Tensions between Turkey and its NATO allies are intensifying. Some observers are even speculating that the country should be ejected or suspended from NATO.
Such drastic moves are unlikely to succeed, but the escalating alienation of Turkey by the United States and the European Union is self-destructive for the West and assist NATO’s chief adversaries.
Secretary of State Mike Pompeo attacked the Turkish government during a recent virtual meeting of NATO foreign ministers. He accused Ankara of stoking tensions with allies in the Mediterranean and aligning with Moscow by purchasing the S-400 Russian-manufactured anti-aircraft system. Ankara’s acquisition of the S-400 system has also been condemned by Congress because it could endanger the technical secrets of America’s F-35 stealth fighter jets.
Washington looks poised to impose penalties on Ankara. The Countering America’s Adversaries Through Sanctions Act requires sanctions against any country that engages in a “significant transaction” of defense assets with Russia, Iran, or North Korea. In addition, the U.S. has halted the scheduled delivery of 100 American F-35s to Turkey.
In response, Turkish Foreign Minister Mevlut Cavusoglu has accused Pompeo of siding with Greece in its dispute with Turkey and of refusing to sell Ankara American-made Patriot anti-aircraft weapons. He also attacked Washington for backing Kurdish forces in Syria who seek to partition Turkey, even while Turkey helped the U.S. in combating the Islamic State.
EU leaders are also threatening sanctions against Ankara over a gas drilling dispute with Greece and Cyprus. The discovery of offshore energy resources in the eastern Mediterranean has aggravated long-standing arguments over the division of Cyprus, national sovereignty in the Aegean Sea, and claims to continental shelves.
Tensions increased after Turkey sent a survey vessel to map out energy drilling prospects in waters also claimed by Greece. Germany, the current holder of the EU presidency, failed to mediate between Athens and Ankara and was outraged when Turkey resumed its gas exploration near Cyprus. The EU has backed Greece in the dispute and criticized Turkey for conducting seismic surveys off the north coast of Cyprus. Turkey and Greece are also bolstering their territorial claims by drawing up exclusive and conflicting maritime economic zones. The dispute has also aggravated other disagreements with the EU over Ankara’s policy in Libya and Syria.
Estranging Turkey from the EU and potentially from NATO would be a strategic defeat for the U.S. because the country forms a critical component of Allied security. After the U.S., Turkey has the largest army in NATO with more troops, tanks, artillery, and fighter aircraft than France or the United Kingdom, as well as a sizable navy. Turkey is among the nine most militarily powerful states in the world, with almost 100 airports capable of supporting NATO air operations in nearby regions. It also stores some fifty U.S. B-61 nuclear weapons at Incirlik Air Force Base controlled by American personnel.
Turkey spans five volatile regions (the Balkans, the Black Sea, the eastern Mediterranean, the Middle East, and the Caucasus) where Western interests are challenged by Russia and Iran. In particular, Turkey’s geographic location and strong military make it the anchor of NATO’s southern flank against Russian revisionism. In the Balkans, Ankara is an important counterpart to Russia and has participated in NATO peacekeeping operations in Bosnia-Herzegovina and Kosovo.
The notion of a Turkish-Russian alliance because of the purchase of S-400 missiles is a clear exaggeration. The two powers have fought countless wars in the past regardless of periodic military, energy, or economic transactions and will continue to compete for political influence in all nearby regions, as evident during the recent war in the South Caucasus between Armenia and Azerbaijan.
Rebuilding relations with Turkey should be a U.S. priority because escalating conflicts will simply damage allied capabilities and encourage America’s adversaries. President Recep Tayyip Erdogan has already signaled that he wants to resolve differences with the incoming U.S. president, who can also play a mediating role within NATO.
Instead of disputing ownership over offshore energy, Washington should devise a way for all countries in the region to benefit from gas discoveries that can decrease dependence on Russian gas and lessen Moscow’s role throughout southeastern Europe.
Janusz Bugajski is a senior fellow at the Jamestown Foundation in Washington, D.C. His recent book, Eurasian Disunion: Russia’s Vulnerable Flanks, is co-authored with Margarita Assenova. His upcoming book is titled Failed State: Planning for Russia’s Rupture.