- The Washington Times - Wednesday, October 16, 2019

Its behavior in recent years may have left Turkey a NATO ally “in name only,” but some experts say there is virtually no appetite — and no legal mechanism — to kick the country out of the 70-year-old alliance even as its military offensive in Syria further divides Ankara from the U.S. and its Western partners.

Turkey’s status as a member of NATO, which it joined in 1952, greatly complicates efforts by the U.S. and Europe to deal with the unraveling situation in northern Syria, where Ankara on Wednesday pressed ahead with attacks on onetime U.S.-allied Kurdish forces that Turkey views as terrorists.

President Trump, along with military and diplomatic officials, have cited Turkey’s NATO membership over the past two weeks as a key reason why the U.S. cannot get in the middle of the widening Turkish-Kurdish fight.

Military conflict with a NATO partner, they say, would be unthinkable and would signal to Russia that the powerful alliance is deeply damaged and may be coming apart at the seams. That, analysts say, has long been a central goal of President Vladimir Putin’s foreign policy.

But regional analysts say it’s wrong to cast Ankara as a NATO partner in the traditional sense, even before the invasion of northern Syria. They point to Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan’s decision to purchase the Russian-made S-400 missile system over strong U.S. objections as an example of why the country’s NATO status should be reassessed.

“I think the talking points of many in the U.S. government are a little bit lagging behind reality,” said Bradley Bowman, senior director of the Center on Military and Political Power at the Foundation for Defense of Democracies, a leading Washington-based foreign policy think tank.

“They really are a NATO partner in name but not reality. They’re not acting like a NATO ally,” he said. “The longer we pretend they are a wonderful, reliable ally in good standing when they are not, the more we’re going to see Erdogan taking advantage of that.”

Indeed, Mr. Erdogan seems to have correctly calculated that the U.S. is unwilling to confront its NATO ally militarily. Mr. Trump, a frequent NATO critic, stressed Wednesday that while he opposes the Turkish invasion of Syria, it would be foolish to drive a wedge between the alliance for the sake of saving the U.S.-backed Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF), the Kurdish-led group that fought with U.S. forces to defeat the Islamic State.

Syria doesn’t want Turkey to take its land. I can understand that,” the president said during a press conference alongside Italian President Sergio Mattarella. “But what does that have to do with the United States of America if they’re fighting over Syria’s land? Are we supposed to fight a NATO member in order that Syria, who is not our friend, keeps their land? I don’t think so.”

Turkey has its own gripes. Ankara said it has borne the brunt of Middle Eastern chaos — from the fallout of the U.S. invasion of Iraq in 2003 to the housing of millions of Syrian refugees from that country’s civil war — with little help from its allies. Turkey’s long-standing hopes of joining the European Union have also been rejected repeatedly.

Turks complain that the U.S. and Western European powers do not appreciate the threat that Kurdish separatism has posed to the state and the dangers that Kurdish militants on the Syrian side of the border pose to national stability.

Mr. Erdogan has reacted furiously to talk of economic and military sanctions in the U.S. and Europe in response to his incursion into Syria.

Mr. Trump has urged Mr. Erdogan to pull back on his Syrian offensive and this week dispatched Vice President Mike Pence and other top administration officials to meet with their Turkish counterparts in the hopes of hammering out a deal. Thus far, however, Turkey has given little indication that it will stand down even as a new alliance among the Kurds, Russia and Syrian President Bashar Assad’s government forces mount fierce counterattacks.

A key NATO cog

Despite Turkey’s provocations and sometimes choppy relationship with NATO — including its long-standing tensions with Greece — the country is inarguably a key cog in the 29-member alliance for a host of reasons.

Turkey’s geography alone makes it a vital partner because it serves as a bridge for Europe, the Middle East and Asia. The Muslim-majority nation also controls the path to the Black Sea, the headquarters of Russia’s naval fleet, and is the only NATO power sharing a border with Syria, Iraq and Iran.

The U.S. and its NATO partners use the Incirlik Air Base in southeast Turkey as a critical staging area and access point to the Middle East, including an estimated arsenal of some 50 U.S. nuclear weapons. The New York Times reported this week that U.S. officials are developing contingency plans for removing the nuclear weapons if instability in the region deepens.

More broadly, some regional analysts say kicking Turkey out of NATO would drive it closer to Russia and shift the power dynamic in the region.

Turkey has the second-largest army of all NATO nations behind the U.S., making it an irreplaceable ally should the alliance find itself in a major war with Russia. It is one of a minority of NATO allies meeting Mr. Trump’s cherished threshold of 2% of gross domestic product for defense spending.

“They occupy some very critical real estate for NATO,” said retired Army Gen. Thomas Spoehr, now director of the Center for National Defense at the conservative Heritage Foundation. “They have a very large, very capable ground army.”

NATO leaders have condemned Turkey’s offensive in Syria but have dismissed the notion of removing the country from the alliance.

“I think it’s better to have Turkey inside NATO than outside NATO, to be honest. I think it’s important to have them in our family and discussion,” Norwegian Prime Minister Erna Solberg said this week.

NATO Secretary General Jens Stoltenberg has urged the Erdogan government to show restraint but has resisted any direct criticism of a key alliance member. NATO as an alliance, he noted, has no role in the Syria clash.

That hasn’t quieted talk in Washington questioning Turkey’s NATO membership. Sen. Lindsey Graham, South Carolina Republican, and House Foreign Relations Committee Chairman Eliot L. Engel, New York Democrat, have floated the idea of suspending or expelling Turkey from the alliance.

Defense Secretary Mark Esper told “Fox News Sunday” that he had warned his Turkish counterparts just ahead of the invasion that an attack on the Kurdish positions “will damage U.S. relations with Turkey, their staying in NATO.”

Even as the White House and congressional leaders weigh powerful economic sanctions on Turkey in response to the Syria incursion, U.S. business groups are warning that a collapse of the relationship between the two countries could have far-reaching financial repercussions.

“The recent deterioration in the relationship between the United States and its NATO ally, Turkey, an important strategic and commercial partner, is profoundly concerning,” Myron Brilliant, executive vice president and head of international affairs at the U.S. Chamber of Commerce, said in a statement Wednesday. “The U.S.-Turkey relationship has proven its value over the years, and every effort should be made to preserve its benefits for both countries.”

Growing rifts

Although the relationship is vital from a geopolitical point of view, critics say, Turkey can no longer be trusted. Mr. Erdogan has soundly rejected Mr. Trump’s calls for a cease-fire in Syria and announced Wednesday that he will travel to Moscow and talk with Russian President Vladimir Putin about the crisis — another sign of the growing partnership between the two nations.

That relationship took a major step forward this year when Turkey brushed off American warnings and purchased the Russian S-400 missile system. As a result, Turkey was ejected from the Pentagon’s F-35 development program. American military officials said the two systems were not compatible and that the presence of the S-400 in Turkey could endanger U.S. national security.

Even as the Syria crisis raged this week, Turkey continued other provocative actions in Europe, including a natural gas drilling effort off the coast of Cyprus. The European Union has called the energy exploration in Cypriot waters illegal.

The U.S. has accused Turkish banks of evading economic sanctions on Iran, and the Erdogan government has fiercely denounced U.S. sanctions programs targeting Iran and Venezuela.

Despite all of that, Turkey’s status in NATO seems all but guaranteed. Even with the will, analysts say, it’s not clear there is a way to oust a recalcitrant ally.

“There is no mechanism under the North Atlantic Treaty to evict a member,” Mr. Bowman said.

He said NATO members could invoke Article 4 of the treaty, which allows for top-level consultations if “in the opinion of any of them, the territorial integrity, political independence or security of any of the parties is threatened.”

“Certainly a credible case could be made that their actions in Syria are threatening members of the alliance,” Mr. Bowman said.

On the flip side, Mr. Erdogan has argued in recent days that all member states should be coming to his aide in the face of attacks from the Russia-Assad-SDF axis and long-standing terrorist threats from Kurdish foes.

“We are a NATO ally. Please note that these countries are all NATO countries,” Mr. Erdogan said. “Whose side should they be on, according to Article 5?”

Article 5 states that an attack on one member of NATO constitutes an attack on all members.

Analysts generally think NATO will survive in its current form — with Turkey in the fold.

NATO is bigger and more enduring than this current spat we’re having,” Mr. Spoehr said.

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