Turkey prepares for more roles in NATO

Turkey prepares for more roles in NATO

Amid claims that it no longer has a place in the Western defense alliance, Turkey is preparing for a greater role in the new NATO strategy expected to be approved in the NATO summit in Brussels on July 11-12.

It is not in vain that United States President Donald Trump told Turkish President Tayyip Erdoğan he was looking forward to meeting him during the NATO Summit, which will be Erdoğan’s first international conference after being re-elected on June 24, in a phone call with the Turkish president on June 26 to congratulate him on winning the June 24 elections. Among the decisions expected to be taken at the summit, there are strategic topics involving Turkey.

One of them is for Turkey to assume the command of NATO’s Very High Readiness Joint Task Force (VJTF) in 2021. The formation of such a force was decided at the NATO Wales Summit 2014 as a “Spearhead Force” to the NATO Response Force (NRF) for the intervention of a possible crisis within a week. Seven NATO members contribute to it in six groups: The German-Dutch forces, the United Kingdom, France, Italy, Spain, Poland, and Turkey. It is a force of around 5,000 formed in five battalions supported by air forces, navies, and special forces of member countries.

According to NATO documents, the idea was to “better respond to the changing security environment to the east and south of the Alliance’s borders.” Turkey, the most southeastern member of the alliance, neighbor both Russia and Middle Eastern countries like Iran, Iraq, and Syria. One of the three tactical command headquarters, the Land Command, is in İzmir, Turkey; the two others being the Maritime Command in Northwood, U.K. and the Air Command in Ramstein, Germany.

The “changing security environment” was the Russian intervention to Ukraine and the annexation of Crimea. NATO had adopted a light attack forces command structure following the Sept. 11, 2001 terrorist attacks by al-Qaeda. The Ukraine case and the concerns of the Baltic states from growing pressure from Russia has forced NATO to adopt a new defense policy.

Now, NATO is expected to approve a new strategy with more emphasis on collective defense, combat readiness, mobility, and cyber warfare. It is called the NATO Readiness Initiative (NRI). The idea is to form a force of 30 battalions (approximately the equivalent of eight brigades), 30 warships, and 30 fleets of fighter jets “ready to be employed” in 30 days when they are needed, according to diplomatic sources, who have asked not to be named. Member countries are expected to allocate the military units to be attached to this initiative by 2020. Turkey is among the few countries expected to assign additional military headquarters, which would be in direct contact with the new command to be formed (together with Spain and Poland).

Ankara is planning to suggest the 3rd Army Corps Headquarters in Istanbul as the contact headquarters for the NRI, which had also previously been designated for the NATO Response Force (NRF) since 2002. The 3rd Army Corps headquarters was one of the bases used by the plotters for the military coup attempt in July 15, 2016 but the government assured NATO officials there would be no problem left by the time Turkey assumes rotational command.

Another issue expected to be on the NATO agenda during the summit is to increase the NATO presence in the Black Sea considering the increased presence of Russia, especially after the annexation of Crimea. Turkey is the NATO member with the longest shore to the Black Sea and naval bases. Its NATO presence in the Black Sea in the form of patrols and exercises has been tripled in the last three years, according to Turkish sources, as long as the 1936 Montreaux agreement permits in terms of days.

Last year, as he was elaborating on the need of a stronger response force, NATO Secretary General Jens Stoltenberg said “multinational battle groups in the eastern part of the Alliance are now fully operational and we are strengthening our presence in the Black Sea region.”

“Turkey abides by all NATO decisions taken,” one official source has told Hürriyet Daily News. “But we have two reservations, such as the binding clauses of the Montreaux agreement and to not attempt any action to agitate Russia, which we have not seen any violation of so far from our allies.”

On the other hand, the Turkish military’s role in NATO in Afghanistan, which is to protect and operate the Kabul airport, and the logistical support it provides via its strategic airbase in southern Turkey, İncirlik, will continue.

The new roles Turkey is expected to assume in addition to the current ones in the Western Alliance was discussed between the Turkish leadership and Stoltenberg during the latter’s meetings in Ankara on April 16-17 this year.

On the other hand, the U.S. and NATO object to the Turkish government’s purchase of the Russian-made S-400 missiles to be integrated to Turkey’s NATO interoperable air defense. Another rift is about the continued arrest of the American pastor Andrew Brunson. Those issues might come up in Erdoğan’s contacts in Brussels. Turkey has demands from NATO as well. For some time, Turkey has been asking NATO and its biggest ally the U.S. for more cooperation and understanding in the fight against terror. Erdoğan and Foreign Minister Mevlüt Çavuşoğlu have said a number of times that the U.S. and NATO member countries should not distinguish between terrorist organizations and should show solidarity with Turkey. “The anti-terror struggle is not a struggle only against the Islamic State of Iraq and Levant [ISIL] and al-Qaeda,” the Turkish source said. “Turkey has been suffering from terrorism a lot, as Stoltenberg acknowledges this.”

Ankara has been objecting to the U.S.’s cooperation with the People’s Protection Units (YPG) in Syria against ISIL, accusing the YPG of being the Syrian wing of the outlawed Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK), which has been attacking Turkey for more than three decades and is designated as a terrorist group by the U.S. as well. Turkey also wants the extradition of Fethullah Gülen, the U.S.-based Islamist preacher who is accused of masterminding the 2016 coup attempt, and the ex-military officers following him, who have sought asylum from different NATO members, mainly Germany and Greece.