BRANDON J. WEICHERT | THE WEICHERT REPORT
In 2017, I gave a lecture at the Institute of World Politics about Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan’s dreams for a “Neo-Ottoman Empire.” During the question and answer session there were several people who wondered about what was then the new and budding relationship between Russia and Turkey–and how it would affect NATO.
I told them that, while there were natural connections between Erdogan’s authoritarianism and Vladimir Putin’s in Russia, and while both countries had similar interests in Syria, the longer history of the Russo-Turkish relationship would ensure that any short-term alliance between the two powers would not last.
It would appear that I was correct.
And as the conflict in Syria has turned, the Turkish and Russian militaries now race for control of Idlib, the ancient town in Eastern Syria that is a conduit for natural gas resources. The Russians have aspired to control this area for years. With the recent drawdown of US forces in Syria, the Russians and Turks have been vying for control of the area. The alliance between Russia and Turkey that so many analysts assumed was going to become permanent has already broken down, as Russian and Turkish troops exchange fire and their warplanes bomb each other.
Despite the fact that Turkey has the will to fight for the region (in order to enact Erdogan’s more fanciful designs to rebuild the Ottoman Empire of old), the Russian military has superiority over the Turks. In response to this fact, Erdogan has recently announced that he will soon allow Syrian refugees to wash across Turkey’s border into Europe–something that has proven to be destabilizing the Europe’s precarious political order over the years (and something that Turkey had slowed down for a period of time).
Many have speculated that Erdogan uses the threat of uncontrolled Syrian migration into Europe as a strategic lever to force the Europeans and Americans to intervene on his behalf or to behave as Erdogan wishes. This is likely the case, as Erdogan knows that neither Europe nor the Trump Administration would willingly act in Erdogan’s favor in Syria without a good enough reason. Preventing untrammeled migration into Europe might be a good enough reason.
As time progresses and the situation between Russia and Turkey deteriorates, there is a very real chance that Erdogan’s government will inevitably invoke Article V of the NATO Charter. This would be a major step, as it would force the Americans to put up or shut up about NATO. Should the Americans fulfill their obligations under Article V (which states that an attack on one NATO member is an attack on all) then NATO will effectively be at war with Russia–over Syria.
This is something that no American or European actually wants or would condone.
For his part, Vladimir Putin might actually be supportive of this, seeing as he has been vying for years to prove that NATO is a shadow of its former self. Moscow has spent the last decade placing massive pressures on potential NATO members, such as Georgia and Ukraine, as well as independent countries friendly to the West, such as Moldova and Finland (among others), all in an attempt to undercut NATO’s unnecessary expansion plans that has provoked the Russian ire for years.
Vladimir Putin has also been keen on proving that, should the proverbial excrement hit the fan, the US and certain European members of the NATO alliance might withhold collective defense. Should doubt be cast on the efficacy of collective defense, the NATO alliance’s luster is gone. After all, Article V is the lynchpin of the alliance and Turkey is one of the alliance’s oldest and most important members.
We have already witnessed the fraying of Turkey’s alliance with NATO after the Obama Administration refused to sell Turkey Patriot missile defense batteries (and they turned to Russia to provide them with the vaunted S-400 air defense systems). The refusal to join with Turkey against Russia in Syria just might be what Putin has searching for, in terms of splintering the bloated alliance.
The influx of refugees from Syria through Turkey into Europe will also prove politically destabilizing to the already-collapsing European Union. As this occurs, the other pillar of Putin’s anti-Western strategy will have been achieved: breaking apart the sclerotic European Union as a viable economic counterweight to Russia in Europe.
Of course, we as Americans must ask ourselves the tough question: does the breakup of the EU and NATO really matter?
The latter is undoubtedly more important than the former–but even then, how important is NATO really, if the Western European partners have been consistently underfunding the alliance, the southern Europeans don’t believe Russia is as grave of a threat as their Eastern European partners do, and if Turkey is intent on picking unnecessary fights with the Russians over energy-rich spots in Syria?
At the same time, though, as I have written, there is a chance that Turkey just might prove to be essential geopolitical counterweight to Iran in the Middle East, as there remains some doubt as to whether or not the Sunni Arab states will be able to counteract Iran’s rise.
As Turkey and Russia turn on each other, there is also a chance that Russia’s Shiite proxy, Iran, will find itself at loggerheads with their nominal partner in Syria, Turkey–especially as Iranian regional ambitions butt up against Turkey’s (and the inevitable historical and religious animosities come to the fore).
Then again, Turkey has found itself in a fight with two critical American allies in the Greater Middle East: Israel and Egypt. For the former, Turkey claims natural gas deposits beneath the Eastern Mediterranean Sea, near their claim on Cyprus. Israel claims this area, too (and actually has a viable claim to it, as Turkey has no legitimate claim to the area of Cyprus that it claims).
Meanwhile, Turkey and Egypt find themselves at a crossroads over the fate of Libya, which has been ravaged by a brutal civil war since Muammar Gaddafi’s overthrow several years ago. The Egyptians are concerned by Erdogan’s moves to establish a large military base in Turkish-friendly, breakaway northern Cyprus.
In turn, the Egyptians fear that Turkey is becoming too involved in the Libya conflict, while at the same time risking conflict not only with Israel, but Egypt over control of the lucrative, newly-discovered Eastern Mediterranean natural gas deposits.
What’s more, Turkey’s increased position in Cyprus has infuriated fellow NATO partner, Greece, and is now risking a major conflict not only with Russia, Egypt, and Israel, but also Greece–any of which could spell the end of the NATO alliance.
The best path forward is for the United States to convene a meeting of NATO members and determine if the benefits of having Turkey in the NATO alliance outweigh costs. Personally, I still think that we should probably keep Turkey inside our tent pissing out rather than outside of our tent, pissing in.
Then again, their moves to start conflict with nuclear-armed Russia over insignificant Syria; their moves against Greece in Cyprus; their rage against Israel and Egypt, as well as Turkey’s reprehensible threat to flood Europe with Syrian refugees at such a precarious moment in the continent’s political existence–to say nothing of Turkey’s grotesque treatment of the Kurds–might prove too much for the Americans to countenance going forward.
After all, whatever problems Erdogan has had with the US, the fact of the matter is that he has behaved quite irrationally on several fronts for many years.
The time is now for a major reordering of American alliances and I see no reason for why we cannot start with Turkey and work our way out from there in terms of reordering our priorities.
Enough is enough already. Either the United States fundamentally transforms its ailing, Cold War-era alliance structure that is not really useful in today’s far more dynamic world or it works to shore up those institutions by risking a great power conflict with Russia over Syria, all in order to keep Turkey happy.
Presidential leadership is needed on this matter and it is likely that we can no longer accept the status quo any longer.