Amid the flurry of coronavirus-related headlines in the past weeks, a new crisis has emerged which appears to have caught international commentators equally off-guard. News reports detailing clashes between the Turkish Armed Forces (TSK) and Assad regime troops in Syria’s northern Idlib province are becoming a common occurrence, as Russia and Turkey persistently linger on the brink of armed confrontation in the Middle East and tens of thousands of migrants flood north from Turkey into Europe. This latest bloody episode in the Syrian Civil War is the product of a new strategic outlook that has blossomed in President Erdoğan’s Turkey. Ankara now speaks and acts more like an independent middle power than a loyal NATO ally, and it is this new reality that policymakers in the West must urgently understand.
Following its ascension into NATO in 1952, Turkey served as a valuable contribution to the alliance for two main reasons. First and foremost, Turkey controls the strategic Dardanelles maritime passage, through which all Russian shipping leaving from the Black Sea has to pass. During the Cold War, this meant that a pro-Western Turkey could deny maritime access to the entire southern portion of the Soviet Union. Turkey also stood as a strong military power that could challenge Moscow in the Black Sea, the Caucuses and the Wallachian plain in southern Romania. Beyond the Russian periphery, Turkey also acted as a strategic bulwark in the Middle East, affording NATO influence in the turbulent region’s affairs while protecting the European continent’s southern approaches.
The increasingly authoritarian rule of President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan, however, has seen Turkey embrace a new vision of strategic independence outside of NATO. It has since ceased both to effectively contain Russia in the north and act as a bulwark in the Middle East. Though one of Moscow’s natural rivals, Turkey has occasionally even chosen to prioritise cooperation with Russia over NATO. The purchase of high-tech Russian S-400 surface-to-air missiles in 2019 critically undermined NATO military interoperability and forced the United States to levy sanctions on the Turkish economy and remove Turkey from the F-35 programme.
Meanwhile, in the Middle East, Erdoğan’s Turkey has long abandoned any pretence of acting as NATO’s bulwark. Seeking to create his own sphere of influence in the Middle East by leveraging fundamentalist and authoritarian allies in Somalia, Qatar, Libya, Syria and Sudan, Erdoğan has left NATO to fend for itself in the region.
It was only after the Islamic State had reached its territorial peak in 2015 that Turkey reluctantly allowed NATO to use a joint base in Turkey to launch airstrikes into Syria, despite the terrorist organisation posing an intolerable threat to NATO member states at the time. Remarkably, Turkey would continue to threaten the United States with cancelling their rights to the airbase well into 2019. There is also convincing evidence that Turkey purchased oil from ISIS during the organisation’s occupation of western Syria, an unacceptable betrayal of the alliance.
Turkey’s consistent refusal to fight ISIS–despite having the second-largest military in NATO and directly bordering occupied territories forced NATO members to support Kurdish forces in Syria instead. Turkey decried Western support for the Kurds, with whom it has bitterly fought for decades, even though it was its own failure to fight ISIS that had generated the NATO-Kurdish partnership. Ankara eventually went on to defy NATO’s partnership with the Kurds to bludgeon the Syrian Kurds in several military campaigns, proving it had the ability to decisively intervene in Syria after all.
Returning to the events of this week, as Syrian airstrikes hit Turkish troop positions in Syria, and TSK troops clash with Assad regime forces throughout Idlib, President Erdoğan is furiously demanding that NATO comes to his aid (and to the aid of the al-Qaeda-like offshoots he is backing in Syria). Ankara sees NATO’s refusal to put troops on the ground to defend Turkish-backed troops of a similar flavour to groups NATO has long fought in Iraq, Afghanistan and the Horn of Africa as an outrageous betrayal. It was this refusal which saw Erdoğan open Turkey’s border with the EU to migrants he had previously sheltered as part of a deal with Brussels. As a result, the EU is now threatened by a destabilising wave of human migration brought on by a key partner which expects to be treated as a NATO ally while it behaves like an uncooperative third power.
Western policymakers must respond to the dilemma of Turkey’s new strategic position by accepting two key facts. Firstly, NATO members must accept that Erdoğan’s Turkey is neither sufficiently challenging Russia in the north nor supporting the alliance in the south. Secondly, if Erdoğan desires Turkey to have an independent foreign policy, then that is what he should get. The geography of Turkey’s region will prevent Ankara from forming any meaningful strategic partnership with Russia, which will leave Turkey without allies in both the west and the east. There is, therefore, no use in attempting to placate Erdoğan’s Turkey, given that it has no intention of helping NATO in return and cannot turn to Russia. When Erdoğan is eventually removed from power by an increasingly disenchanted voter base, it will become possible to welcome Ankara back into the Western strategic fold. Until then, we must learn to understand the new Turkey.
Hugh McFarlane is a Bachelor of Security Studies student at Macquarie University with an interest in European, Middle Eastern and North African geostrategy.