What kind of alliance is this?
Turkey’s withdrawal of military officers from a drill of the Western defense alliance NATO on Nov. 17 has turned into a scandal.
The news was revealed by President Tayyip Erdoğan in an address to his Justice and Development Party (AK Parti) officials in Ankara. He said he was informed by Turkish Chief of General Staff Hulusi Akar - while Akar was on his way to attend the Halifax Security Conference in Canada - about photos of himself and Mustafa Kemal Atatürk, the founder of the Republic of Turkey, that were shown in the drill as “enemy leaders.” Upon hearing this, Erdoğan said he ordered the withdrawal of 40 Turkish officers from the drill, named “Trident Javelin,” and said they would not return if there is no corrective action.
There were indeed corrective actions in the following hours. The Norwegian military said two officers, including one who is of Kurdish descent, responsible for the scandal were fired immediately. NATO Secretary General Jens Stoltenberg also issued a formal apology to Turkey.
But the crisis is not likely to come to an end with such steps.
NATO sources say the Trident Javelin exercise was designed as a command post/computer-assisted exercise without troops on the ground, and was a unique training event for the command structure of the alliance. The drill, which was supposed to enhance preparedness against hostile measures, including possible ones from Russia, could not be completed successfully.
Amid the scandal, earlier on Nov. 17 the Defense News magazine reported a warning by a U.S. military official regarding Ankara’s intention to purchase a Russian S-400 air defense system. There are actually NATO-operated U.S.-made Patriot air defense systems temporarily located in Turkey at present - mainly to provide protection for the strategic İncirlik air base (where U.S. nuclear warheads are also kept). There is also a NATO-operated U.S.-radar for the global Defense Shield system, mainly to counter possible missile attacks on the U.S. and Europe stemming from the U.S.’s involvement in the Syrian civil war.
The U.S. official’s warning said that if Turkey goes ahead and buys the S-400 Russian missiles, its access to NATO defense systems could be restricted, which could also affect the F-35 enhanced jet fighter, of which Turkey is among the co-producers.
Turkey recently got into long-term negotiations for the joint production of French-Italian design Aster 30 air defense systems, which have NATO interoperability. But it wants the S-400s for short term needs, mainly because there is no guarantee that the U.S. Congress will approve weapons sales to Turkey even if Turkey decides to buy from the U.S. After all, a ban was imposed on the export of small handguns to Turkey after the bodyguards of President Tayyip Erdoğan beat up protesters in Washington in May 2017, while arrest warrants were also issued against the bodyguards.
President Erdoğan has said there was no problem when Greece procured Russian S-300 missiles around 20 years ago. But actually it was a problem for Athens, which could not be plugged into the NATO system because of this decision, and the S-300s are now rusting away in a military warehouse on the island of Crete. Ultimately, Turkey will have to pay $2.5 billion for Russian missiles that will not be able to be used in harmony with NATO and will probably see any Russian made plane or missile as a friend, rather than as a foe (including those that could come, for example, from Syria).
However, Turkey currently has more than one serious problem with the U.S., the locomotive force of NATO. These problems are causing a rift between the two countries, prompting both Americans and Turks to question the long-running alliance between their countries.
The U.S. partnership against the outlawed Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (ISIL) with the Syrian branch of the outlawed Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK) - which has been fighting against Turkey for the last three decades (and which is also designated as a terrorist group by the U.S.) - is just one of these problems. Another one is the residence in Pennsylvania of Islamist preacher Fethullah Gülen, accused of masterminding Turkey’s July 2016 military coup attempt. An Iranian-Turkish gold trader Reza Zarrab is in an American jail, accused of violating U.S. sanctions on Iran together with a Turkish public bank official, which also greatly angers Erdoğan and compounds problems. On the other hand, an American pastor, Andrew Brunson, is currently under arrest in Turkey accused of having links to the illegal network of Gülen. Meanwhile, the U.S. has restricted issuing visas in Turkey due to the ongoing arrest of two (Turkish citizen) employees of U.S. diplomatic missions in Turkey.
After the Truman Doctrine of 1947, Turkey became an important part of the Western alliance. But at present every unfolding event seems to be shaking this alliance. Turkey’s move away from the Western system - loosening its alliance within NATO and drifting from the European Union – will ultimately benefit neither Turkey nor the West.
Turkey has serious domestic problems right now, from its judicial system to media freedom. These have only gotten heavier under the state of emergency declared after the 2016 coup attempt. But antagonizing the situation by testing the country’s nerves is not likely to be helpful for this already problematic outlook.