NATO allies have been at odds with Turkey for years. But Ankara’s role in the Azerbaijan-Armenia conflict is bringing matters to a head.
The conflict between Armenia and Azerbaijan over the disputed region of Nagorno-Karabakh has fueled a fresh fight within NATO, with alliance members pushing Turkey to dial back its aggressive foreign policy and support a cease-fire in the Caucasus.
As the conflict over the disputed territory has escalated over the past week, leaving over 200 people dead and hundreds more injured, NATO Secretary-General Jens Stoltenberg called on Turkey to defuse the situation, given its decades of support for Azerbaijan. “We are deeply concerned by the escalation of hostilities. All sides should immediately cease fighting,” Stoltenberg said during a visit to Ankara, the Turkish capital, on Monday. “I expect Turkey to use its considerable influence to calm tensions.”
But Turkey has dug in its heels, defying a joint call from the United States, France, and Russia for an immediate cease-fire in Nagorno-Karabakh. “We look at the calls coming from around the world, and it’s ‘immediate cease-fire.’ What then? There was a cease-fire until now, but what happened?” said Turkish Foreign Minister Mevlut Cavusoglu on Tuesday during a visit to Azerbaijan.
In crisis after crisis in recent years, Turkey’s relations with many of its NATO allies have frayed, but they’ve never fully collapsed. Turkey has purchased Russian air defense systems and angered Washington. Turkey has squared off with Greece and France in the Eastern Mediterranean, invaded northeastern Syria, and waded into the civil war in Libya. All that came after Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan’s authoritarian turn in the wake of a 2016 coup attempt.
Now, many are wondering where the breaking point is—and how close it might be, especially with a potential U.S. administration under presidential candidate Joe Biden signaling a much tougher line on Turkey than the Trump administration’s coddling.
Turkey’s lurch into the Azerbaijan-Armenia conflict, including the use of Syrian mercenaries that serve as its proxy army, has put some powerful NATO members in the odd position of coordinating its message with Moscow, which has long sided with Armenia. (Many alliance members are on the other side of Turkey in ongoing conflicts in Syria and Libya.) Analysts fear that the conflict could spiral into wider regional confrontations; both Turkey and Israel have a close security relationship with Azerbaijan, Russia has a defense pact with Armenia, and neighboring Iran is trying to play a role in mediating the conflict.
The latest conflict is already reverberating inside NATO. Canada this week announced it was halting some weapons sales to Turkey after allegations its equipment was used by Azerbaijani forces. Turkey’s
foreign ministry quickly shot back, accusing Canada of “double standards” by continuing to export arms to countries involved in the war in Yemen.
Conventional arm-twisting might not work. Experts say Turkey is honing a style of mercenary-led combat—backed by drones for close air support—that lends itself to flashy propaganda coups, if not guaranteed battlefield successes. Turkish military propaganda could leave a lasting—if outsized—impression of Ankara’s might on the battlefield, as it did during a battle in the contested Syrian province of Idlib earlier this year.
“All you see is the strikes. It’s very powerful imagery,” said Aaron Stein, the director of research at the Foreign Policy Research Institute. “In Idlib everyone forgets that Turkey lost. All people remember is Turkey kicking Russian ass.”
“It’s lowered the barrier to entry, it’s made combat less risky to them, and it’s highly effective propaganda,” he added.
If bilateral tensions spill over into NATO deliberations, it could hamstring the alliance’s ability to make decisions on other areas of importance, related to Russia, the Middle East, or other threats facing the trans-Atlantic alliance. NATO operates with consensus decision-making, meaning nothing is decided until all 30 members agree.