Are Turkey's days in Nato numbered?

Ankara seems to have little regard for its place in the world's most powerful military alliance

Turkish President Tayyip Erdogan attends a ceremony via video link?in Ankara, Turkey, December 16, 2020. Presidential Press Office/Handout via REUTERS ATTENTION EDITORS - THIS PICTURE WAS PROVIDED BY A THIRD PARTY. NO RESALES. NO ARCHIVE.
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Turkey’s future participation in the Nato alliance is likely to come under renewed scrutiny following Washington’s decision this week to impose sanctions against Ankara over the recent purchase of a sophisticated, Russian-made S-400 anti-aircraft missile system.

Tensions were already growing between the US and Turkey, both major players in the military alliance, ever since Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan announced in 2017 that he was negotiating a major arms deal with Russia, which included the purchase of the missile system.

The deal is particularly problematic for Nato as the system was specifically designed to destroy the new F-35 stealth fighter jet, which has been developed by the US in conjunction with a number of key allies, including Britain. Indeed, Turkey was one of a few countries – including the UAE – that have secured approval from Washington to purchase the state-of-the-art aircraft. The administration of US President Donald Trump has since cancelled Turkey’s participation in the F-35 programme over the Russian deal.

Now the row has moved to another level, after US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo earlier this week announced that Washington was imposing sanctions on key elements of the Turkish defence industry. The move prompted an angry reaction from both Ankara and Moscow, which claimed it was intended to punish the defence sectors of both of their nations at once.

Moreover, the imposition of sanctions by one Nato member state against another raises serious questions about the alliance's future. After joining the alliance in the 1950s at the height of the Cold War, Turkey’s geo-political significance has played a key role in Nato’s strategic calculations. During the Cold War, its proximity to the southern Soviet states of Georgia and Armenia meant that the alliance was able to deny the Soviet Union access to the Mediterranean at the Bosphorus strait, as well as enable the US to station ballistic missiles on Turkish soil.

More recently, the US has used its air bases in Turkey to prosecute the air campaign to destroy ISIS strongholds in Syria and Iraq.

Turkey’s membership of the alliance, though, has not been without its challenges. Questions were first raised about its continued participation in Nato in the 1970s when it went to war with Greece – another key Nato state – during the 1974 Cyprus crisis.

But while Turkey’s conduct over the Cyprus issue, which resulted in the Turkish invasion and occupation of northern Cyprus, was disturbing, it did not result in Ankara siding with a hostile state, which is how Mr Erdogan’s deepening relationship with Moscow is now being viewed by the rest of Nato.

During the Cold War, it was unthinkable that a key Nato ally would link up with Moscow. But Mr Erdogan clearly has no qualms today about deepening that relationship, even as Russia is regarded by other Nato members as posing a significant strategic threat to their security.

FILE PHOTO: An Israeli Air Force F-35 fighter jet flies during an aerial demonstration at a graduation ceremony for Israeli Air Force pilots at the Hatzerim air base in southern Israel, December 27, 2017. REUTERS/Amir Cohen/File Photo
The US has removed Turkey from its F-35 stealth fighter programme. Reuters

Apart from signing the arms deal with Moscow, the level of co-operation between Turkey and Russia has developed to a level where the two countries have even conducted joint operations in Syria. Although, their forces have clashed there, too.

But Turkey’s burgeoning relationship with Russia is far from the only issue that has strained its relations with the West. Mr Erdogan’s support for the radical Islamist cause, with Ankara supporting a variety of militant groups in countries like Syria and Libya, has put him on a collision course with former allies, as has his opposition to the recently signed Abraham Accords.

Mr Erdogan’s deep-seated antipathy towards the West most recently provoked a diplomatic row with Paris after he accused French President Emmanuel Macron of needing "mental treatment" following his attempts to tackle insurgent Islamism at home in the wake of a series of Islamist-inspired terror attacks in France.

Another major dispute between Turkey and the rest of Europe has been Ankara’s insistence of conducting gas drilling operations in Cypriot-claimed waters, which resulted in a dramatic escalation in tensions between Ankara and Athens in the summer, raising fears that it might result in a naval clash between them.

Tensions were already growing between the US and Turkey

The EU this week responded to what it regards as Turkey’s provocative conduct in the eastern Mediterranean by imposing sanctions on an unspecified number of Turkish officials and entities involved said to be involved in the gas drilling operations. Moreover, there is the prospect of harsher sanctions to come if the incoming US administration of Joe Biden decides that it wants to take US measures further.

In short, Turkey has been playing fast and loose with the Nato alliance on a number of key issues, to the extent that serious questions are now being raised about its continued membership.

One of the main factors that still weighs in Ankara’s favour, though, is that, under the existing Nato charter, no mechanism exists for expelling errant member states. Article 13 of the alliance's founding treaty declares that a country may leave voluntarily, but does not cover expulsion.

That could change, however, if, as a result of Mr Erdogan’s conduct and to protect the interests of other members, the alliance decides to alter the founding document. Changing Nato's membership rules in order to eject Turkey would certainly be a dramatic move – one that would cause serious disquiet in many European capitals. But it could reach the point where Nato leaders feel they have no alternative if Mr Erdogan persists with his provocative conduct.

Con Coughlin is a defence and foreign affairs columnist for The National