You Go to War with the Turkey You Have, Not the Turkey You Want
The Turkish government is using the Russian invasion of Ukraine to settle outstanding grievances with much of NATO. Sweden and Finland were expected to swiftly join the alliance, in time for the June summit in Madrid. Instead, Ankara has upended this coronation. Turkey, which joined NATO during the alliance’s first wave of enlargement in 1952, seeks to extract concessions from Sweden and Finland on combatting terrorism, extraditing citizens of Kurdish origin to Turkey, and lifting the arms embargo that much of the West placed on Turkey following its October 2019 invasion of Syria. The Turkish protests have underscored how Ankara’s narrow security concerns differ considerably from those of the rest of the NATO alliance, particularly at a time when the alliance has sought to move beyond the war in Afghanistan and return to its core mission of deterring Russia.
The topic of Turkey has polarized debate in many Western capitals. The debate centers on Ankara’s value to the alliance, and whether Turkey’s domestic authoritarianism and functional relationship with Moscow matter for Western security. For Turkey skeptics, the argument is that Ankara has upended Western efforts in Syria, and that its tight trading relationship with Russia and refusal to join with Western sanctions to punish Moscow for its invasion of Ukraine suggest that Turkey undermines NATO security. For proponents, Turkey’s large, conscript-heavy military is seen as vital for tying up Russian forces in a theoretical conventional conflict, and its sale of TB2 drones to Ukraine is proof-positive of Ankara’s constructive role in NATO and contribution to deterring Russian expansionism.
In these debates, Ankara’s sympathizers often focus on the legitimacy of Turkey’s concerns, while critics emphasize that President Recep Tayyip Erdogan is blackmailing the West to win nationalist votes at home. But both of these arguments miss a deeper point. Turkish elites are serious about their security concerns and that in itself is problem for NATO. These genuine concerns are not just framed in anti-Western ways, but understood in anti-Western ways. This means that Ankara has some legitimate demands, particularly on collective support for counter-terrorism. But when pro-Ankara analysts focus solely on these asks, they overlook the “poison-pill” demands for democratic countries to limit their own societies’ free speech in ways that are impossible, or to extradite people without proper evidence. Conversely, by dismissing all of Erdogan’s demands as token efforts to rally his base, Western critics risk downplaying the seriousness with which the ruling Justice and Development party in Turkey pursues foreign policy.
The Turkish government is using the threat of non-consensus to try to force a wider change in how NATO conceptualizes security. This facet of Turkish foreign policy has broad support inside the country and the challenge it presents to Turkish-Western relations will endure long past the current impasse over NATO expansion. The sooner leaders in Washington and Brussels confronts this fact, the more effectively they will be able to handle the unmanageable problem it poses.
The Roots of Ankara’s Anger
Erdogan is one of the world’s most transparent leaders and uses clear, blunt language to describe his foreign policy goals. Despite this, his frequent criticisms of the United States and the international order are often dismissed as bluster, aimed only at a domestic audience to retain populist support. To be sure, all foreign crises involving Turkey have some link to domestic politics, but dismissing Erdogan’s rhetoric as unserious is a mistake. The security concerns that he and his officials have bluntly laid out over Swedish and Finnish NATO membership are widely shared inside Turkey and linked to a whole host of other issues that have plagued Turkish-Western relations for the past decade. These include the way Turkish elites view their own national security situation, their expectations of “solidarity” from Western allies, and their suspicion — shared by the majority of Turks — that the United States and NATO are actually adversaries instead of allies.
Many varieties of Turkish nationalists hold hostile anti-NATO views and an even smaller subset view Moscow as a more suitable ally for Turkey than NATO. Elements of this clique view Greece as particularly hostile and believe that the threat from Athens has grown in recent years because of its closer relationship Washington and the arms embargoes placed on Turkey. The U.S.-Greek relationship was consolidated, particularly during the Trump administration, by Greece’s openness to hosting American military forces. For Turkey’s anti-Western Eurasianists, the increase in American cooperation with Greece is viewed as proof of American encirclement of Turkey and indicative of an American policy of weakening the Turkish armed forces.
As a result, many elites view the country’s military balance vis-à-vis Greece as paramount for national security. The focus on maintaining a more capable military than Athens has direct relevance to Turkey’s position on Swedish and Finnish membership in NATO. The American decision, in this instance, to kick Turkey out of the F-35 program looms large. Washington’s decision came after years of telegraphing to Turkey that its purchase of the S-400 air defense system from Russia would lead to Turkey’s removal from the fighter production program and result in sanctions. Ankara ignored these warnings. The end result was just what Washington signaled and Ankara lost its future front-line fighter and now faces sanctions on its defense industry. Greece, in turn, has pledged to purchase the F-35 and, importantly, has received upgrades to its legacy F-16 fleet. Ankara has requested these same aircraft upgrades from Washington, but an unofficial arms embargo Congress has imposed since October 2019 has prevented it. The uncertainty about the future of the Turkish Air Force — and the upgrades to the Hellenic Air Force — has reinforced concerns inside Ankara about the future balance of forces in the Aegean and Mediterranean regions.
Thus, even though Turkey has decreased its overall reliance on foreign suppliers for military equipment, its inability to access certain higher-end equipment does have an impact on the country’s armed forces. The embargoes also reinforce paranoid thinking about the true intent in Washington and reinforces the fictitious narrative that Washington seeks to hinder Turkish development out of some broader desire to control elites in Ankara. This also bolsters the broadly held view that the United States is indirectly killing Turkish troops by supplying weapons to the Syrian Kurds while, at the same time, denying them to Turkey.
Ankara has never accepted the Syrian Kurds as a legitimate anti-terrorist force, and instead has said that using “one terrorist group to fight another” is destined to fail. The Syrian Kurds, Ankara has suggested, will repress Arabs, who will then seek shelter from Islamic State, thereby creating a cycle of violence that Ankara will always have to grapple with. As Washington’s relationship with the Syrian Kurds deepened, so too did Ankara’s intransigence over the direction of the war against the Islamic State. This intransigence eventually led to unilateral Turkish military action intended to carve out a 30-kilometer buffer zone along the entirety of the Turkish border with Syria. This zone was intended to keep the Syrian Kurds away from Turkey’s border and, importantly, to serve as a repository for displaced Syrians, who Ankara has sought to bar from entering the country since 2015. However, in each instance, Ankara’s unilateral actions prompted Western counter-reaction with sanctions and embargoes. These twin issues are, now, the cornerstone of Ankara’s push against Finnish and Swedish membership in NATO.
Prospects for the Future
Turkey is seeking to rectify what it perceives as an injustice by using its power to deny consensus in NATO and thereby coerce the alliance to take its own national security issues more seriously. Ankara is doing this with blunt force: threatening to block the accession of two new NATO members, threatening to invade Syria (again), and implicitly threatening to further escalate tensions with Greece. The challenge is that Turkish demands of Sweden and Finland are not some roundabout way to whip up populist sentiment, or solely a reflection of Erdogan trying to split the opposition before the 2023 elections. Instead, the Turkish position on its security vulnerabilities is genuine and the slow-rolling of NATO enlargement is seen as a legitimate mechanism to coerce the alliance to take Turkish concerns more seriously.
The issue, of course, is that these concerns are unique to Ankara and not shared by the Western alliance. Instead, Ankara’s Kurdish problem is thought of as an internal, Turkish-only issue that can be resolved with a return to a peace process. Even while NATO members recognize the brutality of the Kurdistan Workers Party and its terrorist tactics, they see the group as a product of Turkey’s own democratic failings. Meanwhile, within Turkey, the ruling party has ample support for its hardline policies, even if there are gripes within the country about how Erdogan conducts foreign policy. The disconnect between Turkey and its NATO allies may grow in the coming years, given divergences over national security priorities and Ankara’s willingness to use its position within Western institutions to coerce its allies.
The Turkish positions over Sweden and Finland are not spur of the moment, nor are they simply reflective of populist domestic politics. Instead, what Ankara is seeking to do is to “right” perceived wrongs that are now nearly a decade old. The challenges in meeting Ankara’s demands are manifest, signaling that even if there is compromise over this one issue, differences between Turkey and the NATO alliance will persist. These suggest that managing Turkey will remain a core issue for NATO for years to come, underscoring how current challenges may continue to fester even if compromises can be found.
The best pathway forward for the United States and Europe is to admit that relations with Ankara are a transactional, interest-driven affair that requires near-constant effort to manage. Given Turkey’s position within NATO, it literally gets a vote over expansion, ensuring that Ankara can extract concessions from current and future aspirants. However, it would be unwise for countries to focus only on the Turkish demands that it agrees with, without viewing the totality of Ankara’s expectations. Ankara may be forced to capitulate, but Erdogan’s earnestness when expressing his desires for global change clearly indicate that he will revisit his gripes at a later date, when he again feels he has leverage over the West. This reality should also inform how the West deals with Turkey: looking for its own opportunities to extract concessions when it is Ankara that is vulnerable to coercion. This method of diplomacy is, at its core, how the current leadership in Turkey views its relations with the world — as a zero-sum affair. It would behoove others to get with the program. It is unclear if Turkish demands of Sweden and Finland can ever be met, but the demands are serious and part of a broader worldview that informs Turkey’s thinking. It would be wise to understand the roots of those concerns because, inevitably, they will reappear.
Aaron Stein is the director of research at the Foreign Policy Research Institute and is the author of the book The US War Against ISIS: How America and its Allies Defeated the Caliphate.
Image: NATO on Flickr