Will NATO side with Turkey?

Will NATO side with Turkey?

NATO’s ongoing summit in Warsaw is the most critical summit in its history. It will not only determine the future of the alliance which is in a life-or-death struggle but will also reveal if it sides with Turkey or abandons it amid the frequent bombings by the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (ISIL), missile attacks and border violations.

The previous summit took place in Wales in September 2014, focusing mainly on Russia’s annexation of Crimea and Ukraine’s future. Yet today, even though Russia seems to be on the agenda, the truth of the matter is quite different. 

Washington and Moscow are gradually turning into partners on Syria, to the degree that U.S. President Barack Obama proposed a deal last week on military partnership to his Russian counterpart. As such, Russia seems to be an issue these days only for Eastern European and Baltic countries. EU members who were formerly Soviet satellites, particularly Poland, are forcing NATO to become more active against Russia whereas NATO’s captain, the United States, does not currently perceive Russia as a threat.

Some EU countries are on the same page as Washington. German Foreign Minister Walter Steinmeier accused the alliance of “warmongering” against Russia just two weeks ago, saying exercises in Poland and the Baltics would only inflame the situation. He called for more dialogue and cooperation with Moscow instead.

Today the main threat for NATO is ISIL, which is spreading from Iraq and Syria as they dissolve. The refugee crisis triggered by terrorism is equally threatening. In other words, the raison d’être of NATO has disappeared since the organization was formed by the West against the Soviet camp during the Cold War. Today, those two adversarial camps are on the same front against ISIL. Hence, the organization has to adapt itself immediately to this new security environment.

Doing that, NATO mostly needs Turkey’s help since the new threat is rooted on the southern border of the alliance. Ankara is also in a key position with regard to the solution of the refugee crisis.

In the event that NATO is not able to renew itself in the aftermath of the Warsaw Summit, member states might decide to take care of themselves just like Britain did by deciding to leave the EU. Moreover, everyone around the world is keeping an eye on NATO in the aftermath of the Brexit-vote, wondering if the alliance is doomed to the same destiny.

What NATO needs to urgently do is form “rapid reaction forces” which could be easily deployed in any hotspot and quickly respond to any crisis. According to the latest report of the Atlantic Council in Washington, dialogue with Russia also needs to be strengthened. The NATO-Russia Council, which was formed in 2002 and convened for the first time in 2014, might be activated. Developing partnerships with non-member states and other institutions is also vital.

For Turkey, on the other hand, this summit has three important aspects. The first is Syria. Ankara wants to boost its cooperation and coordination with NATO on Syria. Building a safe zone between Azaz and Jarablus in northern Syria is its highest priority at the summit. The Manbij offensive in northern Syria against ISIL, which has been continuing since June 1, is another one. Turkey is seeking to maximize its cooperation with the U.S. in this operation.

The second item is also related to Syria: The deployment of missile defense systems to Turkey which would strengthen the defense of Turkish airspace. This is exactly why Turkish Foreign Minister Mevlüt Çavuşoğlu said last week that NATO needed to fulfill its promises to Turkey.

After Germany and U.S. withdrew their Patriot missile systems from Turkey recently, only Spain’s Patriot missile defense batteries were left to defend Turkey’s borders. Especially in the wake of the crisis with Russia and the increasing threats coming from the south, Ankara has prioritized this issue. 

To this end, the U.S. promised to deploy the High Mobility Artillery Rocket System (HIMARS) missile defense system in southern Turkey. This system is expected to be deployed in mid-August, with the details to be ironed out at the summit. Italy’s SAMP-T missile system was also deployed on June 20 in the southern province of Kahramanmaraş, with two of the batteries already coming online.

The last item on the table will be NATO’s Aegean mission which has been continuing since February. NATO’s ships started this mission to patrol against human traffickers in order to deter illegal crossings in the Aegean. The alliance wishes to extend the area of the mission. 

Turkey, however, wants the mission to be terminated as soon as possible based on the argument that this might create the image that Ankara cannot manage the patrols itself. Ankara is also telling its NATO allies that the mission is creating additional tension between Ankara and Athens who have been in dispute over their territorial waters for decades and that the number of illegal crossings has already dropped significantly. 

Ultimately, though, we’ll have to wait for the inventory check from Warsaw.