU and non-EU members of NATO in approaching European security is likely to come to fore. Plus, the debate inside the EU must have more clarity in terms of the role and place of the four non-EU European actors – the UK, Turkey, Norway and Ukraine. But the role of Turkey in European security at the EU-level discussions, including its potential role in the EU’s Common Foreign and Security Policy (CFSP), remains undefined.

However, the experience of the Trump years and the potential for another Trump-like president in the US means the US commitment to NATO and to European security can no longer be taken for granted.

In such a scenario, EU states would be forced to play a larger role in European security – and the same scenario further underlines the importance of a structured dialogue between Turkey and the EU on the European security architecture.

With the prospective membership of Sweden and Finland, presence of the leaders of Australia, New Zealand, Japan and South Korea in Madrid, and an emphasis on systemic competition with China in the Strategic Concept, NATO has become more European in its membership composition but more global in its ambition by establishing more links between the security of the Euro-Atlantic and the Asia-Pacific. Such globalization of NATO is likely to create more need for a stronger European pillar within NATO, hence increasing necessity for a Europe-wide security dialogue between the EU and non-EU European powers.

As a country on the southern edge of the alliance, Ankara does not want the southern flank and Europe’s southern neighborhood to become of secondary importance

Finally, as expected, Russia is unambiguously in the enemy category in the Strategic Concept, which may put a strain on Turkey’s complex relationship with Russia as both countries have developed competitive cooperation through different conflict zones – Syria, Libya, and Nagorno-Karabakh – in recent years. A rupture in these ties would carry significant cost for Ankara, but the type of relationship Ankara-Moscow developed prior to the invasion of Ukraine is also unlikely to remain tenable.

Following the steep costs Turkey incurred for purchasing Russian S-400 missile systems – which also triggered the US CAATSA sanctions and Turkey’s removal from the F-35 fighter jets programme – Ankara recently invested more time and energy in acquiring its defence needs from Western sources, such as F-16 jets from the US and the SAMP/T air defence system from Italy and France.

New deal with Sweden and Finland still needs work

Turkey extracted concessions from both Sweden and Finland as a price for approving their NATO membership bid in a deal which saw the Nordic duo commit to heavily curtail the activities of the PKK, refrain from providing support to the PYD/YPG, and lift their arms embargo on Turkey imposed following Turkey’s military operation in north-east Syria in 2019.

Exchanges between Turkish president Recep Tayyip Erdogan and US president Joe Biden also helped seal the deal between Turkey and the Nordic duo, as well as improve the atmosphere of Turkey-NATO/US relations and allow the existing and aspiring NATO members to breathe a sigh of relief and display a show of unity. Biden reiterated his support for Turkey’s quest to purchase 40 new F-16 fighter jets and 80 modernization kits for its existing F-16 fleets from the US.

Despite the progress, the road to full membership for Sweden and Finland is still likely to be fraught with bumps as their accession protocols need to be ratified by all existing NATO members. Turkey would prefer to delay this process so that Ankara can use it as leverage to press the Nordic duo to implement their commitments – and even make new demands not in the trilateral agreement.

Turkey gains much from NATO, but a rocky road lies ahead 2nd part

But the whole saga over Turkey’s threat of veto has probably cost Ankara a loss of goodwill in Stockholm and Helsinki, two capitals which were supportive of Turkey’s EU membership bid. And the question of implementation is intimately linked to the question of the interpretation of the deal.

Stockholm and Helsinki would probably adopt a minimalist interpretation of the deal whereas Ankara would go for a maximalist version. Erdogan has already claimed Sweden committed to extradite 73 people on terrorism charges, but Stockholm has denied this, saying any extradition request must go through due legal processes.

Although the threat of Turkey’s vetoing of both countries’ membership bid is now removed, more haggling and disputes between Turkey and the two Nordic countries, and hence more delays, is likely remain on the horizon until Stockholm and Helsinki finally acquire their full membership in NATO.