Turkey’s Crisis with the West: How a New Low in Relations Risks Paralyzing NATO

War on the Rocks

By Antoine Got

NATO’s most important challenge today may not come from Russia, but
from within. With the number of disputes between Turkey and several
European allies yet again on the rise, the two parties’ souring
relations have begun undermining the organization’s cohesion and
ability to make timely collective decisions. If left unaddressed,
these tensions could cause serious damage to the world’s most powerful

The latest flashpoint came from Turkey’s open backing of Azerbaijan’s
war effort in the small landlocked enclave of Nagorno-Karabakh, which
ended abruptly in early November thanks to a Russian-brokered deal.
Reports of military assistance and alleged Syrian mercenaries sent by
Turkey placed Ankara at loggerheads with its NATO allies’ calls for a
peaceful, negotiated resolution to the conflict. The deal, which
foresees Baku reacquiring sizeable portions of the disputed enclave,
has made Turkey one of the obvious winners of the recent flare-up,
while its Western allies remain on the sidelines. For some, this could
be the straw that breaks the camel’s back, adding to a long list of
complaints they have recently leveled against their NATO ally.

Last month, Greece and Turkey came dangerously close to a head-on
naval confrontation in disputed Eastern Mediterranean waters over
Turkey’s gas exploration activities near the Greek island of
Kastellorizo, just a few hundred meters away from the Turkish coast.
Though Turkey later withdrew its ship, tensions between the two NATO
allies spiked again following Turkey’s announcement that it would send
the ship back for a 10-day seismic research mission in the area,
renewing Greek calls for sanctions. What makes this a particularly
explosive situation, of course, is the two Eastern Mediterranean
powers’ lingering dispute over the post-1974 division of Cyprus and
the discovery of energy resources in the area.

A similar confrontational encounter occurred in June when France and
Turkey nearly came to blows after a French warship, the Courbet, tried
to inspect a Turkish vessel for allegedly breaching a U.N. arms
embargo on Libya — a claim Ankara fiercely denies. Supporting
different sides in the Libyan Civil War, the two allies have been
engaged in a war of words over each other’s provocative deeds in the
Libyan, Syrian and Nagorno-Karabakh conflicts, as well as over
Turkey’s territorial claims in the Mediterranean. The latest spat
followed President Emmanuel Macron’s defense of a cartoonist’s right
to caricature religious figures in the wake of a teacher’s beheading,
to which Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan responded by calling
for a boycott of French products.

Within NATO, the escalation in tensions and growing entanglement of
the two camps’ now numerous disputes reflects European allies’
mounting frustration over what they perceive as Turkey’s self-serving
and aggressive regional posturing, and its unwillingness to consult
allies before acting. A NATO member since 1952, Turkey has always
occupied a somewhat unique role in the alliance. Its size, military
resources, and key position at the doorstep of Asia — in other words,
as NATO’s southern flank — give it important strategic relevance
within the context of renewed interest in the Middle East. Though
relations have often been fragile, especially since the 2016 coup
attempt, the current rift marks a new low in the recent history of the
alliance, with potentially damaging consequences. Given this backdrop,
NATO should take advantage of its own resources to try to address its
members’ deteriorating relations, and work to reconcile their
diverging security interests. This is a lot easier said than done, but
it may be the only option to prevent a more fundamental rupture in the

Divided We Stand

As tensions grow, a key risk for NATO relates to the crisis’ potential
to hamper its cohesion and ability to act decisively, as the alliance
relies on the principle of consensus to successfully operate. Every
major NATO decision embodies the collective will of all allies and
results, therefore, from a complex but fragile process of negotiation
wherein nations are invited to compromise on matters of mutual
interest. The inevitable drawback to this is that every ally possesses
a de facto right to veto any NATO issue if its demands are not met,
which they may be incentivized to use as leverage to pursue national
interests. The same can be said of the European Union, which operates
on unanimity and where Cyprus recently made headlines for blocking
sanctions on Belarusian President Alexander Lukashenko’s regime,
insisting on the imposition of E.U. measures on Turkey for its energy
exploration in Mediterranean waters. The European Union was criticized
for failing to agree on timely sanctions.

Unlike the European Union, NATO consultations are held behind closed
doors, and disagreements largely avoid public scrutiny. In principle,
however, any nation’s objections could stall key alliance policy or
business. Last year, leaks revealed that Turkey had threatened on the
eve of a NATO summit to block a key defense plan to protect the Baltic
states and Poland against Russian aggression unless NATO backed its
own recognition of the Kurdish People’s Protection Units militia as
terrorists. Likewise, for years, Turkey had vetoed NATO cooperation
with neutral Austria under its partnership program in response to
Vienna’s calls for the European Union to halt membership talks with
Ankara. Though in both cases deals were eventually reached to break
the deadlock, and though such negotiation tactics are not uncommon,
these incidents highlight a mounting climate of uncooperativeness and
unwillingness to compromise between allies, making interaction
increasingly difficult.

As Ankara grows more defiant, NATO members are indeed finding it
difficult to reign in their southeastern ally. With the 2011 Arab
Spring and its aftermath, the rapid deterioration of Turkey’s regional
and domestic security environments has coincided with a growing
perception that its Western allies are not giving enough credence to
its core security interests. The stalled European Union membership
project, together with America’s disengagement from the Middle East,
support for the Kurdish People’s Protection Units militia, and
persistent refusal to extradite cleric Fethullah Gülen, the presumed
mastermind of the failed 2016 coup attempt, have all contributed to
strengthening the conviction that Turkish security interests are
likely best served through autonomous action — and not by relying on a
suspicious and divided West. This impression is reinforced by Europe’s
vocal criticism of Erdoğan’s concentration of executive power, and by
the country’s worsening economic and social woes.

Overall, these factors have eroded NATO’s credibility and influence
over Ankara, just as the latter has become more conscious of its own
considerable leverage over Europe due to its key role in Syria, which
NATO sees as the defense of its southern frontier, and in easing the
pressure to accommodate large arrivals of refugees on European shores.
The former is linked to Turkey’s vetoing of NATO’s defense plan for
Poland and the Baltics, which aimed at compelling NATO to provide
greater support in Turkey’s defense of the alliance’s southern flank —
something Ankara has demanded for years. Likewise, Turkey’s handling
of its four million-strong refugee population, the largest in the
world, has contributed to Ankara’s influence over Brussels through its
instrumentalization of fears that it would “open the gates” to Europe
for migrants and refugees, which Erdoğan announced earlier this year
in violation of a 2016 E.U.-Turkish agreement. Given its shrewd sense
that the tables have turned, Ankara has lost many incentives to
cooperate. Of course, one key risk is that Turkey’s bold strategy
backfires and leads to a fresh round of retaliatory measures such as
collective sanctions or cutbacks in E.U. funds, with damaging effects
on Turkey’s weakening economy.

For NATO, another conceivable consequence lays in the reinforcement of
calls for greater European “strategic autonomy” in the realms of
defense and security, with potentially harmful repercussions on the
future of the transatlantic community. Against a backdrop of
deteriorating Euro-Atlantic relations, several leaders have begun to
publicly question the relevance and effectiveness of NATO as an
organization. A staunch advocate of the “strategic autonomy” concept,
Macron reacted to the clash with Turkey over the arms embargo on Libya
by reiterating his assertion that NATO was “brain dead” for being
unable to temper Turkish adventurism. In a recent interview, Armenian
President Armen Sarkissian echoed these remarks by putting at stake
NATO’s credibility over the organization’s seeming inability to
influence its member’s involvement in the Caucasus. Were NATO to
become increasingly paralyzed by souring internal relations, doubts
about the effectiveness and reliability of the organization could
further incentivize E.U. countries into acting beyond the NATO
framework. Regrettably, this could result in accelerating E.U. states’
ostracizing of Ankara, while persuading some allies into seeking
additional bilateral arrangements as more reliable forms of security

E.U.-Turkish tensions have also brought to the fore Ankara’s ambiguous
ties to Moscow. Though relations hit rock bottom over the downing of a
Russian Su-24M fighter jet in 2015, the two countries have since
rebuilt extensive political and economic ties, culminating with
high-profile endeavors such as the TurkStream pipeline and Ankara’s
2017 purchase of a Russian S-400 surface-to-air missile defense
system. The moves drew stern condemnation from Washington and other
NATO allies, with some going as far as to label them as signs of a
Turkish pivot to the East. What made this rapprochement all the more
alarming were the two countries’ ostensible affinities over their
highly centralized, authoritarian-leaning political systems, which run
counter to the core values of the alliance. The main fear is that
these newfound affinities introduce vulnerabilities within the
alliance through bilateral ties that Moscow can exploit to drive
Turkey further away from the West, and sow division to weaken NATO’s
ability to act.

Ultimately, however, fears of a Turkish realignment with Russia are
likely overblown. Moscow and Ankara’s relations have historically been
fraught, and the recent rapprochement stems more from opportunism and
coinciding interests than a major reorientation in Turkish foreign
policy at the expense of its traditional alliances. In fact, Turkey’s
forceful posturing is making it steadily more at odds with Russia in
conflict environments where both operate, including Nagorno-Karabakh,
Syria, and Libya. Its growing involvement in the Caucasus, for
instance, has brought it dangerously close to armed confrontation with
NATO’s primary contestant, Russia, which supports Armenia under the
Collective Security Treaty Organization framework. This was
highlighted by Russian President Vladimir Putin’s underscoring of
Russia’s “obligations to Armenia.” Though the violence ended there,
Turkey’s proxy saber-rattling contributes to increase risks of
accident or miscalculation leading to armed confrontation with Russia
— something all parties are eager to avoid. With antagonistic security
interests at stake, Turkey and Russia are ultimately more likely to
balance against rather than align with each other, though several NATO
allies continue to regard Ankara’s ties to Moscow with a deep-seated
sense of suspicion.

A Constructive Role for NATO

As Turkey and the European Union ramp up their rhetorical joust, it is
perhaps no surprise that NATO is better placed to act as a forum for
the de-escalation of the crisis. It is indeed Turkey’s membership to
NATO, and the daily staff-to-staff contacts which it generates, that
makes the alliance able to work as a platform where their diplomats
can negotiate, exchange information, and address issues of common
strategic interest with European counterparts, thus helping to
undermine the “us-versus-them” mentality which at times prevails
across E.U. institutions. As the latter hardens its rhetoric, NATO can
generate the much-needed safety valve where diplomatic efforts have a
chance of succeeding.

To this end, the alliance should capitalize on the consultative
function of its institutions to allow for parties to sit together,
express their views and concerns on national and collective security
considerations, and improve mechanisms to reach a consensus on the
means to address any perceived challenges. Consultations have indeed
always been at the core of the alliance, and remain important vectors
for addressing intermember disagreements. The recent announcement by
NATO Secretary General Jens Stoltenberg that a military de-confliction
mechanism would be established between Greece and Turkey is but one
example of the productive results that such diplomatic efforts can
yield, and an encouraging sign that the two sides are not willing to
see their relations deteriorate further. Yet a limited arrangement
between Greece and Turkey is also unlikely to address the deep-seated
causes of the political turmoil between Ankara and European allies,
and NATO should find new and improved ways to act as a forum to
discuss, and to act, where necessary, on issues affecting the security
interests of its member states. This is key if the organization wants
to remain flexible and relevant in the increasingly contested and
fast-paced security environment of today.

Moreover, notwithstanding the key importance of consultations, NATO
should find ways to turn talk into action. The alliance should move
beyond hollow statements of assistance or condemnation, and consider
how to more proactively engage with crises occurring on its periphery.
This would help assuage the growing concerns of Turkey and others that
it fails to do enough to defend its members’ interests, while
reaffirming the important strategic benefits that membership to the
organization — “the most successful alliance in history” — can yield.
Of course, this would require allies to reconcile their sometimes
conflicting security interests and agree to a unified stance on Libya,
Syria, the Caucasus, and elsewhere, something which at present seems
perhaps unlikely.

Were relations between Turkey and the West to collapse, NATO allies
could ultimately consider calling for extraordinary consultations
under Article 4 of the Washington Treaty. While the latter has
traditionally been linked to more conventional threat perceptions
under collective defense commitments, Article 4 could formally bring
the ongoing E.U.-Turkish crisis to the attention of the North Atlantic
Council, given its potential to threaten the solidarity, cohesion, and
effectiveness of the alliance as a whole. Turkey, in fact, has a long
record of demands for Article 4 consultations over fears of spillover
from Syria, which have led to some demonstrations of NATO support.
Though this would be a move of great political significance, its
symbolic value would undoubtedly serve as a powerful catalyst for
allies to sort out their disagreements, while sending a clear
ultimatum for more recalcitrant nations to change path. Ultimately,
both parties should appreciate that neither benefits from a total
breakdown in relations.

At present, for diplomatic efforts to succeed, the two sides should
recognize that engaging in bombastic statements and provocative
measures, including sanctions, would only serve to further polarize
both camps and reinforce Turkey’s conviction that its European allies
are teaming up against it. One consequence from this would be the
confirmation and reinforcement of Ankara’s self-perception of being
under siege, with more reasons to seek partners to the East or
undermine NATO from within. E.U. countries, instead, should signal
their willingness to compromise and give Ankara a sense that its
grievances and security interests are heard. Of course, concessions
need to go both ways, and Turkey should be willing to sacrifice some
of its own foreign policy objectives to improve relations, including
its support for foreign proxies and other actions that bring NATO
closer to confrontation with Russia. Most importantly, Turkey should
avoid putting fuel on the fire in Eastern Mediterranean waters by
keeping its research vessel, the Oruç Reis, ashore. This is one of the
easiest compromises Ankara can make. Part of E.U. states’ grievances
is also the conviction that Turkey should do more to consult allies
and show transparency in the expression of its foreign policy goals
and intentions, instead of resorting to unilateral action.

Looking Ahead

Two additional factors will play a decisive role in this process. One
will be NATO’s and the European Union’s ability to coordinate their
respective strategies. In this area, greater convergence is warranted,
for the provocative measures of one would only serve to undermine the
other’s efforts toward conciliation. The upcoming European Council
meeting in December 2020, which will address the bloc’s external
relations with Turkey, will be a litmus test of how the European Union
wishes to handle the question and an indication of whether its members
can agree to a unified stance, especially on sanctions. This gives
Turkey limited time to prove it is both willing and able to

Finally, when Greece and Turkey were on the cusp of war over Cyprus in
1974, a decisive factor that prevented hostilities from occurring was
the ability of the United States to lean in and force the contenders
into making concessions to avoid direct confrontation. While the
United States of President Donald Trump has remained largely silent
over the ongoing crisis, Washington’s willingness to leverage its
influence on both sides can be an important factor, as before, in
ensuring their growing rift does not cause irreparable damage to NATO.
Trump’s seemingly durable personal rapport and populist affinities
with Erdoğan has made this unlikely, but a new U.S. administration
under Joe Biden will likely allow for a more proactive approach in
rebuilding the strained relationships between the members of the
alliance under renewed U.S. global leadership, and a tougher stance on


Antoine Got is based in Europe and works on security and defense issues.


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