Is Turkey security vulnerability or just problematic partner for Europe?

  • Jakub Maděránek
  • 9.10.2017 19:31

Tense relations between the NATO partners, Germany and Turkey, have escalated over the last few weeks. Can Europe and NATO member states rely on Ankara or is Turkey becoming a security threat for the West?

Tense relations between the NATO partners, Germany and Turkey, have escalated over the last few weeks. Among the reasons is the detention of several German citizens who face charges linked with clergyman Fethullah Gülen; and the rhetoric of Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan, exhorting German Turks not to elect government parties in the September elections marking them as "enemies of Turkey". In this context, Turkey was in the spotlight during the German pre-election period, which resulted in a request to suspend Ankara's accession talks with the EU. However, this escalating rupture in which Turkey appears to be a problematic partner, is unlikely to have a large negative impact on European security.

NATO’s cooperation is a vulnerable factor, for which Turkey is an important partner thanks to its progress in the development of military technology and combat experience. Although Turkey has the second largest army in NATO, its position has been shaken by purges following a failed military coup and by a declining expenditure in the defence budget over the past few years. To date, around 700 members of the Turkish Armed Forces (TSK) have been expelled from approximately 950 deployed in NATO operations, including representatives at the NATO Headquarters in Brussels and Mons, and on diplomatic missions. The full reconstruction of the TSK would be probably completed in 2018, but as noted by Supreme Allied Commander Europe (SACEUR) General Curtis Scaparrotti, Turkey has lost experienced and capable members of its army, resulting in at least a temporary negative impact on TSK's capabilities as well as the Alliance's operations. Many soldiers serving in European countries have subsequently been granted asylum in Europe, for example in Germany, which has resulted in the redeployment of part of the German troops from Turkey to Jordan.

Turkey's ability to influence the Alliance's interoperability has been demonstrated by several months of blocking programs of cooperation between Austria and NATO, inter alia obstructing cooperation with other non-member countries, affecting, for example, missions in the Western Balkans. Turkey's obstructive behaviour can reduce the operational capabilities of both member and non-member states in cooperation with NATO as well as the Alliance itself.


Military base Incirlik, while important for the US, is not equally significant for European partners.


Turkey is undoubtedly an important NATO partner for its geostrategic position, not only in relation to the Middle East. Many experts emphasize its indispensability in the allied NATO-US fight against Islamic State (IS). However, Ankara was reluctant to engage the units in ground operations against IS and was initially opposed to the use of Incirlik for the US offensive against IS. Incirlik, while strategically important for the US, is not equally significant for European partners: the Netherlands, Denmark, Spain, the Czech Republic and, above all, Germany are active at Incirlik but significantly less so than the US. Germany is already carrying out logistics, reconnaissance and refuelling operations from Jordan. After the relocation of 268 soldiers, a tanker, and Tornado jets, there is little change in German activity and the support of the global coalition against the IS.


The EU has thus delegated the responsibility for migration to a country ranked by the Freedom House as "Partly Free" and accused of frequent human rights abuses.  


Equally problematic is Turkish relations with the EU. While the EU integration plan deteriorates, the visibility of the interaction is determined especially by the Brussels-Ankara migration agreement. The EU has thus delegated the responsibility for migration to a country ranked by the Freedom House as "Partly Free" and accused of frequent human rights abuses. The EU has effectively handed power in matters of immediate concern to European security over to the hands of an unreliable actor. Ankara has clearly demonstrated this by repeatedly threatening to terminate the deal in disputes with European states. However, it should be noted that this possible outcome has always remained as the rhetoric of political elites. A more likely scenario is that Turkey will cease to fully comply with the agreement, indicating a renewed increase in migrants arriving in Greece.

Turkey is also intensifying cooperation with Russia and Iran, even at the expense of the Alliance, as evidenced by the acquisition of the Russian anti-missile defence system S-400 Triumf, which is incompatible with NATO systems. Additionally, Ankara and Moscow have continued to develop energy cooperation and, jointly with Tehran, have taken a key role in leading the political dialogue on the Syrian conflict in the Astana talks, since January 2017. One possible political motivation is against US support of the Kurdish People's Protection Units (YPG), which Ankara perceives as the offshoot of the terrorist Kurdistan Workers' Party (PKK). Yet Turkey has officially stated that establishing better relations with Russia and Iran does not mean that Ankara is weakening ties with the West. As fast as Moscow and Ankara have reached a tight relationship after the shooting down of Russian jets in the autumn of 2015, the opposite may be the case. International actors should perhaps be concerned about a purposeful escape of Alliance information, such as the disclosure of ten US military bases in northern Syria, the number of US soldiers in several locations, and the presence of the French Special Forces.

Turkey’s largely opportunistic and inconsistent behaviour could be explained by one of Erdoğan's and the Justice and Development Party's (AKP) objectives: to play the role of regional hegemon and an important global actor. Particularly to the achievement of the Ankara's regional objectives, NATO and the EU are not helpful. It is , therefore, easonable to assume that the escalation of tense relations with the EU and certain European states as well as the US will continue to reflect developments in the Middle East and on migration issues. Turkey appears to be a troubled partner rather than a reliable member of the Alliance. Nevertheless, the EU remains a key partner for Turkey, both in economic and security spheres, while Ankara, under the leadership of the AKP, maintains itself as a breakthrough peripheral region of Europe. The turn could be caused by internal political change. In a situation where Erdoğan has to win over half of all votes in the new presidential system, after the recent constitutional referendum won only 51.4%, we cannot rule this out.

Copyright: Anadolu Agency

About author: Jakub Maděránek


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