The AKP discovers NATO
The average Justice and Development Party (AKP) supporter looks at NATO in much the same way as the Taliban does. For them, it is a hatefully anti-Islamic alliance guided by the United States at Israel’s behest. This view is also shared by many non-Islamists in Turkey, of course, but that has little bearing on how AKP supporters look on the matter.
It is hardly surprising that the Islamist view of NATO was shared by Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdoğan in the past as well. After all, the photograph showing him as a youth sitting admiringly at the feet of the violently anti-NATO Afghan Mujahideen leader and Taliban ally, Gulbuddin Hekmatyar, is still used against him today.
Erdoğan’s initial reaction to the suggestion that NATO should intervene in Libya was also a case in point. The prospect of the alliance acting against an Islamic country had led him to question vocally, and with an indignant tone of self-righteous disapproval, what business NATO had in that country.
How he ended up swallowing his words, going on to stress that Turkey, as a committed NATO member, was assisting the alliance against Moammar Gadhafi’s loyalists, is history at this stage. Another characteristic of Erdoğan’s, which surfaced again recently over the Gaza crisis, is the way he hits at the West in a manner designed to play to the anti-Western Islamic gallery in Turkey and the region. Erdoğan’s angry remarks in relation to the Syrian crisis have not been much different.
He has openly suggested in the Syrian case that if those being killed were not Muslim, the West would have intervened long ago. But imbedded in this approach of Erdoğan’s is the very contradiction that is coming home to roost now as far as he is concerned.
The same Erdoğan that was once angry over the prospect of a Western military intervention in an Islamic country in order to change its regime is now bemoaning the fact that the West is not interfering in Syria to topple its regime. More to the point, however, the Erdoğan government is now relying on the very NATO that AKP grassroots supporters have no love for in order to secure Turkey’s defense needs. Its request from the alliance to deploy Patriot batteries on the Turkish-Syrian border is the most obvious indication of this.
This “discovery” of the alliance’s importance for Turkey by the AKP is, of course, problematic for Erdoğan in terms of public opinion. As it is, AKP supporters were also displeased over the decision to allow the deployment in Turkey of the radars for NATO’s missile defense shield. Many Turks still believe this system is there to defend Israel against Iran.
This is why Erdoğan and senior AKP officials are bending over backwards now to explain that Turkey’s borders are also NATO borders, and that it is normal for Ankara to seek support from an alliance it has been a key member of for over half a century. The AKP is also trying to float some urban myths – albeit to little effect – about the deployment of Patriot batteries in order to assuage public disquiet. The most notable example is the claim that “the trigger” of the Patriot batteries will be in Turkish hands. This notion, however, goes against the grain in terms of how NATO’s command structure is constituted. The truth is that the “trigger” is in NATO’s hands, and while Turkey has an equal say in the matter as a key alliance member, it is not the sole “deciding or operative factor” here.
The bottom line in all this, however, is that the AKP has discovered the value of its NATO membership in terms of national security needs. This contrasts sharply with its stance a mere two years ago when, apart from other things, Ankara was courting Syria and Iran over Western objections and giving the appearance that it was moving away from NATO.
Seeing the AKP acknowledge the continuing importance of Turkey’s NATO membership can’t be going down too badly in countries and quarters that still value this alliance, whatever Islamists may feel over the development.