Since the 2016 failed military coup, what might have been the European Union’s first Muslim member state has openly turned away from Europe and refocused its sights on its Middle Eastern and Russian neighbours.
Complicating the turn away from the West is the status of Turkey as NATO’s biggest contributing member outside the United States.
Turkey joined the 29 member-nation North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO) in 1952 and was seen as an anchor of American security in the region against threats posed by Soviet expansionism.
Despite differing regional priorities, Ankara is a key strategic partner for both NATO and the Americans. But it’s growing independence from the alliance risks causing instability in an already volatile Mediterranean region and a Europewhich is facing Russian pressure everywhere from Italy to Lithuania.
Turkey’s shift towards Russia is helping undermine an already weakened US presence in the Middle East, at a time of heightened tensions with Moscow over Syria and the Iran nuclear deal, designed to halt Tehran’s development of atomic weaponry.
Iran’s biggest trading partner, Turkey is the one member of the Western alliance to benefit from renewed American sanctions against the Islamic Republic, trading with impunity and finding opportunities vacated by European companies under fear of penalisation by Washington.
The only area in which Turkey does not benefit is defence, though its burgeoning military industries could just as well export to Iran, like China and Russia.
Ankara and Tehran already cooperate in fighting Kurdish insurgents. Deepening that partnership would make sense. Turkey’s security coordination with Iran already expanded to include Russia following Ankara’s decision to commit its forces to Syria in 2016.
Such arrangements constitute the basis for a new strategic alliance by themselves. But they were driven by mounting disenchantment with American foreign policy initiatives in the Middle East, particularly Turkey’s opposition to American military support for the Kurds in Syria.
Underlining this stress has been Turkey’s growing economic dependence on Russia.
In 2007, Russia replaced Germany as Turkey’s biggest trade partner, accounting for the majority of its gas imports. The construction of the TurkStream pipeline, from Russia to Turkey, ties the countries together in new, politically fraught ways.
Not only aimed at the Turkish market but also, as a vehicle for exporting Russian gas to southern Europe, according to its critics, the pipeline aims to create new energy dependents in the European Union. Turkey would facilitate that.
That’s why, for policymakers and security analysts alike, NATO’s crisis over Ankara’s decision to purchase Russia’s S-400 advanced air missile defence system should be no surprise. It’s a logical extension of Turkey’s economic relationship with Moscow.
That it also undermines Ankara’s NATO membership is another no-brainer. In keeping, it similarly problematises Turkey’s EU accession, though that has been effectively frozen since the crackdown on civil liberties began following the 2016 coup attempt.
It’s also the end of Turkey’s participation in the F-35 Joint Strike Fighter (JSF) program over fears that the radar on the Russian anti-aircraft systems could learn the weak spots in the jet and make it less able to evade Russian or Iranian weapons in the future.
The single biggest weapons program in the NATO alliance, any compromising of the F-35’s security profile would have dramatic effects for member-state air forces, such as Italy, Norway, the United Kingdom and the Netherlands, all of which have heavily invested in the development of the plane.
Turkey will lose out, too, far beyond not getting its promised fighters.
As a primary partner in the multinational effort, Ankara has invested over $1 billion in the JSF with several local companies producing components for the aircraft including fuselages and cockpit screens.
Turkish defence companies also produce high-end SOM-J cruise missiles for the F-35 and Turkey hosts the maintenance and repair centre for NATO users of the aircraft.
After Washington officially announced the end of Turkish participation in the program, Russia was quick to offer their Su-35 fighter jet, an offer Foreign Minister Mevlüt Çavuşoğlu acknowledged on 22 July where he warned that Turkey will get their much-needed fighter jets from “other sources” until the country can produce its own.
While the SU-35 is not a stealth fighter, it’s a heavy multirole aircraft which Russia claims can shoot down US aircraft like the F-35.
The Russian jet had its combat debut in Syria in early 2016, ironically deployed by Moscow to the war-torn country in a message to Ankara after a Russian SU-24 was shot down by Turkish pilots flying American-made F-16s.
In addition to Russia stepping in to provide weapon systems to Turkey, China may also step up to fill the American void.
Both Beijing and Ankara are experiencing a low point in their relationship with the US and China has made it clear that it intends to be a global security actor.
At an Atlantic Council event in May, the new US Secretary of Defense Mark Esper said that Russia and China have been rapidly modernizing their militaries so much so that the American military superiority has eroded since the end of the Cold War.
“Since the end of the Cold War, the US military has maintained an unparalleled overmatch on the battlefield but that gap has narrowed,” he said.
“Today, Russia and China are aggressively developing formations and capabilities and weapons systems that deny us that long-held advantage.”
And like Turkey’s relationship with Russia, Ankara and Beijing support warring sides in Syria. Turkey backs the opposition while China has economically and politically supported Assad and the Russian military intervention.
Clearly understanding where things are headed with NATO, Erdoğan has suggested that Turkey could join the Shanghai Cooperation Organization, a regional security body composed of China, Russia and four Central Asian nations, instead.
China is also Turkey’s third-largest trading partner. According to the Turkish Statistics Office, bilateral trade between the two countries reached $23 billion in 2018.
Ankara’s decision to purchase the advanced Russian weapons system may have another, more impactful consequence than just being expelled from the F-35 program.
Turkey is a key launching pad for American operations in the region and home to American nuclear weapons: Incirlik Air Base.
While US Air Force Chief of Staff Gen. Dave Goldfein has not ruled out the possibility of American F-35s operating from there in the future, who’s to say that the Turks might not expel the 1,500 American personnel who are housed at the base and the 50 nuclear weapons which are rumoured to be held there.
The Americans were said to have moved those same weapons before, to Romania, after the 2016 coup, out of concern that security cooperation between Turkey and Russia in Syria had made them vulnerable. NATO confirmed their transfer. The Pentagon denied it.
Whatever actually ended up transpiring, the crisis itself was real, signalling the beginning of the end of Turkey’s historic military closeness to the West.
But for critics of Recep Tayyip Erdoğan, this relationship’s unravelling was in fact long overdue.
Erdoğan has always represented a conservative Sunni constituency that was less Western-oriented than, say, Turks from Istanbul. Moscow is a more natural partner for them because Russia is a part of Central Asia like Turkey. It’s close military and economic relations with Azerbaijan and Iran, are an example. Why not Turkey?
The Cold War effectively kept Turkey from being a more integrated member of its immediate neighbourhood.
The fall of the USSR and the successive wars in Iraq and later, Syria, changed all that and were completely out of its control.
Erdoğan’s exaggerated independence from Europe and the US is a response to that powerlessness.
Any effort to keep Turkey in the fold as a NATO member and candidate for EU accession needs to take that into account.
While it may yet be possible to prevent Turkey from fully going over to the dark side, serious efforts need to be made by the EU and NATO which affirm Turkey’s regional positioning so that it does not become a new Iran.
Looking to the country as something other than a refugee camp for two million Syrian refugees, and as a launching pad for US wars in the Middle East would be a good start.
Photograph courtesy of Wikimedia. Published under a Creative Commons license.