- Turkey’s military operation against Kurds in Syria and purchase of Russian missile system has escalated tensions within the alliance
- Ankara hosts a US airbase and American nuclear bombs as part of its membership
LONDON: NATO leaders meet on Wednesday in the UK for crunch talks amid concerns that Turkey’s membership of the organization is “unraveling.”
High on the agenda will be Ankara’s aggressive policies in the region, particularly in Syria, and its decision to purchase a Russian missile system both politically and operationally out of sync with the alliance.
Turkey joined NATO, an alliance of countries serving as a bulwark to the Soviet Union, in 1952. As part of its membership, Turkey hosts a US airbase where dozens of American nuclear bombs are stored.
But Ankara’s relations with other NATO members and particularly the US have become increasingly strained, leading to some experts suggesting its place in the alliance is under threat.
“What we can see so far is Turkey’s relationship with NATO is slowly unraveling, even prior to the Turkish military incursion in northern Syria,” Fadi Hakura, manager of the Turkey Project at Chatham House, told Arab News.
Ankara launched an offensive into north-eastern Syria on Oct. 6, which, according to Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan, is meant to expel Kurdish militias.
Also, ties between allies Ankara and Berlin deteriorated sharply in the run-up to Turkey’s April 16 referendum that handed Erdogan stronger presidential powers.
One of the first signs that the alliance’s relationship with Turkey was in serious trouble came in July 2017, when Germany began to pull its troops out of the Incirlik air base where they had supported international operations against Daesh following a row with Ankara over access.
Turkey prevented German lawmakers to visit roughly 250 troops stationed there, saying that Berlin needs to improve its attitude first.
Germany has expressed concern about the widespread security crackdown that followed a failed coup in Turkey in 2016. “It’s quite remarkable that a NATO member, like Germany, had to move its pilots and fighter jets from a NATO partner, namely Turkey, to a non-NATO member, and that is Jordan,” Hakura said.
Meanwhile, NATO members, led by the US, are expected to discuss Ankara’s purchase of the S-400 missile defense system bought from Russia.
Ankara and Washington have been at loggerheads over Turkey’s purchase of the system, which Washington says is not compatible with NATO defenses and poses a threat to its F-35 stealth fighter jets, which Lockheed Martin Corp. is developing.
Infuriating many members of Congress, Turkey shrugged off the threat of US sanctions and began receiving its first S-400 deliveries in July. In response, Washington removed Turkey from the F-35 program.
Tensions escalated when Turkey tested its S-400s up against US-made F-16 jets last week, following months of warnings from allies.
“So far, the Senate Republicans, in particular Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, have followed the wishes of President Trump and avoided any congressional sanctions against Turkey. But I think, should Turkey proceed with the activation of the S-400 Russian anti-missile defense system, which looks extremely likely to happen, the Congress well enact some tough financial and economic sanctions against Turkey,” he said.
He added the sanctions are quite “serious and, according to the draft bills, may include financial sanctions against senior members of the Turkish government, sanctions preventing the US financial system, financial institutions or individuals dealing with certain ministries in Turkey, such as the ministry of defense, from purchasing Turkish debt.
Hakura also said Turkey is importing its bilateral and multilateral disputes with Europe and in the Middle East into the NATO summit.
“Turkey has so far vetoed or prevented NATO from approving a military plan to defend the Baltic region against the perceived Russian military threat, because in return, Turkey is demanding NATO endorsement of its military incursion into northern Syria, and that is not going to happen. NATO to will not provide any cover for Turkey’s military incursion into northern Syria.”
Moreover, Greece’s prime minister will meet Erdogan on Wednesday in an attempt to ease frictions over energy exploration and Ankara’s deal with Libya’s Tripoli-based government on Mediterranean maritime zones, in another issue that Turkey has “imported” into the summit.
Libya and Turkey signed an agreement on boundaries in the Mediterranean last week that could complicate Ankara’s disputes over offshore energy exploration with nations including Greece.
Athens says the accord is geographically absurd because it ignores the presence of the Greek island of Crete between the coasts of Turkey and Libya.
“I think that Greece in particular wants NATO to take a stand against Turkey over its maritime agreement withLibya,” Hakura added.