CAIRO - 6 February 2018: Presence equals power, and Turkey’s ongoing assault on Afrin and drive through northern Syria represents just that. In the chaos of civil war in Syria, the YPG has established a self-governed autonomous region, Rojava, which sits on the Turkish border. The YPG are synonymous with the PKK in Turkey’s eyes, and the latter is recognized as a terrorist organization by Turkey as a result of the conflict it has fought against the state for decades.
Turkey’s ongoing operation in northern Syria – Operation Olive Branch – was launched on January 20, and seeks to reverse this threat. It should not come as a surprise that Turkey has launched a full-scale military operation into Afrin, and is looking eastward. For decades, Turkey has voiced and displayed its opposition to Kurdish nationalism, and Operation Euphrates Shield was directed to enforce just that.
Turkish officials have also issued threats to U.S. soldiers. As the Turkish operation continues to push towards Manbij, and will likely cross the Euphrates River, troops from either side will be in very close proximity.
As a matter of national and military pride, it is unlikely Turkey will retreat. Unless Ankara puts its faith in the international community to mediate Kurdish ambitions in Turkey’s favor, a far-fetched notion, the conclusion is blurred.
For the US, the mud in Syria is getting deeper. At a critical time in the civil war, the YPG filled a security void. The US-led coalition put its full weight behind the YPG as the dominate group to counter ISIS. Now that the conventional war against ISIS is largely over, the U.S. did not hesitate in abandoning its Kurdish allies.
While Turkey’s brutal campaign in Afrin is fitting with its anti-Kurdish discourse, it does little to soften claims that Turkey has supported ISIS in Syria. Turkey’s permeable border with Syria has allowed ISIS fighters to cross with relative ease, and Turkey has allegedly been a major recipient of oil from the militant group.
Fighters Islamic State group at the Syrian town of Tel Abyad, near the border with Turkey Jan. 2, 2014 – REUTERS
“We see from the sky where these vehicles [carrying oil] are going,” Russian President Vladimir Putin told AFP in 2015. “They are going to Turkey day and night.” It is possible that Turkey is not the final port and that criminal networks redistribute the oil, much like the Durand Line the Turkish-Syrian border allows the transfer of illicit groups and goods.
NATO is a crucial backer of the global coalition to defeat ISIS. Turkey stands at loggerheads with the rest of NATO as a result of its actions.
The longevity of Turkey’s membership in NATO has been called into question once again. Aside from the counter-productive nature of Turkey’s operations in Syria, it is adopting a foreign policy in stark contrast to that of the rest of NATO.
On the world stage, the Ankara-Moscow-Tehran triad have become the main power brokers in the Syrian civil war. The U.S. and NATO have been unable to establish a solid foundation, and have found themselves increasingly on the sidelines. Ankara and Sochi have arguably held the most fruitful negotiations, much to this dismay of the US-led alliance.
The triad have longstanding economic relationships respectively, predominantly in the energy sector. Recently, in February 2017, Putin ratified a deal to build the 1,100 km Turkish stream pipeline, which would transport Russian gas across the Black Sea into Turkey and southern Europe. There have also been talks about constructing a second pipeline running from Iran to Turkey.
Warming relations with Russia have been reinforced by Turkey’s payment, as announced by President Reçep Tayyip Erdoğan, for Russia’s S-400 missile system. While NATO members are not prohibited from purchasing military hardware outside of the alliance, NATO discourages members from operating equipment incompatible with that used by other members. No other NATO members use the S-400 system.
S-400 batteries deployed in Syria – AFP/Russian Defense Ministry
“Erdoğan’s decision to purchase a surface-to-air missile system from Russia is a huge blow in the face of NATO allies,”
Although NATO is a defensive mechanism first and foremost, it is “founded on the principles of democracy, individual liberty, and the rule of law,” and holds a substantial symbolic weight. Turkey, where egregious violations of freedom are commonplace, has fallen short of upholding this symbolic weight.
Under Erdoğan’s growing authoritarian leadership, freedom of speech in all its forms is under a tight leash in what is a mockery to the founding principles of NATO. The Reporters Without Borders’ 2017 World Press Freedom Index ranks Turkey 155 out of 180 countries.
“NATO also has a requirement with respect to democracy,” the Former United States Secretary of State said to journalists in 2016, in a reminder to Turkey that its NATO membership carries democratic obligations. However, Kerry’s words fall on deaf ears in Turkey.
Nevertheless, as strong as the moral argument against Turkey’s membership of NATO may be, its membership is unlikely to end.
Put simply, Turkey is strategically located in a perfect place for the alliance, a metaphorical stones-throw from Russia and the Middle East and located in the centre of the world, and its army is the second largest in NATO. If Article 5 is invoked for a second time, Turkey would likely provide an essential NATO base.
NATO is troubled by Erdoğan, not Turkey. NATO and the U.S. have invested a great deal in Turkey, and to oust it from the alliance simple because of the policies of an elected official is counter-productive. For the alliance, it is easier to remove Erdoğan.
Paranoia runs high in Turkey, and stories conspiracy of U.S. and NATO conspiracies run rampant.
People stand on a Turkish army tank at Ataturk Airport in Istanbul – REUTERS/Huseyin Aldemir
“Turkey has been subjected to coups since it joined NATO. NATO has always been in charge of the dirty and bloody deeds in the country,”
Şamil Tayyar, deputy for the Justice and Development Party, in an interview with pro-government daily Milat.
“NATO has become a threat and is spreading terror organizations across the region. You can designate NATO along with DEASH [ISIS], the PKK [Kurdistan Workers’ Party] and FETÖ [Fethullahist Terror Organization].”
When on July 15, 2016, Turkey witnessed the bloodiest coup attempt in its political history, all fingers were pointed towards the United States.
“Turkey may be a deeply polarized country, but one thing Turks across all segments of society – Islamists, secular people, liberals, nationalist – seem to have come together on is that the United States was somehow wrapped up in the failed coup," wrote the New York Times.
While tensions are rising on either side, continued aggravation between Turkey and NATO is unlikely to cause serious ramifications to the alliance. However, the alliance itself is yet to be tested – unless you call the 2001 invasion of Afghanistan a major existential threat to NATO’s members.
Rather, the unified image NATO once exhibited is on the brink of collapse, which may challenge daring states to step beyond the line of no return.