Who needs the other more, Turkey or the US?
The second greatest mistake in terms of domestic public relations strategy would be to present NATO as a club of Western European nations that are insensitive to Turkey’s perception of threats.
It’s true that some NATO members, including the United States, are not showing solidarity in terms of responding to Turkey’s concerns over the YPG, which Ankara says is the illegal PKK’s wing in Syria. On the contrary, not only have some of them been cooperating with the YPG; they have also refused to define it as a terror organization on NATO documents, an issue that has overshadowed the North Atlantic Alliance’s London summit at the beginning of the month.
But Turkey has never relied on NATO to fight PKK terror, and despite frustrations, it experienced along the way, Turkey has always secured NATO solidarity in times of crisis. Patriots were deployed in Turkey even though some members showed hesitations and Turkey received strong NATO backing after it downed a Russian jet in 2015.
Recently, Turkey has been threatening to shut down İncirlik airbase, where the U.S. and other NATO member airplanes are making use of the facility in accordance with the agreements made with the Turkish government.
The scope of Ankara’s threat is not limited to İncirlik; Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan has said Kürecik radar base can also be closed, a possibility that was voiced by Foreign Minister Mevlüt Çavuşoğlu last July in response to eventual U.S. sanctions.
Kürecik plays a key role in NATO’s ballistic missile defense network. It is supposed to track down missiles coming from Iran but also has the capacity to watch Russia as well. In that sense, it is one of the elements protecting NATO members from a missile attack. Closing Kürecik will unleash a reaction from NATO members, who might then decide to pull out the Patriots deployed in Turkey’s southeast.
It is safe to speculate that one of the reasons why Turkey is bringing Kürecik to the table is Israel. It is highly probable that the U.S. is sharing the information that it gets from Kürecik with Israel, and even if it did not, if Kürecik was to track a missile heading to Israel, it is impossible to expect Washington to sit and watch its most important ally be hit with an Iranian detrimental weapon.
It is not important whether this is a bluff by Ankara and that it will never close Kürecik. To use a NATO facility on a bilateral contention with a member country will leave a mark on other member countries that might remember this episode when Turkey will come with some requests in the future.
It appears that Turkey does not care about irritating its NATO allies, which might have some unpleasant consequences. This might be based on the assumption that Turkey does not stand to win staying in NATO or that whatever support Turkey got so far is not that meaningful. Indeed, the current Justice and Development Party (AKP) key constituency is usually known to be anti-U.S. and anti-NATO.
While Ankara might have lived occasional disappointments, NATO membership has been a crucial element in Turkey’s geostrategic strength. In that respect, the work by the Center for Economics and Foreign Policy Studies (EDAM) on possible past and future scenarios had Turkey not been a NATO member is an invaluable eye-opener.
One would wish a similar work was done by Turkey’s Western allies. İncirlik airbase can be replaced. The Germans left Turkey for Jordan. Perhaps Kürecik may be somehow replaced as well. Finding alternatives to these two bases might have financial costs. But if it was just a financial issue, it would not be so difficult to opt for alternatives. After all, the German public is not angry at Angela Merkel for going with the Jordan option even if it might have proven more costly.
There are many more important issues at stake.
Look at the United States legacy in the Middle East. Washington has been losing the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan; it has costed billions of dollars, but more importantly, the lives of U.S. soldiers. Russia is back in the Middle East with its growing presence in Syria, and Iran has widened its influence throughout the region with its role in Iraq, Syria, and Lebanon.
A cost-benefit analysis of what would happen if Turkey was to remain outside of the Western alliance could prove timely. Perhaps such an analysis could prove that Turkey is not that indispensable for the West. In such a case, that could also help the Turkish public to better evaluate Ankara’s moves and decide to what degree it will be wise to resort to bluffs or whether Turkey should go ahead and show that they are not bluffs.