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January 2015

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Do We Really Want Turkey as a NATO Ally?
by Sol Schindler

The time will eventually come when a few unpolished voices will raise the title question .  The answer will come from a group far larger than the questioners, and with a rational explanation that In these perilous times (are there any other?) we need every nation in the neighborhood to join us. Geographically Turkey is a dominant figure in the Middle East, it has one of the largest armies there with a successful combat experience of centuries.  After WWII in which it remained resolutely neutral it joined the UN and sent a thousand man military unit, which was replaced yearly, to participate in the Korean War.  The troops performed bravely and competently and were commended by both our media and military.  Turkey then joined NATO and applied for admission to the European Union, which the United States has strongly endorsed, but approval has been dilatory in coming because of Turkey’s suppression of civil liberties.  Even so, the the political relationship between Turkey and the United States had been warm for years.

When in 1964 Britain promised independence to Cyprus a strong Greek element on the island vowed enosis, or  unification with Mother Greece.  This alarmed the Turks sufficiently for them to prepare an invasion force ready to protect the Turkish minority on the island.  Lyndon Johnson lost no time in sending a diplomatically polite but strongly worded letter informing the Turkish government that such action could start a war with Greece and was not allowable under NATO rules.  The Turks desisted, and Archbishop Makarios assumed control of a united Cyprus.  He reigned for ten years until a coup by another group of enosis advocates overthrew him.  The American president then was Richard Nixon who was so embroiled in the Watergate mess that he could do nothing except resign a month later.  The Turks sent a small exploratory force to Cyprus which was so successful that a larger invasion force followed seizing one third of the island.  Today the same situation exists; One third of the island is governed by a presumed independent Turkish republic, the remainder by a Greek Cypriot administration.  Needless to say relations between Turkey and the Cypriot Republic have never been warm but the imposing  presence of the United States with its formidable Sixth fleet  kept things reasonably peaceful.

In 2003 Recep Tayip Erdogan became Prime Minister of Turkey marking the beginning of what might be called a reaction to the Western influences that Kemal Ataturk had introduced.  The country became more rigidly Muslim than it had been for centuries and particularly noteworthy was its denial of an American plan at the beginning of the Iraq War to invade Iraq from the north (i.e. through Turkish territory).  The denial did not affect the course of the war in any particular way other than by making the initial effort somewhat more expensive.

When the rebellion which is now a three year old civil war in Syria broke out, Turkey asked for NATO assistance in constructing an anti-aircraft defense line along its border with Syria.  NATO quickly responded, and American troops and missile batteries along with NATO allies were dispatched.  Those who were heartened by this new sign of partnership were thrown back to reality when shortly thereafter Turkey purchased a number of missile batteries from China.  How these would relate or interact with the NATO batteries has never been explained.  Recently  The Netherlands withdrew its contingent.  No publicity has been given concerning the retention or withdrawal of units from other countries. 

By now everyone is aware that the Kurds make up sizeable minorities in Turkey, Iraq, and Syria.  Though Sunnis they are of Persian descent and accordingly speak an Indo-European language, which their neighbors do not.  They do not mesh well with any of the ruling governments particularly for some reason with the Turks.  Thus when the ISIS or Islamic State, whom the Turks say they oppose, swept through Iraq and laid siege to Kobami, A Kurdish Syrian town on their border, the Turks didn’t quite know how to respond.  They did not want an independent Syrian Kurdish community bordering their Kurdish populated lands. Nor for that matter did they want the bloodthirsty ISIS on their frontier, although they would not allow Coalition aircraft to use Turkish bases to bomb them. The situation was further complicated by their hatred of the Syrian government, once their great friends, plus their hatred of the Iranians who back them.  We Americans seemed to share in the general confusion.  A Pentagon spokesman said he expected Kobami to fall but it did not matter because the town was not in our strategic game plan.  By now we have learned that statements like these, despite their psychological ineptitude, are made more for domestic political considerations than for strategic purposes.  Also, despite the criticism that may be implicit in some of these pages we have to assume there exists in the Pentagon an unpublicized master intellect that is making things work.  Of course the people in our Embassy in Ankara are working equally hard to assure cooperation but we assume it is a military mind because it is unpublicized.  If it were, for example, our Secretary of State the newspapers would have informed us of it long ago. Coalition aircraft now use Turkish bases from which they bomb Islamic State forces in Kobami; a contingent of 150 well armed Iraqi Kurds were allowed to cross into Kobami and help in its defense; they have since been replaced by a different 150 man force, all contrary to original Turkish rulings.  The Turks have reversed themselves on a number of occasions all for the betterment of cooperation between them and Coalition forces.  As a result things are improving.  The Kurds have reconquered a major portion of Kobami and seem to be winning the battle there

The Turkish role, however, still remains passive.  Although no longer an obstacle to Coalition action their armored battalions remain inactive in their positions along the Syrian border, and one can be sure that whatever boots are on the ground they will not be Turkish.  The question arises then, how badly do we need Turkey as an ally?  Simple geography plus a large population and a strong economy make them a major player in the Middle East, one it is difficult to ignore.  How badly do they need us?  They have no choice.  Their neighbors be they Arabs, Bulgarians, Greeks, or Romanians, remember Ottoman repression too well for the Turks to play a hegemonic role in the area.  Some Arabs would like to see a Muslim Caliphate created but the Caliph would have to be Arab, not Turkish.  Turkey has tried to join the Shanghai Cooperation Organization whose two major members are Russia and China, both strong supporters of Syria  Because of their differences with Syria they have not been welcomed,  nor will they be as long as their enmity persists.  Their once good relations with Israel have gone down the drain because of Erdogan’s rapprochement with Islamic extremists while the sole national entity they currently have decent relations with is the international gas station cum sheikdom, Qatar.

As so often happens in international affairs Turkey and the United States are tied in an awkward partnership that neither finds particularly comfortable.  The art of diplomacy comes into its own in making such relationships beneficial, and we are fortunate that we still have the capability to at times squeeze Turkey into constructive rather than obstructive action.  Eventually we will have to face the reality of Turkey’s disenchantment with Western style democracy and its accompanying civil liberties and either take a more active role in the Middle East advocating democracy or retreat even further.  The recognition of reality is the first step to survival and until we relearn how to do so we shall have a difficult time in international relations.
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American Diplomacy is the Publication of Origin for this work. Permission to republish is freely granted with credit and a link back to American Diplomacy.


Author Sol Schindler is a retired Foreign Service Officer.

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