Opinion |

Two-faced Turkey Demands a Terrible Price for NATO Expansion

Turkey slammed NATO's Nordic expansion, but has now made a dramatic turnaround. But who will pay the real cost of appeasing Erdogan?

Simon A. Waldman
Simon A. Waldman
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Turkey's President Recep Tayyip Erdogan attends a NATO summit in Madrid, Spain on Thursday.
Turkey's President Recep Tayyip Erdogan attends a NATO summit in Madrid, Spain on Thursday.Credit: SUSANA VERA/ REUTERS
Simon A. Waldman
Simon A. Waldman

Who would have thought that on the first day of the NATO summit in Madrid, Turkey would lift its opposition to Swedish and Finnish entry to NATO?

Previously, Recep Tayyip Erdogan, Turkey’s pugnacious flashy suit-wearing president had made his fierce opposition to NATO’s Nordic expansion well known, accusing them of supporting terrorism and asking, pointedly, “How can we trust them?”

What is the reason for Turkey’s about-face? By dangling a few F16 fighter jets and kind words of assurances towards Ankara’s struggle with the Kurdish separatist Kurdistan Workers Party (PKK), has U.S. President Joe Biden and Sweden’s Prime Minister Magdalena Andersson, together with the tireless work of NATO Secretary General Jens Stoltenberg, managed to turn Erdogan’s frown upside down? And does this represent yet another mark of Turkey’s strategic orbit back to its traditional allies?

At first glance it would appear so, and as such follows a pattern of recent Turkish diplomatic turnarounds. Turkey’s Foreign Minister Mevlut Cavusoglu visited Jerusalem last month paying his respects at Yad Vashem, did a lot of hand shaking, and made nice with his Israeli counterpart, despite nearly a decade of animosity.

President Erdogan also mended ties with the United Arab Emirates in the hope for financial investment as Turkey plunges into economic misery with the collapse of the Lira against major currencies and with 73.5 per cent inflation (independent researchers put the number as high as 160.76 per cent). And despite leading international outrage after the ghoulish 2018 murder of journalist Jamal Khashoggi at the Saudi Arabia consulate in Istanbul, Mohammed bin Salman got the red-carpet treatment when the Saudi Crown Prince visited Turkey last week.

However, appearances are deceptive. The fact remains that Turkey and the West share very different security concerns and priorities. What keeps most heads of NATO member states up at night is, of course, Russian belligerency in Ukraine and beyond. So does China’s growing influence, climate change, energy supplies, and cyber security.

But climate change and cyber security hardly feature in Turkish strategic discussions. Growing Chinese power is seen by Erdogan as an opportunity for global stability and he wants increased trade and diplomatic relations as a dialogue partner in the Shanghai Cooporation Organisation.

From left, Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan, U.S. President Joe Biden and British Prime Minister Boris Johnson during a round table meeting at a NATO summit in Madrid, Spain on Wednesday.Credit: Manu Fernandez /AP

Unlike other NATO members, Ankara’s primary security threats are internal or a spillover from the civil war in Syria. They are the outlawed PKK, which has been battling the Turkish state for four decades, the millions of Syrian refugees who reside in Turkey, and the Gulen movement, which the government blames for the 2016 attempted coup.

In Tel Abyad, in northern Syria, which is effectively under Turkish control, three people were killed by a rocket attack which Ankara blamed on the YPG, the predominantly Kurdish militia based in Northern Syria which Turkey considers one and the same as the PKK. Last May, five Turkish soldiers were killed in Iraq and then another two this June in response to Turkey’s ongoing “Claw” operations against the PKK.

Ankara is always concerned about the Gulen movement both at home and abroad, and the presence of Syrian refugees in Turkey has become politically explosive as Turkey’s economy continues to tanker.

Turkey-backed Syrian fighters parade with their weapons in the countryside of the northwestern city of Afrin, in rebel-held part of Aleppo province, in June.Credit: RAMI AL SAYED - AFP

As for Russia, Turkey has a completely different strategy than NATO.

Ankara figures that the Turkish she-wolf has no chance against the Russian bear in a head-to-head wrestling match. Instead, Ankara seeks both active engagement with Moscow on a bilateral level, but belligerency through proxies in their overlapping near abroad.

This is how that delicate, if not fragile, balancing act works. Turkey buys Russian S400 surface-to-air missiles and sends ministers to Moscow for strategic discussions, while seeking to advance trade relations. In 2019, before the COVID crisis hit, the volume of that trade stood at $23 billion and the two sides reiterated their goal of making this number reach $100 billion. Energy cooperation is strong with Gazprom having just signed a four-year gas deal with Turkey’s state energy company Botas in January this year, the latest advancement of the Turkstream project, the Russia to Turkey natural gas pipeline. Turkey is predicted to receive 1.5 million Russian tourists this year, including Putin’s oligarchs who can enjoy Turkey’s luxurious resorts without fear of sanction.

However, Turkey supported the Government of National Accord during the Second Libyan Civil war, despite Moscow having thrown its lot with its sworn enemy, General Haftar. Just before the 2020 Nagorno-Karabakh conflict, Turkey armed Azerbaijan to the teeth while Russia backed Armenia. In Syria, Russia continues to back the country’s president Bashar Assad while Turkey supports an umbrella collective of opposition groups.

Ankara’s jaundiced policy towards Russia continues during the Ukraine crisis. Turkey supplies the famed Bayraktar drones to Ukraine and limited Russia’s military use of the Bosphorus straits which connect the Black Sea with the Sea of Marmara and then onto the Mediterranean, in accordance with the 1936 Montreux Convention. However, Turkey also placates Moscow by refusing to close its airspace to Russia (unless flights are headed to Syria) or to impose sanctions, and instead has sought (with little success) to facilitate talks between the two sides.

Turkey's President Recep Tayyip Erdogan, second right, and Russia's President Vladimir Putin, center, along with Serbia's President Aleksandar Vucic, right, Bulgaria's Prime Minister Boyko Borisov, second left, left, and Russian Gazprom CEO Alexei Miller, left, symbolically open a valve during a ceremony in Istanbul for the inauguration of the TurkStream pipeline, in 2020.Credit: Alexei Druzhinin / Sputnik / Kre

So, now that Turkey has opened the path for NATO’s Nordic expansion, expect Ankara to make some sort of conciliatory gesture to Moscow in return. That is, unless the West performs a complete U-turn in its relations with Turkey – or, rather, a complete appeasement.

In getting Turkey to agree to drop its opposition to Sweden and Finland joining NATO, the three countries signed a trilateral memorandum, whereby Stockholm and Oslo pledged to drop arms embargoes on Turkey, curtails the activities of the PKK in their soil, examine Turkish extradition requests against suspected members of the PKK and the Gulen movement, and promise not to provide support to YPG/PYD in Syria.

In agreeing to these terms, it was not Turkey which made a U-turn but rather Sweden and Finland. This new trilateral memorandum is uncannily similar to the conditions Ankara set out for NATO expansion back in May. No wonder the slavish Turkish press has hailed this week’s deal as a sweeping victory.

Mr Erdogan will now expect Sweden and Finland to adhere to the spirit, and not just the (notably vague) letter, of the agreement. This means he will demand they back a future Turkish operation in Syria to combat the YPG, who happen to be the West’s main allies against Islamic State, support Ankara’s plans to expel and forcibly resettle over one million Syrian refugees in northern Syria, take concrete steps to extradite alleged members of the PKK and Gulen movement to face trial, unlikely to be fair, in Turkey, and keep schtum about Turkey’s poor human rights records and abuses of fundamental democratic freedoms.

Protest against a Turkish court decision that sentenced philanthropist Osman Kavala to life in prison on trumped-up charges of sedition condemned by the European Court of Human Rights which ruled in 2019 that Ankara must free Kavala immediately.Credit: UMIT BEKTAS/ REUTERS

Turkey will seize on any hemming and hawing on these issues as evidence of bad faith, if not betrayal, and a just cause to reignite a crisis in Turkey’s relations with the West. Turkey under Erdogan is a fundamentally untrustworthy ally. The NATO deal has triggered a countdown to the next noisy but inevitable conflagration.

Dr Simon A. Waldman is a visiting lecturer and research fellow at King's College London. He is the co-author of "The New Turkey and Its Discontents" (Oxford University Press, 2017). Twitter: @simonwaldman1

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