Turkey and NATO: 45 years ago, 45 years later

Turkey and NATO: 45 years ago, 45 years later

NATO was established in 1949. Turkey and Greece became members in 1952. If there was no NATO at the time, Ankara would have had to invent it. Russia was breathing down Turkey’s neck and the country needed Western allies to keep it in check. Turkey paid for that protection in blood. Prior to Ankara’s NATO accession, a 5,000-strong Turkish brigade was shipped off to fight in the Korean War in 1950 and 741 of them died. 

But these days many people are wondering whether Turkey and NATO are growing apart. Are they really? I don’t think so. Let me elaborate.

Whenever I’m asked about this question, I have an image in my mind: The image of the Hamid Karzai International Airport in Kabul, Afghanistan. From the air, Kabul looks almost like one of those empty ancient cities where all the inhabitants packed and left centuries ago. At dusk, as your plane descends, the airport is a small, dark place. It’s a holdout where you check out from modernity.

The Hamid Karzai Airport is used both for private and military purposes. It is protected by Turkish soldiers who are part of the International Security Assistance Force (ISAF), the NATO-led, U.N.-mandated mission to Afghanistan. The Turkish Armed Forces are also on active duty in Somalia and Kosovo, both under NATO command. The ominous question “why are Turkey and NATO growing apart?” does not come anybody’s mind if you are in any of these places. It’s clear where Turkey stands. But when it comes to Syria it is different. Why?

Geography is destiny. We have a 900-km border with Syria, while Afghanistan is a faraway country. Since the start of the civil war in Syria, around 3.5 million Syrians have moved to Turkey. Ethnic and religious fault lines have become more sensitive inside Turkey as a result of developments in Syria. A peace process with the outlawed Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK) broke down and groups based in Syria staged attacks on civilians in our major cities, including at Ataturk Airport. This is a priority far more elemental than an international commitment could ever be.

What President Erdoğan has been feeling was not unlike the frustration felt by various Turkish prime ministers since intercommunal violence erupted in Cyprus in December 1963. In June 1964, the New York Times reported it as follows: “Violence between the two communities broke out in December over the Greek Cypriotes’ efforts to alter the Constitution to strengthen their governmental authority.”

Turkey, as a country with a $500 per capita GDP, had no planes outside NATO use and no landing ships to intervene in Cyprus. But it still made noises about intervention, which prompted U.S. President Lyndon Johnson to write a letter reminding Turkish Prime Minister İsmet İnönü of “the commitment of your government to consult fully in advance with the United States.” He also went on about Turkey’s duty to NATO and the United Nations, but he needn’t have. The letter was deeply humiliating to the Turks.

Still, that incident was the spark that Turkey’s defense industry needed. It took a decade to build military capacity, but when ready in 1974 Turkey acted despite U.S. warnings. In 1975, the United States put an arms embargo on its NATO ally, but Turkey had already changed the game. Things smoothed out over time, so much so that by the time Turkey and the U.S. stood on different sides of the conflict in Syria people thought it was a first.

That’s how I see “Operation Olive Branch” today. Turkey needs to respond to existential threats. Whether these threats are indeed existential or not is a different discussion. What’s important is that Ankara feels that they are, and it acts to preserve its interests. It’s a frustrating experience for Ankara, based on frustration at not being able to do anything effective for a very long time. In both cases, it is the apathy of our allies that led to the buildup of this frustration.

Turkey is part of the NATO alliance and every once in a while it feels like it needs to put its foot down. That does not necessarily mean that it is bound to leave.

Güven Sak, NATO, Russia, Turkey, Syria, Middle East, opinion, analysis, US