Turkey and Nato are no longer aligned, even if they won't admit it

Previous governments in Ankara were champions of the western military alliance, but times have changed

Turkey's President Tayyip Erdogan arrives to pose with NATO Secretary General Jens Stoltenberg during the NATO summit at the Alliance's headquarters, in Brussels, Belgium, June 14, 2021. Patrick Semansky/Pool via REUTERS
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Following the accession of Turkey to Nato in 1952, the newly elected Turkish leader at the time, Adnan Menderes, expressed his desire for his government to be the western military alliance’s “backbone”. Nearly 70 years later, Turkey has changed fundamentally. Out of the 30 members of Nato, Turkey is one of the oldest, but now the most isolated. The long-awaited meeting between Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan and US President Joe Biden at the latest Nato summit this week was, in a nutshell, an anti-climax.

Turkey once had unconditional loyalty to Nato, and used its strategic location to prove its importance to the organisation. In 1955, it joined the Baghdad Pact, a Nato-backed regional alliance with Britain, Iraq, Iran and Pakistan, aimed at preventing a Soviet Union infiltration of the Middle East. The next year, Turkey stood by Britain against Egypt during the Suez crisis. Simon Smith, in his book Reassessing Suez 1956, wrote that Menderes's government did not regard the Suez Canal dispute as a bilateral problem between the UK and Egypt, but one that concerned Nato's entire strategy. Menderes argued: "Turkey is convinced that the UK is acting as a guardian of one of the key positions of the free world."

Under the leadership of Mr Erdogan, however, Turkey has turned 180 degrees away from its unified accord with its Nato allies. Turkey, like other non-western members of the bygone Baghdad Pact, Iran and Pakistan, has adopted its own version of Islamist nationalism, while demonstrating degrees of suspicion and hostility towards the western world.

It is no secret that this year’s Nato summit in Brussels was held against a backdrop of a long list of flashpoints between Turkey and other Nato members, and ambiguous relations with the alliance’s chief competitors, Russia and China.

In 2017, Turkey brokered a deal worth billions with Russian President Putin for the S-400 mobile surface-to-air missile system. It forced the administration of then US president Donald Trump, one of the friendliest US administrations towards Erdogan’s Turkey, to impose sanctions on Ankara last year. The thorny dispute continued as Mr Trump’s presidency wound down, and has since forced Mr Biden’s administration to exclude Turkey from the new F35 consortium agreement.

Turkey has turned 180 degrees away from its unified accord with its Nato allies

In addition to the S-400 and F35 disputes, the US and Turkey disagree on a long list of issues, including US support for Kurdish militias in Syria and the Biden administration’s formal acknowledgment of the Armenian genocide. On the human rights front, the White House issued a strongly worded statement following Turkey’s withdrawal from the Istanbul Convention on preventing domestic violence against women.

Moreover, Turkey has had tense relations with Greece, France and Cyprus. Last year, Turkey came close to a naval confrontation with Greece in disputed Eastern Mediterranean waters over Turkey’s gas exploration activities near the Greek island of Kastellorizo. Relations with France are not any better. Last year, the French frigate, the Courbet, tried to stop Turkish arms smuggling to Libya, forcing Nato to investigate the incident. Furthermore, the two countries have been engaged in wars of words – Mr Erdogan called for a boycott of French products after French President Emmanuel Macron firmly upheld the right of cartoonists to depict religious figures. As for Cyprus, Turkey insists on the continued division of the country, contradicting the stances taken by Europe and the US on the issue.

As if all the above is not bad enough for its relations with its supposed allies, Turkey raised eyebrows when it pushed Nato members into watering down its official reaction to Belarus’s recent forced landing of a passenger plane in order to detain a dissident journalist.

In face of all of those challenging disagreements, Turkey approached this year’s Nato summit with a multifaceted strategy to engage in a charm offensive, defiance, and spin.

Ahead of the Brussels meeting, Turkish Foreign Minister Mevlut Cavusoglu made conciliatory statements to Paris, Athens and Washington. Mr Cavusoglu subsequently visited both Greece and France, and insisted that Turkey and France should maintain stable ties as "allies". In Athens, a cheerful Mr Cavusoglu and his Greek counterpart, Nikos Dendias, agreed to “continue co-operation on a positive agenda to resolve pending bilateral issues”. Furthermore, to prove its importance to Nato, Turkey has offered to run the main airport in Kabul, Afghanistan, despite the Taliban militant group condemning the proposal.

British Royal Navy's Type 45 destroyer HMS Defender arrives for a port visit in Istanbul, Turkey June 9, 2021. REUTERS/Yoruk Isik

At the summit, there were, as expected, no breakthroughs, with none of the big issues poisoning ties between the Nato allies getting resolved. The meeting was not even followed by a published read-out, but Mr Erdogan described it as "fruitful and sincere". That description that may convince his fans at home, but the Turkish lira was not impressed – it fell against the dollar after the talks. Mr Erdogan’s uncompromising stance on the S-400 front will undoubtedly serve as a major obstacle to any joint military co-operation between the US and Turkey in the future.

There is a saying that one who rides two horses at once will split asunder. That sums up the current affairs of Mr Erdogan’s Turkey, which rides the horse of Ottoman Islamist revisionism, but still clings to the Nato club and its prestigious advantages. That dualism has dispossessed Turkey of the trust of many fellow Nato members as well as anti-extremist regimes in the Arab world.

It is rather ironic that the Mr Erdogan, who claims to consider former Prime Minister Adnan Menderes a hero, has deviated so much from Menderes’s policies. Menderes went out of his way, even supporting a colonial Britain, to cement Turkey firmly within Nato. Mr Erdogan appears to have gone out of his way to set Turkey adrift in the opposite direction.

Mr Erdogan’s supporters in Turkey, however, should consider themselves lucky. Analysts and observers who hoped for a firm handling of Turkey’s troubled policies have been disappointed by the outcome of this year’s Nato summit. Calls for cutting the Gordian knot with Turkey are widely vocalised, but Mr Biden, who is trying his best to disengage from the Middle East and focus on his country’s pressing domestic issues, appears to think that doing so would be a drastic move – particularly amid a challenging pandemic and strong appetite in his administration to maintain transatlantic unity.

In Brussels, Mr Biden and Mr Erdogan have maintained the veneer of unity, but the door for healing the rifts between Turkey and Nato also seems to be firmly closed. Sooner or later, all of the thorny issues will resurface again. Nonetheless, solving the Turkish conundrum may be postponed until another Nato summit.

Nervana Mahmoud is a commentator on Middle East affairs and host of the ‘Turkey Trends’ podcast for the news outlet Ahval