Troops gather at Vaziani Military Base, Georgia, for 2017's Exercise Noble Partner: training for the Georgian light infantry company designated for the NATO Response Force.

Troops gather at Vaziani Military Base, Georgia, for 2017's Exercise Noble Partner: training for the Georgian light infantry company designated for the NATO Response Force. U.S. Army / Sgt. Shiloh Capers

Why Is Turkey in NATO Anyway?

Both sides have been repeatedly disappointed in the decades since Ankara joined the alliance. Is it time to call it off?

“We think that this is a bad idea.”

A senior State Department official told reporters yesterday that the Turkish attacks on northeastern Syria targeting Kurdish fighters who have been America’s best partners in defeating ISIS in the country would help no one—not even Turkey. “This will not increase their security, our security, or the security of anybody else in the region.”  

Donald Trump, after a call with the Turkish president on Sunday, promptly moved U.S. troops out of the area, clear of the coming bombardment. Otherwise they risked death at the hands of a NATO ally.

But what kind of ally forces Americans to flee from their friend’s American-made F-16s? For that matter, on America’s part, what kind of ally would arm and support a group Turkey considers a band of terrorists? How did the United States and Turkey end up tied together in NATO, when both their values and interests seem so far apart?

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“We wanted Turkey in NATO because of the Cold War,” Steven A. Cook, a Turkey expert at the Council on Foreign Relations, told me. Back in 1952, with the alliance just a few years old, it expanded for the first time, welcoming two new members: Greece and Turkey. At the time, President Harry Truman offered membership to both as a way to contain Communist expansion—Greece’s Western-backed government had just defeated Communist forces in a civil war. It helped that Turkey also gave the alliance a foothold close to the Middle East.

This soon became a case of more allies, more problems. When Turkey invadedCyprus in 1974 following a Greece-backed military coup, the two allies came into direct conflict; in fact, Greece left NATO over it, before later rejoining. Later, the U.S. flew bombing raids on Iraq from Turkey’s Incirlik Air Base during the 1990–91 Gulf War; in 2003, though, Turkey refused to station U.S. troops on its territory to attack Baghdad. (Other U.S. allies, namely France and Germany, also opposed the 2003 Iraq War, though France was not fully participating in NATO at the time.) As for that whole democratic-values thing, the military stepped in to run the country about every decade or so.

But by the time anti-government protests swept Arab countries in 2011, Turkey looked like a model of stability and Islamic democracy. In an interview with NATO Review in 2012 marking 60 years of Turkey being in NATO, then–Turkish Defense Minister Ismet Yilmaz said that in joining the alliance, Turkey had made its direction, and its security, “the same as the West’s.” He went on: “This was not a decision Turkey took only in 1952. This was the consequence of Turkey supporting Western values. Let’s not say Western—universal values, which are democracy, human rights, and core values of human rights based on the rule of law.” Turkey was even negotiating for membership in the European Union.

Which all now seems a bit rich, given that the current leader, Recep Tayyip Erdoğan, a self-avowed champion of the Muslim Brotherhood, has changed the constitution, rerun elections that didn’t favor his political party, and led a crackdown on journalists and political dissenters, as well as a purge of thousands suspected of involvement in a failed 2016 coup. Even on the interests front—Incirlik Air Base has been central to U.S. counterterrorism efforts in the ISIS era—hitches came up. The Turkish government did little to rein in ISIS fighters transiting its territory to join the battles in Iraq and Syria; some ISIS members even passed through Turkey to carry out attacks in Europe. Erdoğan’s government has bought Russian air defenses over vigorous American objections and in the face of sanctions threats, and as of this week, the Turkish government ditched an agreement that U.S. officials had hoped would keep the peace in northeastern Syria.

“About 10 years ago, you couldn’t swing a dead cat in Washington and not hit somebody who wouldn’t say, ‘Oh, Turkey’s a great ally’ … Now everyone’s mad at Turkey,” Cook said.

Hence the questions now about whether the alliance is even worth it. Senators Lindsey Graham and Chris Van Hollen are pushing bipartisan legislation to sanction Turkey over its Syria incursion; Graham has also floated suspending Turkey from NATO altogether. (There’s actually no clear legislative way to do this—the NATO charter doesn’t contemplate kicking out members, though members can leave on their own, as Greece did over its dispute with Turkey.) France’s EU-affairs minister, too, has said that NATO suspension is “on the table.”

What about the air base though? “Incirlik [the base the U.S. Air Force uses in southern Turkey] is an albatross,” said one former senior administration official, speaking on the condition of anonymity. “But there are people in [the U.S. government] for whom Turkey is sacrosanct and all of its problems—busting U.S. sanctions, holding Americans hostage, threatening other NATO allies like Greece, supporting jihadists, buying Russian weapons, not to mention internal oppression and ongoing purges —are our fault. Truth is, we can’t do much at Incirlik. We need Turkey’s permission to blow our nose there.”

On the Turkish side, too, the marriage has been one of serial disappointments and misunderstandings. A February article in the pro-government Daily Sabah ran through a litany of issues with the alliance: Turkey, wrote the paper’s politics editor, Seyma Nazli Gürbüz, is the second-largest military in the alliance, is a key partner in Afghanistan and elsewhere, hosts NATO initiatives around its own territory, and contributed more than $100 million in 2018. (This is short of the 2 percent of its defense budget that Trump has insisted all NATO members pony up.)

But “NATO disappointed Turkey more than once over the years”—when the U.S. refused to side with the Turkish invasion of Cyprus, when Germany accused Turkey of killing civilians in its battle with the Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK) in its own country in the 1990s, and through America’s ongoing refusal to hand over Fethullah Gülen, the U.S.-based leader of a Turkish political movement that Erdoğan blames for orchestrating the 2016 coup attempt. “Over time, siding with terrorists rather than Turkey became a pattern for many NATO member countries, particularly the U.S.,” Gürbüz wrote.

Two U.S. presidential administrations running have now sided with Kurdish fighters in Syria tied to the PKK over Turkey’s strenuous objections. Since Sunday, however, the dynamic seems to have shifted, and Trump—who has been sharply critical of the NATO alliance himself, and who has touted his administration’s achievements against ISIS—opted to take a NATO partner’s side over the Kurdish forces who did so much to help defeat the Islamic State. The shift was so sudden, it left officials at the State Department and the Pentagon scrambling to explain it and contain the fallout. In a phone call with the Turkish defense minister yesterday, U.S. Defense Secretary Mark Esper said “the incursion risks serious consequences for Turkey,” according to the Pentagon’s readout.

Once again, as Erdoğan sees it, some of his allies are siding with the terrorists. “Hey, European Union, pull yourself together,” he said in a speech yesterday. “If you try to label this operation as an occupation … we will open the gates and send 3.6 million refugees your way.”

Separately, at the United Nations Security Council, the NATO allies France, Germany, the United Kingdom, Belgium, and Poland introduced a statement condemning Turkey’s incursion into Syria. Turkey did have an ally on its side there. Ironically, given the alliance’s Cold War roots, America joined with Russia and declined to endorse it.

Yara Bayoumy contributed reporting.