international analysis and commentary

Turkey and NATO: What lies ahead?


In recent years, Turkish military forces have contributed to a number of NATO-led missions and operations. In 2009, the Turkish Navy deployed one of its frigates as a part of Standing NATO Maritime Group 2, within Operation Allied Protector, an anti-piracy operation carried out around the Gulf of Aden and the Horn of Africa. Another frigate is currently operating within Operation Ocean Shield, NATO’s principal ongoing anti-piracy effort.

Turkey’s main contribution to NATO’s recent security commitments, however, came from its participation in the International Security Assistance Force (ISAF), NATO’s mission in Afghanistan between 2001 and 2014, as well as from its current contribution to Resolute Support, the Alliance’s current engagement in the country. During the ISAF years, Turkey took command of the mission twice (between 2002 and 2003, as well as in 2005), established two Provincial Reconstruction Teams (PRTs) in the Wardak and Jowzjan provinces, and had a prominent role in the training of the Afghan National Police.

Still, Ankara’s approach towards Afghanistan’s security diverged significantly from that of other ISAF partners. Turkey was in fact the only NATO member whose PRTs were civilian-led: the staff of TIKA, the Turkish agency for international cooperation, carried out all PRT-related activities, except for guaranteeing their own security – a task that fell to Turkish troop remits. However, due to Ankara’s unwillingness to take on a combat role, Turkey refused to participate in kinetic security operations for the whole duration of ISAF: within Turkish provinces, these had to be carried out by units provided by other NATO countries.

While the experience in Afghanistan highlighted a degree of political and strategic divergence between Turkey and other NATO members, concurrent and subsequent geopolitical crises have effectively exacerbated this trend. That there might be, at times, diverging political visions among NATO member states is beyond obvious. However, the reason that makes Turkey stand out is how deeply at odds it is with the rest of the Alliance in regards to recent crises, especially those in Syria and Libya.

As far as the transition in the post-Gheddafi era is concerned, Turkey’s position has been elusive at best. Ankara did not support the intervention in Libya in 2011, and as the ongoing civil war progressed over the past few years, Turkey has been repeatedly accused of supporting Libya Dawn, the constellation of militia groups and political movements that support the Tripoli government and the New General National Congress, which is currently led by the Libyan branch of the Muslim Brotherhood. The Tripoli government is the main political rival of the so-called Tobruk government, which enjoys international recognition as Lybia’s legitimate government.

In February 2015, Libyan Prime Minister Abdullah al-Thinni directly accused Turkey of providing weapons to Libya Dawn, and in May tensions further escalated after a Turkish ship was attacked by Libyan military forces while it was in international waters off the coast of Tobruk. While Turkey has always denied its involvement in supporting the Tripoli government,  Greek authorities seized a Libya-bound Turkish ship in September carrying a shipment of weapons, raising further suspicion about Turkey’s activities (and its divergence from those of other NATO members) in Libya.

The frailty of the alignment between Turkey and NATO is even more visible in the context of Syria. During the early stages of the conflict, cooperation mechanisms within NATO worked fairly well. This was especially evident when Ankara called a treaty-based Article 4 NATO consultation after Syrian air defence downed a Turkish reconnaissance jet in July 2012, obtaining the deployment of six NATO batteries of Patriot surface-to-air missiles along the Turkish-Syrian border.

The emergence of ISIS, however, has raised doubts over Turkey’s willingness to move away from being a security “consumer” towards becoming a “provider” of security together with its NATO allies. Since the outset of US operations against ISIS in Syria and Iraq in June 2014, and until July 2015, US jet fighters were denied access to Turkey’s Incirlik air base, which is strategically located near the Syrian border and therefore is an ideal infrastructure to launch air strikes in Syria. It was only after ISIS staged a major terrorist attack in Suruc in July 2015 that the government decided to open the air base to US forces.

In fact, this occurred after another Article 4 NATO consultation, convened by Turkey in the aftermath of the ISIS attack in order to brief its allies on the measures the country was taking against terrorism – an attempt to gain support for Ankara’s own revamped military initiative against the PKK and to establish a no-fly zone over Northern Syria, a longtime ambition of Turkey. Despite NATO’s strong condemnation of the terrorist attacks, Turkey’s initiative failed to fully convince its allies, who did not make any further commitment. If, on the one hand, Turkey has refused to take any major responsibility in carrying out air strikes against ISIS, on the other it has started an intense air campaign against PKK hideouts located in Turkey and Iraq, against the backdrop of domestic and international criticism for its faltering commitment in tackling the emergence of ISIS.

It is self-evident that Turkey’s national priorities are progressively diverging from those of other NATO members. While the country’s geographical location has always been a key element in determining Turkey’s exceptionalism within NATO, it seems that the need to establish an autonomous geopolitical footprint is the main driver behind Ankara’s consistent unwillingness to toe the line when it comes to coordinating with and communicating within the Alliance.

A member of NATO since 1952, today Turkey proudly showcases the Alliance’s second largest military, with a force of almost 700,000. The country’s approach to regional security, however, has raised doubts over the extent to which NATO’s and Turkey’s long-term priorities might be ultimately aligned, and relations between the two sides are likely to become increasingly strained. The result of the latest election only strengthens these concerns.