The rift between Turkey and NATO will continue to grow as long as Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan’s Syrian policy takes precedence over amicable relations with the West. For NATO leadership, and particularly the US Trump administration, if the intra-alliance conflict worsens to the point of Turkey being ousted from NATO, the United States is signaling the end to American dominance in the Levant and Anatolia.1
The origin of the current row can be traced back to the July 2016 FaceTime Coup attempt in Turkey to oust Erdoğan.2 3 4 As the coup failed, either due to poor planning or being a false flag, the Turkish government used it as an opportunity to launch a massive campaign of arrests to purge all anti-government Kemalists from the military, academia, and media.5 6 It was a major victory for the President’s non-Kemalist ruling Justice and Development Party (Adalet ve Kalkınma Partisi or AKP), as it allowed an unprecedented concentration of power into the civilian state apparatus. Since its founding in 1923, the military has acted as a Kemalist deep state to check civilian power if reactionary elements attempted to subvert the republic’s founding principles.7 By the end of the FaceTime Coup purges, the Kemalist forces were effectively castrated, and for the first time, civilian rule was virtually unopposed.
For an in-depth overview of the history of Turkey, its political institutions, Kurdish separatism, and the Turkish political climate, refer to Class Jihad’s Understanding Modern Turkey.
The AKP became emboldened, as past reactionary governments were overthrown after they implemented a too expansionist, socially conservative, or Islamist policy. Capitalizing on this success, on August 24th, 2016, Erdogan officially launched a military intervention into Syria – Operation Euphrates Shield – under the auspice of combating the Islamic State and anti-Turkish Kurdish separatists that they claimed sought refuge across the border.8 Turkey maintains that the dominant Kurdish political party in Rojava, the Democratic Union Party (PYD), is the Syrian wing of the militant Kurdistan Worker’s Party (PKK) that has been waging an insurgency on and off since the late 1970s to establish a sovereign socialist state for the Kurdish people.9 10 Considering that the PKK’s ideology of Democratic Confederalism, developed by the PKK’s founder and ideological head, Abdullah Öcalan, is shared with the PYD, it is hard to believe there is no cooperation between the two.11 12
The Kurdish separatists in question were the Kurdish People’s Protection Units (YPG) of Northern Syria (also known as Rojava or Western Kurdistan) that arose from the chaos of the Syrian Civil War to defend their local communities from the then Islamic State in Syria and the Levant (ISIS). Extensive YPG victories resulted in de facto autonomous rule and a flood of US and international leftist support. The YPG eventually merged with other militias to form the core of the US-backed Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF) of the newly reorganized Democratic Federation of Northern Syria (DFNS).13
From the standpoint of Turkey, the existence of a heavily militarized Anarchist-influenced regime (less so with the pluralist DFNS) on its southern border that is openly hostile in is ideological view is less than acceptable.14 Paired with the almost certainty that it is acting as a safe harbor and training ground for the primary source of domestic terror, an international observer would be hard pressed to not see the rationality behind a pro-active anti-separatist intervention.15
Despite the fact that the US, Turkey, and the DFNS were NATO allies, the Turkish operation wasted no time in its targeting YPG/SDF forces. Shortly thereafter, the Turkish military had seized Manbij from the Federation.16 It came as a shock to western observers who remarked that international NATO troops were embedded with the YPG (many foreign nationals and international YPG volunteers, including American citizens, died), and the operation was a brazen disregard for the alliance.17 US troops withdrew from certain positions, abandoning once key allies (which was likely to happen sooner or later).
Over the past two years, Turkey has launched other military operations, Operation Olive Branch for example, with a similar stated goal.18 Each intervention having the effect of occupying more DFNS territory from an eradicated Kurdish resistance. 19
From August 2016 onward, Turkey and the US exchanged tit for tat in retaliation to each other’s diplomatic pressure. That same month, Erdogan arrested an American pastor, ultimately holding him for two years, and sparking off a list of sanctions by Trump meant to cripple the Turkish economy.20 Even more, Turkey has ordered Russian S-300 missile defense systems in direct defiance of NATO member regulations and engaging in joint Russo-Turk peacekeeping patrols around Idlib.21 22
A Turkey-NATO row is not unsurprising as historically Turkey has never truly (nor does it wish to) fit clearly into one “camp” or the other. Such fickle allegiance is particularly exacerbated by power in Turkey flipping between the radically secular and pro-western, yet predominantly economically socialist, Republican People’s Party (Cumhuriyet Halk Partisi or CHP) of the country’s founder Mustafa Kemal Atatürk, and the reactionary and economically liberal, now Neo-liberal, conservative Islamism that periodically arises (i.e. the contemporary AKP).
While Turkey is adamant in forging its own path, they joined NATO in 1952 under the reactionary Democratic Party (Demokrat Parti or DP) of Celâl Bayar. The DP obviously lacked the stronger anti-western sentiments that colored future reactionary politicians as they joined NATO, but Turkey joined the organization as it afforded protection against the great historical enemy of the Ottomans/Turks, Russia (not necessary the Soviet Union per se). Ironically, Mustafa Kemal’s number two, and second president, İsmet İnönü, secretly traveled to the USSR to study the Soviet’s 5-year plan model to implement it domestically. Despite this – it was secret after all –, the Turk’s popular historical memory was rife with recollections of Russian aggression and interference into the affairs of the Anatolian Turks.23
Just three decades before, in 1920, the infant Soviet Republic (the USSR being formed in 1922) encouraged and aided the Armenians in waging a war for independence (1914 – 1923) against the quasi-liberal Ottoman constitutional caliphate of the Young Turks (1908). Before that, it was Tzarist Russia’s desire to regain legitimacy, as the paternal protector of Orthodox Christians, that were briefly lost due to inaction during the Balkan Wars (1912 – 1913). This drive is partially responsible for Russia’s hard stance in defending Serbia and dragging the Ottomans firmly into World War I (1914 – 1918). Shortly before the onset of the Balkan Wars, Russia launched a war to gain a strategic Ottoman Black Sea port in what became the Crimean War (1853 – 1856).
The list of Russian aggression against the Ottomans goes on seemingly in perpetuity, and this highlights the decision by Bayar to join NATO despite his reactionary tendencies. For context, Bayar’s successor as the leader of the DP, Adnan Menderes, made comments mulling the idea of democratically re-instating the Caliphate. The Turkish War of Independence fought against the Ottoman Caliphate, and Kemal’s Republicans were responsible for disbanding it. These comments, in conjunction with the DP’s rightist policies, resulted in the first Turkish military coup (1960). In what would eventually become routine for the Turks, the provisional military government promptly restored civilian control with the CHP at its head.
The anti-Russian, and the even stronger anti-communist, strain of Turkish reactionary politics continued after Menderes and Bayar throughout the Cold War. The radical state atheism of the Soviets, the rigid French secularism of Kemalism, and other political tendencies were rightfully viewed as Western in origin by the country’s conservatives.
Having just emphasized the anti-Russianism of the Turkish right, it is easy to claim that the AKP has broken with this trend. On the contrary, Erdoğan’s nonchalant disregard for NATO and growing economic and military cooperation with Russia indicates that the AKP is continuing the conservative political tradition started by Bayar.24 Erdoğan is fairly forthcoming with his beliefs, and has openly declared that the AKP is “realizing Menderes’s dream.”
“They may have executed him, but he is not forgotten. He is in our hearts.” -Erdoğan, 201425
“Despite the fact that 56 years have passed since his death, Menderes and his colleagues have gradually strengthened their preeminent places in our heart” -Erdoğan, 201726
Just as a military alliance with the West en masse in 1952 should be understood in the context of opposing the primary regional source of Western influence (the USSR), with the end of the Cold War, the battles lines between “East” and “West” have shifted to a point where Russia is a peripheral ally to the East (i.e. Iran, Syria, and etc.). Turkey is essentially taking a play from the anti-revisionist Marxist-Leninist – fondly known as the Tankies – playbook.
The collapse of the Soviet Union in 1991 decimated the social and military foundations of the once extensive Tzarist, then Soviet, geopolitical might. The transition from Soviet Russia to simply Russia knocked the Russians down a peg. As a secondary power, NATO lost its status as the lesser evil among Turkish conservatives.
The AKP took power in 2002, just as the Pax Americana (1991 – 2001) had come to a close. Al-Qaeda’s September 11th attack on American soil targeted the physical manifestation of the United State’s unchallenged Neo-colonial economic might and is an obvious turning point in the geopolitical dialectic. The 21st century saw the United States complete its transition into the Neo-liberal era. The more traditional balance of power diplomacy between two opposing imperial powers had given way to a consolidation of capital and political influence previously unknown. United States’ foreign policy had to adapt and become primarily pro-active and aggressive to ensure no power could rise to challenge it and to ensure that American capital continued to flow into foreign nations in ever-increasing quantities to maintain the sheer weight of the military state apparatus. Like melange spice, the capital must flow. For the American state to survive, it had to become an Arrakeen State. President Bush’s “War on Terror” is an apt example of the American state’s new need for the perpetual projection of military might.
Since the United States’ status as a Liberal Neo-colonial regime remained unphased, compared to the detrimental changes faced by Russia, the contemporary definition of the Western world is that of the global north. The inverse of this is that the East is the global south, and not predominantly Old World countries as during the Cold War. The West’s contemporary war against the Muslim World is a war by the wealthy Neo-liberal regimes to maintain economic hegemony.
States by their very nature are rational actors and the pragmatic realpolitik in the Neo-liberal era means that nations that have risen or fallen to the status of second-rate powers will develop close relations with a foreign government that would have been an adversary during the Cold War. While the membership of the Western camp – NATO – remains much the same as it did 40 years ago, the Eastern camp now more closely resembles the Non-aligned Movement than a Warsaw Pact. Russia continued to support its remaining Cold War socialist allies like Cuba, but necessity has caused Russia to also reach out to Iran and China (both firmly anti-Soviet by the 1980s). Currently, in Venezuela, there are military aircraft sent by Russia, Iran, and China to support the Chavista government of Nicolás Maduro as the US threatens with its own military intervention.27 28
The anti-Western nature of Turkey’s AKP government means that a closer relationship with the Eastern camp would be inevitable so long as Erdoğan remained in power. This tendency is brought clearly into the light with Erdoğan’s expansionist Neo-Ottomanist Syrian Policy. As with any reactionary movement, they seek to regain the glory of the past by attempting to recreate the past by enacting antiquated policies and engaging in anachronistic foreign policy. In Germany it manifests as a romanticization of Prussia, Monarchists in Spain, and obviously the Ottoman Empire in Turkey. The core of Neo-Ottomanism is attempting to regain control over, or develop closer relationships with, former imperial Ottoman territorial holdings. This is exasperated by the existence of a Turkish diaspora scattered throughout the near-east that remained after the collapse of Ottoman rule. The same thing happened with the Germans from the 2nd Reich, and with the Russians from the Soviet Union. If the comparison is unnerving, it is because history teaches us what these conditions can result in.
Foreseeing this possibility, Kemal ensured that Turkey’s borders are constitutionally mandated and immutable. Never to be deterred, Turkey has relied upon proxy states which they govern through the Turkmen diaspora. This was the case in Cyprus when a Greek irredentist government began to persecute the island’s Turkish denizens and the Turkish Republic of Northern Cyprus (TRNC) was established as a de facto sovereign state by way of Turkish military intervention.
In Syria, there are the Suriye Türkmenleri, who under the pretext of self-defense, formed the Syrian Turkmen Assembly (Suriye Türkmen Meclisi or STM) and its armed supporters, the Syrian Turkmen Brigades (Suriye Türkmen Tugayları or STT). The STM, a puppet of Ankara, governs its territory in northwestern Syria as the STT fights alongside Turkish military regulars to expand its control. It is here that US and Turkish interests collide. The US has been losing influence in the Mashriq for years, and the proxy states established by the US are slipping from its grasp.
Up until this point, the DFNS has served as NATO’s proxy and had the potential to replace the Syrian government entirely or cripple it through a Cold War-style power-sharing deal. Erdoğan has thrown a wrench in this plan as it besieges the DFNS, and ironically pushes it to work with Syria to conjointly combat Turkish incursions.29 30
The Turks have little reason to play by NATO’s rules anymore. Ankara’s Syrian policy is no secret to NATO leadership, and cognizant of the potential dangers, the US has taken a mixed policy of appeasement. Under the Obama administration a “post-war governance plan” for Northern Syria that saw Turkish control was openly reported, and Trump’s early 2019 announcement of a military withdrawal from Syria included a “small” Turkish administered buffer zone along the Turko-Syrian border.31 32 33
The projection of US/NATO military force is wholly dependent on a cooperative NATO Turkey, İncirlik Airbase, in Adana, is the home to the US’s nuclear arsenal. Without Turkey, there would remain few potential bases of operation in the immediate vicinity. In contrast, both Russia and Iran have ample allies, and US Vice President Pence’s harsh words with the Turkish VP Oktay only leaves Erdoğan with a few options.34 While Russia still supports Assad and has historically targeted the STT, they are looking for a compromise. Meetings are already underway between Erdoğan, Russian President Putin, and Iranian President Rouhani. A pacified bear to the north would suit Turkey’s long-term plans in Syria, and potentially Northern Iraq, nicely.35 36
- Alex Lockie. “Turkey’s president threatened a major blow to the US – but Trump looks to have called his bluff,” Business Insider. August 14, 2018.
- “Turkey’s failed coup attempt: All you need to know,” Al-Jazeera. July 15, 2017.
- “Turkey’s coup attempt: What you need to know,” BBC. July 17, 2016.
- Patrick Kingsley and Ghaith Abdul-Ahad. “Military coup attempted in Turkey against Erdoğan government,” The Guardian. July 15, 2016.
- Leela Jacinto. “Turkey’s Post-Coup Purge and Erdogan’s Private Army,” Foreign Policy. July 13, 2017.
- Mehtap Sooyler. The Turkish Deep State: State Consolidation, Civil-Military Relations and Democracy (Routledge, 2015).
- “260,000 Syrians returned to ‘Euphrates Shield’ operation area: Turkish defense minister,” Hürriyet Daily News. November 1, 2018.
- Mahmut Bozarslan. “Turkey’s new Kurdish card in Syria: Kurds themselves,” Al-Monitor. March 5, 2019.
- “Washington knows PKK-YPG ties: Envoy,” Hürriyet Daily News. May 23, 2019.
- Joris Leverink. “Murray Bookchin and the Kurdish resistance,” Roar. August 5, 2015.
- Amberin Zaman. “Turkey kills PKK leader in Sinjar,” Al-Monitor. August 16, 2018.
- Carlotta Gall and Mark Landler. “Turkish President Snubs Bolton Over Comments That Turkey Must Protect Kurds,” The New York Times. January 8, 2019.
- Bora Bayraktar. “What is Turkey’s plan in Syria?,” Hürriyet Daily News. December 28, 2018.
- “Joint Turkey-US patrols begin in Syria’s Manbij,” Hürriyet Daily News. November 1, 2018.
- Seth Harp. “Two Americans Among Seven Westerners Killed by Turkish Forces in Syria,” Daily Beast. March 23, 2018.
- Alex Lockie. “A simple misunderstanding between Trump and Erdogan may have tanked Turkey’s economy,” Business Insider. August 14, 2018.
- Christopher Woody. “Turkey has completed its purchase of Russia’s advanced missile system, and relations with NATO are still tense,” Business Insider. November 15, 2017
- Christopher Woody. “Congress wants to halt F-35 sales to a NATO ally over Mattis’ objections, and it’s a sign of growing tension,” Business Insider. July 24, 2018.
- Patrick Kinross. Ataturk. (Phoenix, 2001).
- Bora Bayraktar. “Dynamics of Turkish-Russian partnership,” Hürriyet Daily News. January 25, 2019.
- Ishaan Tharoor. “The execution of a former Turkish leader that still haunts Erdoğan,” The Washington Post. July 30, 2016.
- “Erdoğan lauds role of former Premier Adnan Mederes,” Anadolu Agency. September 16, 2017.
- Tom O’Connor. “Russia, China and Iran Defend Support for Venezuela, warn U.S. cannot tell them or Latin America What to do,” Newsweek. April 15, 2019.
- Tom O’Connor. “Iran Follows Russia to Venezuela, but U.S. Military Sees China as ‘True Threat’,” Newsweek. April 9, 2019.
- Bassem Mroue. “Top Syrian Kurdish official says Kurds ready to fight Turkey,” AP. January 8, 2019.
- “Russia welcomes new Manbij agreement between SDF, SAA,” Al-Masdar News. December 28, 2018.
- Louisa Loveluck and John Hudson. “U.S. military announces start of Syria withdrawal,” The Washington Post. January 11, 2019.
- Chris Mills Rodrigo. “Turkey’s top spy meets with US lawmakers, intelligence officials: report,” The Hill. December 7, 2018.
- D. Parvaz. “After Trump announces plan to let troops stay in Syria, experts worry about ‘in-between’ approach,” Think Progress. February 22, 2019.
- Recep Tayyip Erdoğan. “Erdogan: How Turkey Sees the Crisis With the U.S.,” The New York Times. August 10, 2018.
- “Turkey aims to eradicate ‘terror threat’,” Hürriyet Daily News. May 28, 2019.
- Serkan Demirtaş. “Turkey’s offensive into Iraq has long-term objectives,” Hürriyet Daily News. May 29, 2019.